Thursday, September 2, 2010

Teaching the Natives in their Digital Habitat: Part 2--The Right Way

There seems to be plenty being said about why and how technology should be used in schools, and rightly so.  However, there is an important issue related to teaching with technology that I've heard little being mentioned about: teaching our students to use it. 

Last year, my approach to technology looked something like this:  I would give a demonstration about how students should sign up for and use a web application, maybe include some written instructions, then turn things over to my students.  After some time, a hand would pop up, and I would visit that student to answer their question as two more hands raised in the air.  For each of these students I assisted, two more hands raised, and the process continued until I was frantically running from desk to desk answering questions.  In my haste to reach each student, I sometimes even would take a student's computer into my own hands and fix the issue for them.  By the time the bell rang, I would stand, out of breath, in the middle of the room, frustrated at how a process that should only take minutes, such as signing up for a website, managed to take the majority of an hour. 

What was I doing wrong?  According to some of my coworkers, the issue was that my students just weren't listening.  Maybe.  But even if this was the case, according to leaders in the ed tech. field, students growing up in this digital age are characterized by being able to figuring technology out without instructions, as they often do it at home when on the computer or playing video games.  The problem had to be how I was teaching my students to use technology. 

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I decided to try out a different approach to teaching technology at the start of this school year.  One that I felt would engender students' natural tendency to explore and figure things out on their own.  The lesson consisted of students visiting a web page I created and following directions to sign up for accounts on various websites we would use during the school year, as well as completing small tasks.  The "Web Scavenger Hunt," as I called it, gave minimal directions and would therefore require students to read and problem solve on their own, rather than have me give them explicit how-to directions.

And as I mentioned in my last blog, this lesson accomplished very little.  It played out much like the lesson that I had described above, if not worse. It was one of those lessons you have nightmares about in the nervous days before the school year begins.  A terrifying experience for me as a teacher and a seemingly unproductive learning experience for my students.  I left school that day utterly defeated, confused, knowing with certainty only that I would never do that lesson again.  But lying in bed awake around 2:00 am, continuing that lesson the next day was exactly what I decided to do. 

And in doing so, I found what I was searching for in learning how to to teach technology to my 8th graders.

Of course I made changes, but not ones that involved simplifying the activity or holding students' hands through the process.  Actually, I did the opposite.  I told students up front that being able to navigate unfamiliar web pages was an important skill to learn, both in this classroom and in life.  I explained that it's fine for them to struggle a little with the process if they needed to, to slow down and reread directions.  I also explained that they couldn't make any mistake so big that it couldn't be undone.  Then, I told them that today, they would complete the scavenger hunt that they began yesterday, and that while they could ask me for help, I would only respond with questions and suggestions that they reread the directions.  I also informed them that it would be OK if they didn't finish everything today, that they would have no more class time to work on the assignment, but they could have until the end of the week to finish it, doing so with me after school or from home.

That's what I did, and I noticed some pretty cool things happening.  First, when responded to questions by saying things like "what else did the directions tell you to do?" or "what information on this web page might help you decide what you need to do?" fewer students seemed to have questions they wanted to ask me.  This, of course, was in stark contrast to the scene yesterday...one where everyone seemed to have a question and I ran from desk to desk to give students specific directions and tutorials.  Today, my students struggled; I could see it.  But in their struggles, though, they learned, and most of them, even those with little computer experience, completely finished the scavenger hunt on their own. 

I guess that it should come as no surprise to me that middle school students would take the path of least resistance.  Why put forth the effort of figuring a task out independently if a teacher would do it for you?  My job, or rather my duty, though is not to make sure that everyone gets done or even that they get all of their questions answered.  My job is to guide my students in learning.  To present them with meaningful and authentic tasks that allow them to develop the skills they need to be literate in our modern society.
Today, I feel like we did just that.

This lesson was about more than just signing up for accounts on a few websites.  It was about developing students' confidence and abilities in navigating web pages and reading digital text. It was about showing students that while I will be there for them if they need me, the ability to complete a task lies within them.  I'm proud of myself for taking the risk for treading back into murky territory, I'm proud of my students for joining me, but most importantly, I take pride in seeing that my student are are proud of themselves for overcoming a challenge on their own.  They left my class with a sense of empowerment in their capacity for navigating the web.  Though they may not even be aware of it, they took an important step today in building their foundation as digital learners, one they will build off throughout their time in my class and in their lives, and one that I couldn't have built for them.