It is remarkable how our students can pick up a new technology and quickly uncover and master the wide variety of features within a new piece of hardware or software. I have watched many students display this fearless attitude towards trial-and-error as they literally tap, press, hold and drag every button, icon, switch and setting. I have been caught informing my class that a certain feature or function is not “do-able” only to be proven wrong when a student takes a moment to explore the technology on their own.
Why is this? Why do many of our students have an easier time acquainting themselves with new technology than their parents or teachers? Without any sort of instruction manual in sight, what possesses them to start opening up drop-down menus, tapping on buttons and clicking on icons?
They are not afraid to fail.
Ultimately when it comes to exploring technology I find that our students are not afraid to make mistakes. Many students are quite comfortable in making several attempts at finding a feature or accomplishing a task within a new piece of hardware or within a new application. Failure after the first (or third, or sixth) attempt is not a big deal, they just get to try it again.
Perhaps this disposition is not entirely surprising when we consider how our students are first introduced to technology. Most likely, our students were first exposed to the wonderful world of computing technology though video games whether it be on a personal computer (PC), mobile device or gaming console. It is here where the concept of failure is presented as a valuable source of feedback and the game quickly whisks the young player back into the mix in order to try it again. Certainly when it comes to the concept of failure, video game developers have gone to great lengths to capitalize on its power to motivate persistence and perseverance.
Corporations similarly understand the value of failure in their own attempts to build, grow and innovate. Ed Catmull recalls the importance of failure in the creative process at Pixar. In their book, Creativity Inc. both Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace credit failure as being a critical outcome that inspires a culture of learning, experimentation and innovation. Embracing failure as a necessary step towards success is an attitude found within organizations that are fearless in the face of change.
So what does this mean for the teacher who is reluctant or struggling in learning about a new technology? Do we simply turn professional development on instructional technology into some sort of game? How do we shift this attitude towards failure from a traditionally negative educational outcome to a motivational outcome?
Let’s do away with the step-by-step instructions that tend to dominate professional development sessions. There will certainly be times where step-by-step tutorials are needed for quick reference but those resources can be posted online somewhere or distributed for use later. If we want our teachers to be more comfortable with the trial-and-error around technology then we need to encourage play and exploration.
Perhaps this is where we can employ some elements of gaming. One of the best changes I made to my teacher workshop on iMovie for iOS (video editing) was eliminating the series of step-by-step demonstrations that I would do at the front of the room. These tutorials are now replaced by a type of scavenger hunt where I simply list the different tools and features of iMovie and then let the participants try to uncover the features for themselves. Questions and collaboration between participants are always welcome but the task itself relies upon trial-and-error.
Move beyond the one session workshop
The problem with the one session workshop is that both the facilitator and participant feel the pressure of having to cram as much information as possible into the single session. This is hardly conducive to a learning approach that encourages exploration and instead risks bringing us back to the sit-and-get tutorials and demonstrations. As mentioned above, there is still value to having these step-by-step instructions documented somewhere whether online or as a printed resource. Making these resources and tutorials available outside of the workshop can help preserve the exploration time that teachers have when they are together as a learning group. Both my YouTube channel and my teacher website have become repositories for resources that I have created for teachers and their continued learning long after the workshop has passed.
Personalize the objectives
If we are going to help motivate teachers to persevere and overcome failed attempts and trials, then they need to have something worthwhile to work towards. Learning about Google Apps for Education (GAFE) for the sake of simply learning about it may not provide the intrinsic motivation to see them through the trial and error around learning this platform. Designing professional learning sessions where teachers come in with a specific learning goal or classroom task in mind helps to focus where they would like to invest their time and energy in exploring and playing within a certain piece of technology.
If a teacher is interested in using Google Forms to support a learning task within their own classroom, why not allow them to spend time exploring Forms instead of requiring them to investigate Google Presentations with the rest of the group? Encouraging teachers to continually think about how they might use a technology to support learning in their respective classrooms and curriculum will allow them to carve out their own learning pathway both within the formalized workshop and beyond. If their journey of learning is to be shaped and driven by failed attempts and trials, let it be for a learning goal that is of value to them and to their students.
Provide support to help learners work through failed attempts
I find many teachers who are reluctant learners of technology are concerned about damaging or breaking the technology. Understandably, they are worried that their lack of knowledge around a piece of hardware or software may result in irreparable damage to the technology. If we are to make these reluctant learners more comfortable with the idea of moving forward from their failures with technology then we need to establish supports that can help them get back up quickly and ready for another try.
As an example, teachers learning about the iPad will quickly discover that it is difficult to break an iPad by simply pressing a few “wrong” buttons or accidentally adjusting a few settings. Short of dropping or physically damaging the device, the iPad can always be reset if the user has been locked out; applications can always be reinstalled if deleted. When presenting new technologies to teachers, it will be important to provide supports and platforms that allow for the learner to explore and play without the fear of damaging or breaking the technology.
In the end, this is about rethinking the traditional attitudes towards failure in the educational space. I grew up in an educational system that looked upon failure as an undesirable outcome in the learning process. However, I acknowledge that my most compelling learning experiences have been lined with numerous failed attempts as well as trial and error. Ultimately, if we want teachers to feel more comfortable in navigating new technologies in the classroom, we need to make them feel more comfortable with the aspect of failure. Failure is not an outcome to be avoided but rather it is a critical, informative and motivating step in their learning process.