Monday, October 10, 2011

Things I've Learned Teaching Technology

While teaching technology is not always my first job choice, (as opposed to using technology to teach content), I have learned a few things along that way that have made me a better tech teacher, I think. Many of these apply to any age to which you're teaching a new technology.

Do you have any others to add to the list?

1. Pacing is everything. You have to constantly be aware of when the learners have reached the tipping point and can't take in any new information. There are 2 ways to know when they have reached this point: glazed eyes and/or a look of general amazement that says, "Wow, there's so much you can do, and I'm not going to remember any of this tomorrow!" or when you start to see frustrated/bewildered looks and noises (hands thrown up, head hanging, abuse of the computer, etc.). The other day I had to intentionally slow down when I heard a student say, "What?! I'm completely lost!"

2. Assume nothing. Do not assume that a skill is so basic that everyone already knows it. Spell out every detail, or at least verbally verify that they do know a prerequisite skill. (I actually learned this lesson teaching swimming lessons to 4 year olds. As it turns out, you have to teach them to hold on to the edge, because otherwise they'll go under water and that that's a bad thing!) Every time I click and drag, I explain exactly how I do it so it doesn't look like magic. "Click on the image, hold the left mouse button down and keep doing so while you move the mouse over here. You should be able to see the image moving with the mouse. Then when the mouse is where you want the image, let go." The only thing you want to assume is that at least one person in the group doesn't know the basic skill behind what you're actually trying to teach.

3. Be calm. People who are not familiar with computers or a specific program all assume one thing: "If I click on the wrong thing, it will destroy everything." [In this case, "everything" is assumed to be either the document, the entire program or the whole computer.] Hence, it is with great trepidation that people try new things on computers. So, when the tiniest unexpected thing happens, people panic. (This is true of kids and adults.) The best thing the instructor can do at this point is to be calm and reassure them that not only did they not destroy anything, but that it is virtually impossible for them to destroy anything. Sometimes people also panic when everyone else is ahead of them (they think). In this case, a lot of times, the best thing you can do is to bring them up to speed with everyone else (even if you have to do it for them), because otherwise their panic will drown out any new information you're trying to give them. Calmness is the key to helping them keep up and continue to learn.

4. It's ok if you forget. Especially when I am teaching a new software, I am very intentional about telling  people that it is ok if they forget the specific steps for what we are talking about. (I usually bring this up about the point where people are starting to panic or get the dazed, overwhelmed look.) I don't tell them this because I'm teaching useless information. I tell this this because all they need to remember is that the software can do that particular thing. If they don't remember what button to click or which menu it's under, that's ok. As long as they remember that it has that capability, all they need to do is find someone who knows a bit more than you do to help you find it (or Google it :-)) I think that this is important for people to hear, particularly people who aren't very familiar with computers; i.e., the people who want to write down the steps for each new skill. If they know they don't need to remember every step, they are far less likely to panic, and far less likely to miss valuable instruction because they are writing down every step for something 2 skills back.

5. As a teacher, make use of the other students. I'm pretty sure I spend at least 40-50% of every school day repeating the words, "Help the person next to you if they're stuck or if they're not there yet." (This will probably be the first words my child learns to say, given that he/she will have heard it so many times in utero!) In most classes, at least half the participants should be able to keep up with you. After every set of instructions, give time to complete, then remind those who are keeping up to help those who are stuck.  This helps the confused individuals feel like they're not slowing down the class, makes those who are keeping up feel good about themselves, AND (most importantly) it saves the teacher from having to speak with every person individually to make sure they are in the right place.

Hm. As it turns out, things that help when teaching technology are just plain good teaching skills. Who knew? :-) There are a few more things I've learned teaching tech, but I will save those for future posts.

[Note: Handing out the comic depicted here from xkcd will NOT make you a good tech teacher, but it will make all the computer people you know laugh :-)]

[The error message above comes from a hilarious website that lets you make your own error messages. It is hysterical; I'd highly advise checking it out for some good belly laughs :-)]

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