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October 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 2

The Techy Teacher / Putting Them in the Driver's Seat

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Give students the freedom and tech range to become problem solvers.

Instructional StrategiesSocial-emotional learning
Each year when a new crop of students enters my classroom, I am dismayed by what I perceive as a culture of learned helplessness. Students seem to lack the curiosity and determination needed to solve problems.
I've come to believe that this learned helplessness could very well be the product of their time in school. Students are so rarely afforded the freedom to drive their own learning that when they are asked to solve challenging problems, they become paralyzed. Their knee-jerk reaction is to ask the teacher. If the teacher does not provide answers, students quickly become disillusioned and quit.

Valuing the Struggle

Teachers are skilled at providing students with detailed directions. Everything from in-class activities to large-scale projects is explicitly outlined. I began my career this way—with crystal clear directions for every assignment. I thought I was being helpful because I didn't want my students to struggle. I even asked students to use the same tools or software because it was easier for me to support the process and answer questions if students ran into trouble.
In retrospect, I realize I was robbing my students of the opportunity to make key decisions in their learning and limiting them to technology tools that I was most comfortable with. There is value in the struggle, and students must determine their own path if learning is going to be meaningful. If students can shape their own learning experiences, they will be more invested in them and inclined to stick with their work even in moments of confusion or frustration.
Now when my class embarks on a large-scale project, I provide an umbrella topic and give students general guidelines. My goal is to explain the why, not the how. It is up to the students to work collaboratively with their group to lay out a plan of attack for a project. Giving students control over the focus of their project and the trajectory of their work serves to spark their curiosity and increase engagement because they realize this is their project.
During our mental health unit, for example, I asked students to design a project that would raise awareness locally or globally about a mental health condition. The goal of the project was broad enough that it allowed students to tailor it to their particular interests and talents. One group worked collaboratively to create an art installation, and then took photos of their artwork to create an online gallery to raise awareness about depression. Another group created a virtual reality experience, while others wrote children's books, built models, and published podcasts. Students had to conduct interviews with experts and individuals living with these mental illnesses. They had to do extensive online research. They had to select the best technology tools to communicate, collaborate, create, and publish.
They knew that I did not have the expertise to answer many of their questions, so they had to use resources beyond our classroom to learn. My job was to support them in using the tools and resources available to them. One of my mantras as a teacher is "figure it out."

The 21st-Century Version of "Ask 3 Before Me"

As students work, they will inevitably have questions. Teachers often feel that they need provide immediate answers, but this does not teach students the skills they need to be lifelong learners. Instead of the "ask 3 before me" approach where students ask their peers, I encourage my kids to do the following:
▪ Google it.
▪ Find a YouTube tutorial.
▪ Ask a question on social media.
Teachers working with young students who don't use social media in the classroom can replace "ask a question on social media" with "ask a peer." The point is to train students to use the resources they have access to at school and at home to ask questions and find answers.

Google It

My students often investigate topics that I do not have expertise in. To answer their questions, I'd have to do a Google search myself, find a reliable source, read it, and produce an answer. Why not teach students how to do this for themselves?
We spend a lot of time in my class learning how to search smarter, evaluate the credibility of websites, cross reference, and synthesize information from different sources. My goal is to produce savvy searchers confident in their online research skills.

Find a YouTube Tutorial

When I was growing up, if I wanted to learn how to do something, I checked out a library book or signed up for a class. Watching my own children learn is a whole different experience. When my daughter wanted to learn how to make elaborate rubber band bracelets, she didn't ask me. She didn't check out a book. She went online and found a series of YouTube tutorials produced by a child not much older than herself. She found a video with a pattern she liked and watched 30 seconds of explanation, paused the video, and replicated what she saw. In 25 minutes, she had successfully created her first rubber band bracelet without any assistance from me.
Videos are powerful learning tools. They allow students to self-pace through the information, provide easy-to-follow visuals, and are available anytime.

Ask a Question on Social Media

I want my students to know that social media can be used for more than posting selfies and chatting with friends. It can be leveraged for learning.
I turn to social media weekly for inspiration and clarification. For ideas on community building activities, classroom decor, or STEM challenges, I turn to Pinterest. When I'm stuck trying to use a new technology tool or need teaching resources, I tweet questions or requests for resources using popular education hashtags like #edchat. Within minutes, I have dozens of responses. Even if people can't help, they often direct me to someone who can. It's like having an infinite support network that is available 24/7. I'm continually amazed by how easy it is to connect with actual experts willing to lend assistance online.
The key to unleashing curious problem solvers is to allow students agency and provide them with concrete strategies for working through challenging situations using accessible tools. Not only will we produce more engaged learners, but our students will also cultivate the skills they need to continue learning and solving problems long after they leave our classrooms.

Catlin Tucker is a Google Certified Innovator, bestselling author, international trainer, and keynote speaker. Catlin is currently working as an education consultant and blended learning coach while pursuing her doctorate at Pepperdine University.

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