Monday, August 30, 2010

Teaching the Natives in their Digital Habitat: Part 1-How it Should Not be Done

     I went into today with what I thought would be a great idea.  Throughout the year I have my students use websites that first require them to create accounts.  When I think back to last year, this sign up process often took the majority of the class any time I had students use a new website.  So, this year, I decided to be proactive.  I decided to create a sort of digital scavenger hunt for my students, which consisted of a list of websites they needed to go to, create accounts on, and complete simple activities.  Taking one day to complete the sign up process didn't fit with my current unit, but getting it done would make life easier in the long run, allowing for more instructional time being spent using the actual web tools in class, rather than guiding students through the process of having them sign up for an account.  Sure, the process of signing up for an account was slightly different for each site, but my students would be able to figure this out; they are are digital natives after all. 

   Maybe they are....but such an assumption was pretty short-sighted on my part.

After explaining the assignment and letting students begin working, I noticed that a handful of students breezed through it, but the majority of them struggled.  Not that there is anything wrong with struggling....but many of these students didn't seem to have a strategy for how to go about the struggle.  Some made errors that precluded them from being able to use the sites, some perpetually called on me for help, and some just gave up....

So, now I am at a point where half of my students have created accounts on the sites I included, and most are only partially through.  I need to do some planning about how to go about having all of my students complete the process, but I'm going to put that on hold until I better understand the lessons that this debacle of a lesson has taught me. 

Wanting to talk with someone about my failure and get some direction in my own reflecting, I grabbed the person person in closest proximity to me, Cara, our literacy coach.  Our conversation was short, but afterwards, she emailed me some of her additional thoughts on the subject.  I think they were pretty insightful.

She wrote:

"To me, it's a mix of Executive Functions (frontal lobes!) and Close Reading. Often, teachers anticipate that students will struggle with complicated directions/text, and so they take the initiative to break it down, use bullets, reveal one instruction at a time, repeat instructions, go around and help individually, etc. This all gets the job done, and the goals are met efficiently. However, we are probably doing them a disservice by doing all the work of getting them to the point of completion/understanding. We (well, most of us) have the skills to break down these overwhelming tasks into small parts and act accordingly. Even if it's frustration, we can plow through them. We might get help from others, and ask questions, but we know to do these things. I think we should start talking about how do we teach students to do that. I know it will involve modeling how we do it ("So what I would do, guys, is read the entire number one and draw a line to separate each little instruction that's in there. Then, as I complete each one, I'd put a checkmark or cross it out. See how that makes it a little easier?" , guiding them through it ("Okay, now you guys try it for #2".), and letting them struggle independently ("Remember how we broke down those instructions last week? I want you to try it on your own today."). It requires slowing down and rereading.

A voice in my head keeps whispering, "But they are digital natives. They just click around and they figure it out. They don't need to be slowed down with step by step instructions...What about the social aspect of figuring this stuff out...." But then a louder voice replies, "But they need to be self-sufficient. Look at adults who waste your tie with questions that if they had just read the instructions... We have to force them to slow down and put in the effort."

I agree with her assessment of how we often offer students plenty of support to guide them through such processes, and in doing so deprive them of learning through struggling on their own.  I've thought about this before, and it was part of the reason why I structured today's activity as I did.  I'm on the right track there, and I don't want to deviate too far from it.  At the same time, I can't expect my students to know how to struggle (something that I assumed that they could do), if they have had no real practice with it. 

My task is to teach them how to do just this...but I don't feel like it is something I could lecture about.  Even designing activities that give guided practice with such skills may not even  be what my students need.  What they need is authentic, hands-on experience.  That's just what they got today, so maybe today wasn't the failure that I thought it was.  Maybe this messy process gave students some authentic experience with figuring out how to struggle.  Perhaps.  But I have no intention of having students pick up where they left off tomorrow.  I'm not done thinking about this.