Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Figure it out!

I teach in 4 computer labs as a traveling teacher, and on all of my classroom walls, I have a hand-written poster that says "Figure it out!" in giant letters. I realize that it sounds a little rude, however I think it is one of the most critical skills we can teach students, because it is something that has caused so many adults to struggle with technology.

Older generations did not grow up with technology, so it is a bit of a miraculous mystery to them. While they like the things technology can do for them, how it works is a total mystery to some. And here's where the key problem comes in. They are terrified to poke around on the computer to try to find an answer to a technology question. I have met so many adults who are literally afraid (whether or not they'd admit it out loud) that the whole device will go up in flames in front of their eyes. They lack the confidence and basic knowledge to explore what the possible solutions are on a digital device.

Students these days don't harbor the same fear of technology going up in flames in front of them. They have the necessary background knowledge to look around in an app until they "figure it out" without much assistance. The problem is that they are rarely pushed to the point that they need to figure something out.

Here's the rub: When people (students or adults) don't have to try new digital environments, they won't notice patterns and be able to apply those to other things. It reminds me of why it's so important to teach conceptual math along with the algorithms. If all students ever get in terms of math instruction is an algorithm, they'll only be able to solve problems that look exactly like the examples. This is exactly what happens to people with technology. They get really good at the 3 tools they use every day, but once a new digital environment is in front of them, they are completely lost. I try to teach my students the rationale for technology things, like why menus exist (for example, in any program if you want to modify a toolbar, go to View, because it relates to how things appear; File always relates to the entire document itself, etc.) Then, when they want to accomplish a similar task in another program, they have a structure in their head for how to go about accessing that information.

So, these days in my computer labs, I work very hard to not answer every question students come up with, not to be mean or rude, but because I want them to practice using the resources available to them, like:

  • exploring in the digital environment (clicking around)
  • asking a friend
  • using Google to help them find answers to questions (a crucial skill that I teach very intentionally)
I have been frequenting some forums lately for some of my commonly used digital tools, and I'm constantly amazed at how many questions people ask that could be answered with a simple Google query. I generally go with the theory that if I have this technology question, someone else probably did too, so there must be an answer somewhere.

While some motivated students will figure out the things they need, most are perfectly happy to just sit where they're already at, until they are prompted into something new. I believe it is one of our duties as educators to (kindly) force students out of their comfort zone enough to have to practice the art of figuring it out on their own. There is a necessary time and a place for teaching new skills obviously, but this can't our only mode of operating. When students figure out a tech problem on their own, not only does it answer their question, it empowers them to pursue further learning, which should always be a primary goal of education.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Technology: No longer optional

The scene: A room crammed with 40 eight-year-old desktops, and an equal number of cramped 8th graders, literally elbow-to-elbow as they begin taking the AzMERIT test, the first fully online, standardized test they've ever taken. It's late April and they are beginning the first section of the test, the writing section. Their classroom teacher has just left the room, and I, the special area teacher, am covering while the teacher takes her prep. 

The comment that reminded me why tech can't just be a shiny, fancy thing we use as a reward: 
The students have just started, and a girl raises her hand, points to the text box on the screen, and asks, "Is this where we write our rough draft, do our proofreading, or our final draft?" I was dumbstruck, but slowly responded, "That's where you do all of it, all in that box."

Folks, that moment right there, communicated to me that we have done our students a massive disservice by allowing teachers to use technology as an option. The world our students live in is saturated by technology. It's not optional, it's simply the way the world works. When we exclude technology from school, not only do we not move students ahead, we are crippling them. 

In terms of writing, we need to teach students to write digitally, because it is fundamentally different. Would you write differently if you literally had to hand-write every word? For me, absolutely yes. (This blog post would be much shorter!) Would you edit differently? Yes. For students, it means, they correct 1 misspelled word, and put a comma in somewhere and call it a day. Then they start the arduous process of either re-hand-writing it, or the painstaking process of looking up and down after every word as they type it out, one letter at a time. We need to teach students how to write with their keyboards and with some speed. Typing quickly is exactly the same thing as one's reading fluency. It allows your brain to keep up with your comprehension. 

But that is not the only basic skill that kids don't have. Knowing how to locate and attach a file is essential to knowing how to fill out a job application. Saving things in different file formats is a critical skill as well, if a company requires a pdf resume and not a document, and the list of imperative skills goes on. That doesn't even begin to touch on the necessity of being able to evaluate online information. 

In our world, technology literally touches everyone. You can't apply for a job anymore without knowing how to use a computer. You can't participate in college without knowing basic technology skills. You can't be a citizen of the world, unless you interact with technology. You may say, "Oh, but students these days know so much about technology already. Do I really need to teach them basic things?" Yes!! 

Students are just like adults. They are really good at getting to the 3 things they use every day (in my students' cases, Snapchat, Youtube, and Minecraft) and that's it. I literally have 13 year olds ask me every single day, "How do I get to the next line in my document?" (hit enter) or who don't know why they don't need to google Google. They have next to no understanding of fundamental concepts of technology, because we think it's just a nice thing to do once in a while to use a bit of technology to let kids play games or type a paper.

By failing to teach kids even fundamental technology skills, we are truly hurting them in both the short and long term. Technology is how our society functions, and we do our students more than just a disservice to treat it like a cool extra when you have time. Technology is Not. An. Option. It is a life skill.

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