In February I got to help write a course called Applications of Digital Literacy. As Jill, from Staff development, and I sat down to get things started, we discussed the fact that really we were developing a course that would hopefully be redundant in 5 years… because students by then would be coming out of Middle School with all of the necessary skills already. For now, I think this is a very valuable course and one essential for students at the new Inquiry Hub. Although this is now a board approved course that I’ll soon be offering online through Coquitlam Open Learning (COL), the first students to take the course will be Inquiry Hub students.

This course and one on Foundations of Inquiry, which will be taught by our Principal, Stephen Whiffin, were developed specifically because we decided that inquiry learning and digital media literacy skills were essential for students at the Inquiry Hub, but we should not assume that student will come to the school ‘pre-loaded’ with these skills.

I still work 4 days a week out of the COL adult learning centre, providing upgrade credits and graduation credits to adults and older teens who are trying to graduate. But the centre is closed on Fridays and that’s when I join the Inquiry Hub to teach my course and provide an almost full day of prep coverage for our teachers (who also have some online hours for the COL courses they teach).

Friday was my first day at the HUB, and I decided to tackle two learning outcomes from the course outline: (I’ll be sharing the full course with you later this week.)

  • Demonstrate skills essential for safety and security in the digital world; protection of passwords, personal privacy, privacy of others etc.
  • Participate in online discussions in a value-added manner – reinforcing not repeating, constructive and thoughtful criticism and feedback, offering new information and alternate perspectives

Basically, it was a lesson on the permanence and reach of digital text, and the importance of being respectful… followed by (what was supposed to be) an online discussion that would help us develop our expectations about how we conduct ourselves online as a school (as a mere extension of how we conduct ourselves in our school and in our community).

So, I started them off with a tube of toothpaste! In groups of 4, I had them gather their resources: a plate, some toothpicks, and one tube of toothpaste per group. One student then emptied the entire contents of the toothpaste tube onto their plate and the task begins: Without damaging the toothpaste tube, the object of the task is to get all of the toothpaste back into the tube. Students can use only the resources provided.

"Toothpaste Activity"

It’s generally a messy activity! A few key points for anyone interested in trying this:
1. The toothpicks are generally a red herring and have little purpose
2. Students will eventually figure out that the best way to do this is to but the toothpaste in their mouth and use their mouth as a funnel – if they ask permission to do so, I generally reply “use the resources you have” and let them figure out that it is acceptable
3. Don’t use mint toothpaste unless you want a room full of tearing eyes, and as I discovered this time, cinnamon toothpaste deters groups from putting it in their mouths
4. Take pictures! (Our notices to parents about using student images have not been distributed yet, so my images don’t show faces)
5. Have paper towel ready, and speak to students about being respectful to the caretaker before they start going to bathroom to clean up… and completely clean the room & tables before going on to the next task!

 Once things were cleaned up, (and fun was had by all), I squeezed the toothpaste back out of the tubes to see which group was most successful, though obviously it is impossible to get all of the toothpaste back in. From this point I read them a story before we discussed the point of the activity. The very short story is called ‘The Bad Temper‘ and if you go and read it then I really don’t need to explain how it is related to the toothpaste activity. With the story setting the tone, we had a discussion about how the activity and story relate to digital communication, as well as the ‘permanence’ and mobility of digital text (versus a written letter or even graffiti).

Next we were going to move on to our digital part of the lesson, after all, this is a course on digital literacy! However, a construction crew at our board office accidentally cut the fibre optic line leaving the entire district without internet for the day. At least I new this in advance. So much for the wiki groups and discussion forum I created for the lesson! Out came the chart paper.

"Class and Online Expectations"

I must admit that I truly believe the lesson was hindered considerably with the lack of digital sharing both for reasons of making the point of the lesson, and also for the richness it can provide for students to be held more accountable to their peers for their work, and for cross-pollination of ideas between groups. A gallery walk to see what others have done is a lot different than students accessing pages online – and I think the adding of ideas from others would have been much richer.

Beyond this, instead of the notes being tucked away in my bag, they could have been further added to over the weekend by students. Yes, I could have taken pictures of the images, but a) that’s different than text, images tend to be seen more as ‘on display’ rather than something you add to; and b) The morning was intended to start with them getting signed up for the course, so they couldn’t even access the course if they wanted to right now.

Reflection: There was actually one more thing that hindered the lesson. I gave them prompts to discuss. I used my ‘Blog rules‘ which I actually suggested were ‘guidelines’ – Respect, Inclusion, Safety and Learning – and provided these terms to the students. My thinking was that I’d provide the students with a starting point, rather than blank pages. However, this was far more guided than it needed to be. It’s a big shift moving to inquiry-based learning, and one that will involve letting go of control and of trusting in the process. It’s not that I’ve never done these things, but rather it is making the process habitual that will take time.

Overall, I think the lesson was well received, but now I have to figure out how best to transfer what we’ve done into what I’d like to be a liveable document that we use to guide our online (and community) expectations.

Coming soon: I’ll share my entire course (or at least what I’ve planned so far), and openly ask for your help and suggestions.


10 comments on “Digital Literacy, toothpaste and the Inquiry Hub

  1. Dear Mr. Hargreaves: Truss:

    I must be old, but I do not see what wasting a day’s time and several tubes of toothpaste yields anybody…. I am puzzled.

    What exactly is learned? I am sure everybody already knew the simple facts that toothpaste and toothpicks exist. What new useful skills are acquired for use later on in life?

    I can say that I am a very stale 56 going on 57, and have never yet had to take all the toothpaste out of a tube and stick it back in. I think I first learned of toothpaste, as far as I can recall, at the age of 3. Toothpicks, I think I was 5, and I encountered them stuck in olives. So surely, schoolkids would know about them too.

    I sincerely hope that the student with toothpaste (most of a tube) in his/her mouth did not get sick. I also hope that each person had their own tube. Or were there 3 or 4 students all sucking on the same tube at once? Let’s hope no one had some disease or infection!

    I was under the impression, from reading the article, that these were high-school students…. Surely they have a passing acquaintance with toothpicks and toothpaste?

    “Applications of Digital Literacy”…. An interesting course title. I was expecting the article to be about that topic. Might I ask what exactly this course implies? What is the raison d’etre? What useful facts, skills, experiences, or talent development will any students come out with? Is there a syllabus? Are there lesson plans? And so forth….

    I have no doubt that if they are over 12, they will remember the fun of the toothpaste thing for years to come. I guess that might be a good thing… But is that what we are paying taxes for? I think there is more to “thinking outside the box” than toothpaste in or out of a tube. And quite frankly, if they do not know how yet to even “think inside the box”, perhaps “thinking outside the box” will not be of much use… I was hoping kids would come out of school knowing reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic… I was optimistic.

    I was able to read three of the titles on the pieces of paper. Respect, Safety, Inclusion. I think the last one was Learning.

    Well, if they cleaned up after themselves, they may have learned some Respect (if they were taught/told) for the time and efforts of the custodial staff. For this is a very expensive and scarce resource. One assumes they were using paper towels to clean up with. Did the lesson include telling them about the ecological costs of paper towels? Were they informed of the billions of children around the world who do not even know what toothpaste is? I am not being sarcastic. I think kids DO need to learn of these things. If they are not told, the ideas will not pop into their heads fully formed. That is the teacher’s job. (A job that sadly, most of them do not seem to know these days.)

    Safety… I guess that would have involved your telling them to “suck (or spit) on your own tube, not the other student’s!” Another good point: “Don’t swallow the toothpaste!”. (But if they are over 10, they should already know this.) And of course, if some gets on the floor, wipe it up ASAP, before somebody steps in it and tramps it all over, and maybe someone falls and gets hurt.

    I have no idea what the word Inclusion would refer to. It is one of those vague words that can mean so many things. Most of them are “new age” and not so useful. They are “touchy feely” and “feel good” words. I am sure they could safely be removed from the dictionary with no harm done.

    Learning. Now there is the all important word. The purpose of schooling! What precisely, was learned? Are we really going to be facing “toothpaste out of tube crises” a plenty over the next 60 years? Has it to do with global warming, perhaps? (I myself would think not.)

    If you would, kindly try to educate, inform, teach, illuminate, and inspire us with the answers to some of my questions, above. I am sure others will have more questions. You may or may not want to answer those, too.

    But if teachers worry or wonder why taxpayers and/or parents no longer respect them, and are creatively thinking outside the box for ways to get rid of teachers and close schools… Well, I think we have a good example, right here. We simply cannot figure out the value of any of this, or where it leads to. To us, it just seems like glorified babysitting….

    Teachers are supposed to be master communicators: People who can tell a story, make it memorable, and use it to transfer knowledge between the generations. And this taxpayer, the writer, needs someone to explain the use and meaning of this exercise. For if I cannot see it, I am sure there are others. If it can be explained and justified, I know I will buy into it. As for the others, well, they have their own needs and “price levels”. But a good explanation may cover them, also.

    Thank you for your time and attention in this matter.

    1. Dear Mr. Laberge,

      Two quick points before I respond to your comment. Firstly, thank you for taking the time to comment and to question. I appreciate that I may not have provided enough detail and I hope that my response below is adequate, or that you’ll continue to question. Secondly, I corrected my name. I don’t usually change people’s words in their comments, but given that I just posted about Andy Hargreaves and his name was highlighted above my post, I fully understand why you would have thought my name was Hargreaves. I tell you this because I thought that leaving this letter addressed to someone else would have invited confusion and as a result I took liberty with your comment to make a change.

      Now to respond to your comment:

      This activity was not about toothpaste and toothpicks. These were simply materials, in the same way that a Science experiment with a Bunsen Burner and a flint lighter are not about those tools, but what you do with them. This activity is one I’ve done a number of times with leadership students and unlike a Science Experiment, the results were more experiential than experimental. I do hope that they remember this activity and I will probably find reason to mention it to them either as a group or individually in the coming year. I’m not a fan of explaining metaphors since I think they tend to lose their power when explained, but for the purpose of being explicit, the toothpaste was a metaphor for words, and the exercise of trying to put the toothpaste ‘all’ back in the tube was to represent the fact that once you say something, you can’t fully take what you say back. I never explicitly say this but students do express this in our debrief. The ‘Bad Temper’ story is sort of the literal connection of the activity and links the conversation to the power of words to be harmful.

      Our discussion also went into the idea that hurtful graffiti on a school wall would likely be seen by only the school community and be gone once taken down, but something hurtful on Facebook can be seen by thousands because of people ‘like’-ing the comment and the way Facebook works with friends-of-friends being able to see comments. It is only then that we talked about Respect, Safety, Inclusion (being inclusive – an important thing in high school as socially excluding someone is the most difficult form of bullying to prevent and is one of the more painful forms of bullying to deal with), and Learning. More on that can be found on the Blog Rules link that I shared.

      Three other pieces of background:
      1. I’d like for students to see what they do in digital spaces as extensions of what they do at school and in our community.
      2. I’d like for students to help create some expectations around how we treat each other, in all of our learning spaces, rather than enforcing ‘rules’ upon them.
      3. This was the last day of their first week, my first day with them, and we are still trying to build community – Just like when I have done this with student leaders, this activity is as much about bonding and connecting, and working together as it is about the lesson (experiential- as mentioned above).

      I’ll make a few more distinctions for clarity. Yes, these are high school students, mostly Grade 9 & 10. No, I didn’t instruct them to put the toothpaste in their mouths, but being high school students, I also didn’t have to clarify that if they did, then only one of them should do so. In all one person in 3 of the 7 groups chose to try this method. And finally, this didn’t cost the taxpayers anything… Like so many educators I know, I chose to purchase these ‘resources’ out of my own pocket.

      I invite further inquiry and apologize in advance if I haven’t answered any of your questions.
      Thanks again for the comment,

  2. Dear David,
    Sounds like an exciting lesson I would have loved to be there for it and watched the toothpaste hit the fan! I also enjoy the way that you are teaching “out-loud” or so transparently, this goes along with my last inquiry that has made me shift to posting some of my lessons after they happen. I do most of this on the classes parent blog, but have also taken up to doing so on mine.
    I am also excited to experience your journey because I too have taken on the joy of student inquiry with my class as we have begun to create expectations for everything. We even hope to bring in many people from the field to help spur our research and have started with developing a more calm, peaceful learning environment. We hope to get ideas from an interior designer and use what we have to make the class ours!

    Thanks for spurring on my learning and thinking…

    Andre Kozak

    1. Thanks for the comments Peter and Andre,

      I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve been doing in your class! It’s an exciting journey when more and more people are teaching and learning “out-loud”. Real life learning at its’ best! Let’s connect for a coffee some time in October.

      We need to meet too! It has been too long that we’ve been connected online, lived so close to each other, and not met face-to-face.

  3. Dear Truss:

    Thank you for kindly replying to my reply, sir. I do apologize for getting your name wrong, and also to Mr Hargreaves, if need be! Thank you for correcting me there. I used the name at the top of the web page, as it would seem sensible to me that a proud author would put his name there, unless the article was signed like a letter.

    In your original post, a some small essential bits of detail were missing for me to make heads or tails of it. Your response was a well crafted one.

    I and others (I am sure) truly do now appreciate your explanation in more detail, that sometimes… in real mail/ snail mail, voice conversation, and web posts… we often do make errors. We often do say things we either did not really mean, or meant differently. (Politicians seem to do this often! I seem to do it often, too. Yet, I am no politician!)

    And of course, taking words or actions back, is usually difficult, or impossible. And sometimes it has to do with bad temper, but sometimes it simply is a matter of “communication is hard”…. whether verbal, or in writing. People have different experiences, perceptions, education, and expectations. Communicating to all, thus becomes a matter of how closely our personal patterns fit together.

    I have to agree, now that I have all the facts, that toothpaste is a good metaphor. It sure beats Aspercream! I suppose you could have used sausage making also, but that is even messier than toothpaste…

    Note that you could also use freezer pops, or drinking boxes. This would be more pleasant than toothpaste, for tasting. Although you would have to beware of sugar hyped students, and of course the odd diabetic who would have trouble with the sugar content. This would likely be cheaper than toothpaste, though a fair bit easier, and the difficulty of the toothpaste, is it seems, what makes the thing a “teachable event”.

    You are correct that graffiti has (or can have) usually, a more restricted audience than Facebook, or Twitter. But neither graffiti or playground epithets are a good thing. Just like bad posts are not good either. Also, graffiti is more easily erased now-a-days, than a bad posting on the net.

    Having been a victim of bullying, and having had to help other victims from time to time, I can appreciate fully, your comments about (I quote):
    “Respect, Safety, Inclusion (being inclusive – an important thing in high school as socially excluding someone is the most difficult form of bullying to prevent and is one of the more painful forms of bullying to deal with), and Learning.”

    Bullying is particularly difficult in grade school or high school. By college or university, we have all grown a “shell” around ourselves, and it is easier to take…. Bullying shows no respect to the victim, and indeed, little self-respect for the bully. (If the bully is only happy while “picking on someone”, then the bully has “internal problems”, and needs help.) Inclusion. Sigh. The problem that never goes away, and in some ways, is more deadly than bullying. Why? Because humans are a social animal, especially kids. You can fight a bully, but you cannot fight being locked out.

    I sincerely wish you a LOT of luck in dealing with bullying and inclusion. Actually, as you know, the problem is not inclusion, but lack of it, sometimes going as far as deliberate exclusion.

    You will need the luck, because our society and our technology make bullying and exclusion even easier, and more potent than yesteryear. Bullying used to be “face to face”… Today it is Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, email, “real mail”, texting, Skype, Instant Messenging, the list goes on and on! So it is easier, and is more easily done. Moreover, it can be instantly done. And bullies, today, can more easily, if they wish to, unite to torture someone….

    Sadly, many victims are loaners. From what I have seen though, if a victim can have just a few friends, just a little “protection”, just a little inclusion… then often, the bullies back off. (Though sadly, not all the time.)

    You are right that (I paraphrase):
    “…what students do in digital spaces, as extensions of what they do at school and in our community”. And sometimes you can add “at home”, also.

    Proper behaviour and success in one area, tends to lead to good things in other areas. Happiness and “being well adjusted” in one zone, can be carried to the other zones. It is more than just “networking”. I am talking about being justly proud of one’s contribution. Happiness at having achieved something, and so on…

    It is good that you engage students in (again I paraphrase):
    “… creating expectations around how we treat each other, in all of our learning spaces, rather than enforcing ‘rules’ upon them.”

    Rules are needed, and a few obvious ones should be stated. But there should be a number of “numbered blank lines” that the class body can fill in, as “being the conventions (rules/standards/etc) that ‘we the group’ own and agree on.” If they own it, it is theirs, and they value it. But it is was all forced down their throat, well, it rankles. And the rules become a thing to fight!

    If this exercise took place on:
    “the last day of their first week, my first day with them, and we are still trying to build community…”

    I hope that you and any other counselors, teachers, etc had a chance to build not only your own community, but agree on basic things so that a student knows that what is OK (or NOT OK) with Mr. Jones, also applies to Mr. Smith, and so on to Mr. Truss! Bonding with the students is good, and needed, as is their bonding with each other to form a working group. Just remember that if you form a good group, and they ever turn on you…!

    So the students, then, came up with the idea of the “toothpaste mouthing” on their own, and did get permission. I take it that the “one student per group” that was brave and curious enough to try “the mouth route”, will likely be one of the more outgoing and active ones…. This could be a good thing, as such a student can be a useful class motivator… Y

    ou are lucky that you got mature enough a group, and wise enough a group, that you did not have to tell them that only one person should be the “guinea pig”. (Or worse, have to pick the guinea pig!) Perhaps it is because you are using toothpaste that this happened!

    By the way, in case you ever do want to show them how to get the stuff back in, a small diameter straw, one that fits in the mouth of the tube, is very useful. Toothpicks are a good red herring, as are popsicle sticks or tongue depressors. (Except that tongue depressors are easily split into thinner pieces than can be used as a crude “shovel”.)

    Finally, I must commend you on purchasing the resources on your own initiative. It might also be a lesson the students can take away. eg: “Sometimes a person must supply his own materials to get a job done. There is no shame in this. It is one small example of thinking outside the box, as they say.” (Even if for some reason, I find the expression cliche and rankling, though I still use it.)

    Have a good day, sir, and the best of luck with your class. You may be lucky: Every so often, a “bonzer” class/group comes along, of quite exceptional people. And both sides come out better by the end of the course/session/year, etc. Yes, you can learn from them, as much as they can learn from you. And they should learn from each other, too.

    Sincerely, PM Laberge

  4. Mr. Truss,

    I am Cheyanne Wilson, a student at the University of South Alabama. I am an elementary education major. I have been assigned to comment on your blog for my EDM 310 class with Dr. John Strange.

    I love the toothpaste demonstration! My mom did this same demonstration with a couple of groups of children my age, which at the time we were about 12. Instead of using the internet as her focus, she said that anything that comes out of our mouth cannot be put back in. Same aspect as with the internet. Anything that we share on here can be viewed by anyone and we need to make sure that everything is clean and appropriate.
    Dr. Strange really stresses to us college students that we need to have a clean internet trail, because we will be Googled.
    Your students will always remember this lesson and have in the back of their mind that they need to be respectful on the internet.
    Whenever I become a teacher this will be one of the first lessons that I do with my children. I will apply it to their individual mouth and their internet trail.
    Thank you for sharing this with us!

    Cheyanne Wilson

  5. Quite an old-school discussion above. The early 20th century decorum is refreshing.

    I love to use metaphors in my teaching. Maybe I’ll steal your toothpaste metaphor when we cover entropy later in the year.

  6. Mr. Truss,

    This is a very interesting post and interesting discussions within the comments. I found it very helpful for someone like me trying to become a future educator. At first I was a little confused on how the toothpaste project related with the Inquiry Hub but I think I understand it all now! I think the project is a good way for students to be in the actual situation or scenario and then reflect on it after hearing a story related to it. It all made sense when I read “The Bad Temper” story. I will definitely apply this lesson in my future classroom.

    I am also a student of the University of Alabama and assigned to you for my EDM310 class with Dr. John Strange. It is very important to be respectful and be on your best behavior on the internet. Before using the Inquiry Hub, it is good to teach the students how to behave and respect each other.

    Looking forward to more!

    -Anna Zhuo

  7. Hi Dave

    Your post spawned all sorts of thoughts while I read through it, and more when I read through the comments:

    – I applaud you for doing that activity, and the metaphor was immediately apparent to me. I do have the luxury of being an information technology teacher, so I think that the references were easier for me.

    – It’s a good reminder for me that when I submit my thoughts on the internet (via Twitter, or blogging, or anywhere really), it’s not just educators that are reading it. I can’t assume that everyone understands my references. That’s important for me to keep in mind if I want to invite collaboration from the wider community. And I do!

    – When commenting on someone’s blog, I want to remember that it is okay, and even encouraged, to ask questions. Asking questions helps the writer to grow and to clarify and become a better communicating professional.

    – On the flip side, making assumptions and judgements doesn’t really help anybody, especially if you haven’t taken the time to see where the person was coming from in the first place. Being critical is much, much more helpful if you have established a “communication foundation” first. In the online world, we are all learning to do this better.

    – Public education is becoming more public every day. 🙂 And that’s a good thing, I think! We can do so much more with collaboration (I know you know this, you’re my inspiration!) and with input from all stakeholders. How do we get away from the micromanagement piece?

    – Can’t wait to see your course syllabus! I hope that you blog more about what you are doing with your classes. Sounds very exciting. 🙂


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