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.

1 comment:

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