Teaching Opinion

Chocolate Is the Key to Deeper Learning

By Jessica Wood — December 20, 2017 5 min read
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You think I’m kidding, but I’m serious.

For years I was part of a teaching team that used chocolate to engage middle school students in deep and meaningful learning. This was no candy reward dangled to entice our students through rote learning. It was a long-term project in which chocolate was more than just a tasty hook; it was an entry point for students to learn about world politics, economics, geography, literature, data collection, and botany.

This project took place in EL Education’s Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts, an urban public district school serving grades 6 -12, with 100% of graduates accepted to college. Renaissance is where I learned to use a targeted case study approach towards deeper learning. This approach enabled me as an educator to inspire my students to do more than they thought possible.

We knew we wanted our students to do high-quality work. We wanted them to produce authentic work that was complex and well-crafted. You can imagine that chocolate was a perfect place to start with 11-year-olds. Just after Halloween they dug into their Trick or Treat bags to collect baseline data on the most common types of chocolate candy bars--the makers and the ingredients. Sixth graders were surprised to notice the same manufacturers over and over (Mars, Nestle, Kraft) and that the common ingredient (along with sugar) was cacao. Who were these manufacturers? Where were they getting their ingredients? Students’ questions were many, and we had fully ignited their interest.

My teammate and I were fortunate in that we had done a lot of preparation for this project. The summer before the project began, we received a Fund for Teachers fellowship to travel to West Africa—where much of the world’s chocolate originates—to research and collect resources. We traveled to farms and schools and collected artifacts, photos, and stories to bring back to our students. Back in class, learning about West Africa’s role in chocolate production included learning from expert guests and sharing our own experience. Students also learned by doing: trying out African drumming, Adinkra stamping, and Kente clothing.

Author Jessica Wood meets cacao farmers while researching chocolate in West Africa.

To answer students’ questions, we dug into nonfiction text about cacao production and a novel about life on a West African cacao farm. These anchor texts prompted rich discussion like the comments that follow as students raised questions about social injustice in the industry.

“But slavery went out with the Civil War,” said De’Shawn, “I know that for a FACT.”

“No. It says right here that these kids don’t get paid. They can’t leave. If they don’t get paid and they can’t leave then that makes them slaves. Look. It. Up!” retorted Janelle.

She turned to me. “Mrs. Wood, are these kids slaves? How can people know there are kids who are slaves and not do anything about it? What are we going to do about it?”

The answer to Janelle’s question is one of the reasons chocolate opens a path to deeper learning: promoting social justice is an opportunity to have an impact in the world. Our project brought in multiple disciplines--culinary science (creating our own varieties of chocolate); historical research and writing; artistic creation of persuasive documents However, what was most compelling to students (even more than chocolate tasting!) was the social justice component.

Years later, when I began working outside the classroom, I recreated the project for adult learners at the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego, CA. In the two years I led the five-hour Deep Dive entitled “All Things Chocolate,” we did much of the same work we had done with kids--research, unpacking documentaries, reading fiction and nonfiction text, tasting chocolate, making our own, and vetting various chocolate companies for ethical practices. At the end of each session, as with students, we created a guide to ethical chocolate, helping users determine which chocolate they should buy. With adults and with students, I was surprised and impressed with the level of engagement and passion participants showed and with their ability to create very high-quality work in such a short time.

Reflecting on the chocolate project, what I see is that three things make this project work for all learners (Hint: It’s not just that most of us love chocolate!).

  1. Justice and fairness is engaging and motivates a sense of mission. The case study that connects to that keen sense of fairness in kids empowers them to make an impact. Doing work that matters in the world pushes students towards creating products of quality.
  2. Acting as scientists and historians makes science and history come alive. The beauty of learning about chocolate was in the research, fieldwork, and labs. Research included diving into real time data from chocolate companies and government reports to see who is telling the truth about ethical chocolate production. Students also researched the science of making chocolate. They conducted fieldwork to see cacao plants being grown and to a fair-trade chocolate factory to see chocolate being made
  3. A culminating product that can make a difference synthesizes learning and generates pride. Students researched chocolate companies for ethical practices so that we could give guidance to our community about what chocolate purchases would help promote justice and what purchases would work against it. Then they surveyed our neighborhoods to see what chocolate was available for purchase and surveyed our friends and families to see what market existed for different types of chocolate. The research and the surveys helped them make persuasive, evidence-based claims in their chocolate buying guides.

My conclusion is also a caveat: This is not a blog about chocolate. The entry point to deeper learning could just as easily be about shoes, snakes, the solar system, or chickens. Any rich real-world topic that allows students to be scientists and historians can inspire students with opportunities to connect to their own lives and create work they are proud of. To see examples of these projects and others just like them, visit EL Education’s Models of Excellence: Center for High Quality Student Work.

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