Our students need to be independent learners. I believe that should be one of our primary goals; to help students learn how to learn. Not just learn bits of information or specific skills, but learn how to independently seek out and acquire the information or skills that their future life will demand. There are a lot of different ways to label this type of learning or talk about what this means; 21st century skills, 21st century literacies, the meta-processes, etc. But basically, to be successful in contemporary society our students will need to be able to do these things:
Find relevant information (text, audio, video, etc.)
Analyze and validate that information
Collaborate with it
Problem-solve with it
And leverage it
That’s a lot. Now, does a 1st grader need to know all this? No. A 5th grader? I don’t know. But I do believe that all students need to be on the path towards this learning independence. So, if they need to be learning how to do this, we as their teachers need to know how to do it. We need to personally experience and understand the process involved, and be able to model that process for our students.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk about this type of self-directed learning in terms of teachers learning and integrating technology into instruction. But really, this type of self-directed learning can apply to anything. Google, YouTube, and social media allow us to learn just about anything we want to learn – if we are self-directed, independent learners.
Integrating technology is no longer optional for us. It’s not okay to say, “I can’t use this type of technology because I don’t know it or I’m not good at it.” None of us would accept that response from a student who was struggling to learn something new and complicated, so we shouldn’t accept it from ourselves.
However, the main reason I want to focus on technology in terms of teachers being independent learners is that it provides us with ideal opportunities to model resiliency and problem solving in learning. So, integrating technology is no longer an option. Alright. It’s also frustrating. When you work on integrating technology into your instruction, there’s a decent likelihood that something won’t work as planned… maybe about 5-10% of the time. That’s just the way it is. The day before, when you run through the activity after school, maybe with some tech support, everything can be fine. But when the students are there and you start the activity, something just isn’t working. Maybe the screen is blue. The website is mysteriously offline. The program won’t load. Or that spinning rainbow wheel pops up and won’t go away. If you are working with technology a lot you are going to encounter these unforeseen obstacles.
And that’s a good thing. It’s a very good thing. Because it provides us with the perfect opportunity to model what resilient learners do when they encounter an obstacle. Our students deal with confusing new concepts every day. Every day. Something that made sense when their teacher or a peer modeled it, can be totally baffling to them when they first try it. Or, concepts that they were cruising through the day before can suddenly throw them a curve if it is presented differently or has a new twist.
That’s what happens when you are learning new, complex, and relevant concepts. You hit obstacles. So, we need to embrace that feeling of confusion and frustration when we’re learning and integrating technology, because it is the type of feeling our students experience all the time. We need to understand what it feels like.
Just as administrators should never forget what it feels like to be a teacher, teachers should never forget what it feels like to be a learner – Josh Stumpenhorst
And what we do when these obstacles rear their head in the middle of instruction is vitally important. If we get visibly frustrated or disappointed and just turn it off and say something to the effect of, “It’s not working. I can’t figure it out,” what message are we sending our students? That it’s okay to give up when something is confusing? We would never tell them that, so we can’t model it.
Instead, we should show resilience and try to problem-solve the obstacle. This is precisely what we want our students to do when they get stuck.
Technology is thoroughly ingrained in my classroom, it’s just an assumed part of our learning. And that means there are plenty of times that glitches interrupt our activities. But I try not to treat them like interruptions, they are simply another learning opportunity. So, I take some time to troubleshoot the problem, and as I do it I ”think-aloud” my process as I do when I’m modelling anything, to explain to the students what I’m trying and why. Now, I’m not expecting them to understand the steps I’m taking or to learn how to fix computer problems. What I’m trying to show them is how I approach unexpected obstacles. So, I’ll tell them that first I think of similar problems that I may have encountered, to model metacognition and transference of knowledge. Then I’ll try a few little tricks that often work for similar problems. Sometimes I’ll take a minute to search online for solutions that others have posted. And I’ll quickly scan and analyze the results. And the whole time I’m explaining what I’m doing and why.
Now, I don’t do this for more than 5 minutes at most because I don’t want to lose time that the students could be doing things. But to me, taking 5 minutes, a few times a week, to model active problem-solving of real obstacles, is a valuable use of time. After a few minutes if I haven’t fixed the problem, I might say something to the effect of, “I can’t figure this out right now and I don’t want to take any more time because we have so many great things to do today. But after school, or tonight, I’ll get back to it and I’ll figure it out. I may need to ask someone for help. If no one at school can help me, I’ll ask the teachers we collaborate with around the world for help. So, I’ll figure it out and we’ll get back to it tomorrow. Okay?” And then we shift gears and move on with our learning. So I’m modeling for them that I’m not going to give up, I’m confident that I’ll get it eventually, and that I’ll ask for help if I need it, even if it’s help from someone in California, Canada, or Australia.
Learning Through “Mistakes”
I also want my students to know that I make mistakes when I’m learning new things, just like they do. Mistakes are part of learning. Mistakes, just as much as successes, are what help us improve and push ourselves. So, I sometimes share the little learning missteps I make with my students. At first they’re kind of taken aback and they try to make me feel better, like they assume I’m devastated by the fact that I’m admitting a mistake. They get really protective, “No! No! Mr. Salsich that was awesome. Don’t worry! You’re the best!” (Of course, some of them are like, “Yeah, what were you thinking? That was a total mistake!”) But I share these with them because I want them to see that everyone makes mistakes when they are learning. And I also want to show them that I’m fine with it, that it is just an opportunity for me to learn. I think as teachers we need to make our own learning visible, mistakes and all.
When we make our learning transparent, we become teachers - George Siemans
Here is a post from my classroom blog that deals with what to do when “mistakes” happen during the learning process: Marble Mazes – Learning Through “Mistakes”. The students, all third graders, came up with some fantastic ideas about the value of learning from mistakes. Here are a few of their thoughts:
Mistakes are good, as long as you are learning from your mistakes. – Carly
Making mistakes is not a failure. If you are doing something and you mess up and try again it isn’t considered as a failure. If you give up, then it is a failure. If you want to do something, remember this; confidence is the key. – Jennifer
Sometimes you just have to believe in yourself and try new strategies – Chris
When Kayla, Maura, and I were doing the marble maze I got kind of mad when something didn’t work the way I was hoping it would. But then I would just calm myself down and relax and say to myself, “Keep going. Nothing is right or wrong.” – Sophia
Some pretty good advice. So, when you as a teacher are learning something new and complex – whether it’s integrating technology, or adopting the common core, or remodeling a bathroom – be ready for mistakes. Embrace them, learn from them. Be resilient and determined, just as we want our students to be. And I would say, share that learning with your students. Model what self-directed, resilient learners do.
- Angela Watson
If there is something you’re interested in or something you think might improve your instruction – learn it. Don’t wait for PD. You don’t have to be dependent on workshops. The information is out there. There are countless other people who have probably had the same interest or question as you, and they’ve shared tips and directions.
You just have to find the information and be ready to fumble with it as you learn. That is what we are asking our students to do. They need their teachers doing it alongside them.