Teachers and a New Educational Technology
A Fable of Sorts (without talking animals)
by Kenneth W. Umbach, Ph.D.
Copyright (c)1998 by Kenneth
W. Umbach. All rights reserved except as provided in notice at end
of this document.
A new set of educational techniques has developed a broad and devoted
following. This new paradigm -- this new technology -- is called "CBT."
The new paradigm's origins are not traceable to any individual. A few
examples show how it began simply and expanded in new and more complex
Introduction of a new idea
Looking for a new activity for her fourth grade class to explore concepts
of length and volume, Rondella Smith noticed an assortment of empty cereal
boxes awaiting recycling. Ms. Smith retrieved the boxes, emptied them of
the last remaining traces of Craklin' Crunchies, Major Sugar Bombs, and
Whole Wheat Peachy-Flakes, and carted them along to school.
In class, Ms. Smith's students enjoyed an assignment to measure the
length, width, and height of various boxes and to calculate the volume
of each. The students compared and charted the dimensions and the resulting
volumes and noted the way in which a change in one dimension led to a corresponding
change in volume. Through colored charts and simple captions, the students
developed a presentation outlining their findings.
For extra credit, several students compared their results in both traditional
inch and cubic inch measures and modern metric measures. They discovered
that the ratios were the same under either system, an important discovery!
In a nearby classroom, Herb Johnson sought a fresh approach to teaching
about stagecraft. His fifth grade students were studying the theater. Mr.
Johnson wished to help the students to envision how action might be placed
within a scene of limited dimension -- a stage.
Noticing the cereal boxes during a brief visit to Ms Smith's classroom
to borrow an encyclopedia volume, Mr. Johnson had an idea. His idea was
to cut open some cereal boxes to use as miniature stage backdrops. The
next day, he brought in his own supply of boxes.
With some cutting and folding, the boxes became suitable layouts, which
groups of students then decorated and populated with figurines representing
characters in a play. The students enjoyed the exercise. Several went to
the library to find information on Shakespeare's Globe Theater and other
famous theaters to supplement their hands-on investigations. All in all,
the unit was quite successful, resulting in interesting presentations neatly
arranged for viewing on Parents' Night.
One of the Parents' Night visitors was a science teacher at the nearby
junior high school, Mrs. Emily Poston. Mrs. Poston, looking for interesting
ways to present a suitable introduction to the concept of strength of materials,
also adopted a Cereal Box Technique.
Another interesting development
Mrs. Poston invited her students to bring cereal boxes (CBs) to class.
She divided her class into teams, and assigned the teams to experiment
with the boxes. They used pieces cut from the boxes, with different arrangements
and structural tricks, and with weights and measuring tools. The students
discovered that the box materials could be made rather strong through cross-bracing
and layering, and that even slight exposure to moisture greatly reduced
the strength of the cardboard.
Microscopic examination of the cardboard revealed insights into the
composition of the box material and led to rewarding inquiries into how
scientists and engineers determine how well materials will hold up under
stress. One team built a suspension bridge from cereal box materials and
demonstrated its resilience with Match Box models. One student researched
the subject and wrote a brief paper comparing the roles of scientists and
engineers with respect to the design of bridges. The student came to appreciate
the complementary roles of these two major fields.
The paradigm takes off
Before long, CBT -- the Cereal Box Technique (or Technology) -- had worked
its way into classes at all grade levels and into units in social studies,
economics, English, nutrition, communications, marketing, and chemistry!
Several history teachers adapted notions gleaned, not from the box materials,
but from their contents and their role, into their courses. Creative teachers
used the idea of "What's for Breakfast?" to explore how people in different
eras have met their need for food, or were unable to do so because of crop
failures or other disasters or difficult circumstances.
Photos of popular sports figures and activities on many of the boxes
served as the jumping off point for essay contests, biographical explorations,
and other topics ranging from intercultural views of advertising to the
logistics of the Olympic Games. Nutrition labels on the boxes provided
the basis for a rewarding unit emphasizing the Food Pyramid and how to
understand and use the information provided on food packaging.
In each instance, a teacher found a creative way to use CBT as an entry
point or alternative way of viewing some element of the curriculum.
Soon, no element of the curriculum was untouched, as those experienced
with CBT introduced others to their methods and brainstormed new approaches
and applications. The youngest students, too, benefited from CBT-enhanced
teaching, as boxes became tanagrams with some aid from the teacher, provided
cutouts for illustrating stories, and became decorations for classroom
walls. Even reading lessons were enhanced by occasional doses of CBT.
An emerging infrastructure
Those on the leading edge of the phenomenon formed a professional group,
Cerealbox-Using Educators (CUE), to exchange techniques and to foster mutual
learning. Annual meetings have featured such sessions as "Lab vs. Classroom:
Best Options for CBT," and "CBT in the Library: the Cataloging Conundrum."
CBT training emerged as a prerequisite for the teaching credential.
Commercial enterprises have developed CBT-enhanced curriculum materials.
State education agencies are evaluating and encouraging these new resources
and techniques and their applications through such means as the Cerealbox
Training Assistance Program (CTAP) and State Cerealbox Option Resources
for Enrichment (SCORE).
Libraries soon became important centers for CBT, as library media specialists
discovered that CBT could be adapted to new purposes. Sturdy boxes, with
some cutting and folding, become pamphlet files. Clippings from boxes enter
the vertical files as sources of nutrition information, graphics images
(especially sports and cartoon figures, as well as typographic design),
and more. All the while, cereal companies ("vendors") are putting new and
expanded features into the boxes -- more graphics, more capacity to hold
information, and a variety of options at extra cost.
Increasing sophistication brings increasing complications
Some users have attempted to "network" the boxes, through string attached
with buttons and stretched until taut. In this fashion, a CB user can speak
into one connected box and the vibrating string carries the sound to another
connected box. Soon more complex communications techniques emerged, selectively
routing communications. This aspect of the technology, however, places
overwhelming demands on technical resources, as the connections form a
complex web, challenging the capacity of teachers and librarians to cope.
The costly services of Certified Netbox Engineers (CNEs) devour budgets
and stress the planning and funding capacities of schools and districts
struggling to make CBT networks function reliably and productively.
Many teachers prefer to rely on standalone CBs (Cereal Boxes) -- and
of course some have no other option. Some favor CBs from Kellogg's, some
those from Post, and some prefer other brands. The differences are sometimes
the subject of acrimonious debates and fierce loyalties, but each faction
has found productive uses. Most teachers can accomplish precisely the same
ends with any CBT "platform."
Many teachers complain that vendors are only "selling boxes," with no
concern for content and no commitment to the schools and teachers who use
them. Vendors, on the other hand, say they are doing their part, and that
it is their primary role to provide the merchandise first and foremost.
Equal access to CBT is an issue of wide concern and deep discussion. Some
communities, beset by poverty, have few CB resources, as many students
receive subsidized school breakfasts, and parents, economizing where they
can, choose less expensive brands of cereal packaged in plastic bags --
nutritious, but failing to provide CBs for home use. In some cases, donated
CBs sit unused in hallways and storage rooms, for lack of training, coordination,
and technical support. In others, leaky roofs have resulted in damage to
CBs, or have taken precedence over the tasks required to institute an effective
Needless to emphasize, CBs are rare in the non-industrialized and emerging
nations. Those fortunate enough to have breakfast at all use bulk grains
packaged in large burlap bags, or locally grown produce. Those nations
also have undeveloped educational systems and would be unable to make effective
use of CBs even if CBs were suddenly thrust upon them.
Ambiguous results and difficulty of replication
Much controversy swirls around the entry of CBT into the schools, as success
in some classrooms and schools has not been consistently replicated in
others. Test results have not shown consistent, demonstrable impacts from
CBT. Critics exclaim that CBT is an unproven approach, latest in a long
line of trendy and overhyped technologies and techniques, from educational
radio to open classrooms, thrust upon the schools. Some observers warn
that a backlash is brewing, in which the whole enterprise will be cast
aside, an expensive investment in training and infrastructure given up
Outlook for the future
CBT in some form is here to stay, as so many teachers have proven the technique
to be of value in their own classrooms and as CBs and their varied applications
are becoming ubiquitous and better understood in the general society. But
to make the most of CBT, to use it in all of its broad, complex, and interesting
potential, will take time, training, support, and a long view. In all of
this, teachers are central. Perhaps the greatest hurdle to overcome is
the inclination of some to "teach cereal boxes" rather than to "teach using
cereal boxes." Therein may lie the most important challenge of professional
The moral of the story
In time, a simple finding has emerged from the broad, deep, and complex
experience with CBT. That lesson, confirming long experience with many
preceding technologies and methods is simply this:
"It's not the technology that teaches. It's the
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