Classroom broccoli: How lesson plans can help students learn to like difficult topics

On August 5, 2010, in General, How We Learn, Lesson Plans, by Nicole Lantz

A. Integrate choice into your lesson planning.
B. Plan activities in your lessons where students get a chance to see someone enjoying his or her work in that field.
C. Remember, everyone’s broccoli is different.

(Image by Johan J. Ingles-Le Nobel)

For the past few weeks I’ve taken on a little challenge of learning to like things I don’t like. I decided one day: no sugar in my tea, almond butter instead of peanut butter, plain yogurt instead of flavoured. It was just a little exercise to see if I could actually learn to like it. (See Learning to Love Foods You Hate: A How-to Guide for Frugal Eaters

It got me to thinking. How do we learn to like things other than food – and can an instructor make use of this? What is hard-wired, and what is learned through our social and cultural context? If it takes so much effort to like a flavor, do the traditional “broccoli” subjects stand a chance? Can we help students train their brains to like them?

In her book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, Ellyn Satter highlights the difference between being too controlling and not setting strong enough limits at the table. I think classrooms have a similar challenge. “It helps children learn to like new foods if they are allowed to try the food on their own initiative.” Satter suggests that children may need to see food 10, 15, or 20 times before they learn to like it. She also highlights studies that show children are more likely to try foods the second time if they see a trusted adult enjoying it rather than if they are forced to take a bite.

So, as with “difficult foods” is it just a matter of seeing a “difficult topic” 20 times before you’ll choose to try it? And if so, is there time for that? I’m imagining a classroom filled with options where we let participants choose for themselves while providing suggestions and active encouragement. It’s not that crazy.

A. Integrate choice into your lesson planning:

1. Learning centers, which can integrate discovery learning or inquiry (pure or guided) (See Sky Watchers Weather Learning Centers; Air Quality Health Index Learning Centers).

2. Differentiated instruction that considers an individual’s readiness and style of learning (See Carol Ann Tomlinson’s work).

3. Terry Thorsen’s “Cafeteria Style” Method of Testing and Evaluation. I learned this one first-hand at a teacher professional development session at Cobequid Educational Centre where Mr. Thorsen teaches. “Students can choose the level of question that matches their understanding of a topic but can still pass at the lowest level.”
(See Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence or contact Mr. Thorsen yourself at C.E.C.

4. Montessori practice, a hard-core application of choice where individuals learn topics of their own choosing directly from a supportive environment at their own pace (See The Montessori Method

B. If the best way to introduce new foods is to see a trusted adult enjoy the food, maybe that’s the case with learning subjects too. Plan activities in your lessons where students get a chance to see someone enjoying his or her work in that field:

1. Take students out to see real work in the field (See Économusée

2. Bring in professionals and subject-matter experts (See Scientists in the Schools (SITS), a program that helps connect volunteer science speakers with schools,

3. Invite older students who really take interest in a subject. (Talk to Tracy Webb at Horton High School in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. She spearheaded Science Buddies, a program where volunteer high school students create and deliver science activities to elementary students.

C. Remember, everyone’s broccoli is different. Personally, I’ve always loved science, math, and artsy things like painting and choir. Gym class was my broccoli, but I’ve learned to like that too (Thank you yoga!). As a facilitator, one of the worst things you can do is assume that if you hated math everyone is going to hate it. Be aware of your personal bias and then work on it. Understand your personal life experiences – your context – has a profound influence on how you see a topic or subject. The same is true of your students. Suggestions:

1. Draw-A-”Insert Profession Here”-Test.  This is a good one to try yourself as a facilitator to highlight your own default images. It can be a Draw-an-Artist-Test, Draw-a-Historian-Test, or Draw-a-Statistician-Test. I’d even recommend it at professional workshops for companies or orientation workshops for new hires (Draw-A-Manager-Test). It’s my little adaptation on the original Draw-A-Scientist-Test (DAST), first introduced by D.W. Chambers in 1983 ( See Chambers, D.W. 1983. Stereotypic images of the scientist: The Draw-a-Scientist-Test. Science Education. 67:255-265).

McGraw Hill adaptation of DAST (See

The CSI Effect (See

So, whether we offer a few options for each activity or something every once in a while, how about next time we remember the lessons of broccoli – it’s not going to do any good to pry open their mouths and force it down! Let them choose to try it, give them some positive images to encourage them, and eventually they may just love it.

p.s. I actually really like broccoli, but no one would have understood if I had called my article “Classroom lobster: How lesson plans can help students learn to like difficult topics”. Yet, now that I think about it, that’s sort of the point of the whole thing. In a creative learning environment, it’s ok if your broccoli is my lobster, and it’s ok for me to love broccoli too.

2 Responses to “Classroom broccoli: How lesson plans can help students learn to like difficult topics”

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  2. Lane Coriell says:

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