I Wonder ... About Teaching Work-Arounds

Today one of Clarence Fisher's thoughtful posts at his blog, Remote Access, caught my attention. The topic was work-arounds. As often happens, I found myself writing a response that grew and grew until it was too big for a comment. So I cut it in half and resolved to author my own post which builds upon what I understood Clarence to be saying:

He wonders.

Should we be teaching work-arounds as a digital skill?

detourThose of us who teach in labs do it all the time: our challenges are things like internet filters, software permissions, hardware burnout, equipment failure, lost passwords, erased files, web outages, etc. One of my favorite, oft-quoted lines about teaching and technology by Dean Shareski is: “I don’t do boxes and wires. I do teaching and learning with the boxes and wires." That is my goal, my mantra, and my philosophy. However, if you work in a lab or an IT department, it can all too often devolve into merely dealing with boxes and wires.

But Clarence reminds us it's all about problem solving, critical thinking, analyzing options, keeping a goal in sight, working through, over and around obstacles instead of focusing on them. I teach 11- to 14-year-olds so they come to me with some skills, but not as many as you might think. They can still implode when they get confused, like all learners do. I must help my students turn the potholes into detours instead of head-on collisions. I really nudge kids to learn work-arounds when, after a little direct instruction, I set them loose and they begin to encounter the roadblocks.

I wonder aloud.

What can you do to solve your problem?
What have you tried so far?
How can I help you become as independent as possible so you can do this when no one's around?
Which part of the project/question/software do you already understand?
What would you do if it were your cell phone, Nintendo DS, iPod, or MySpace?
How can you make this happen a different way?
If I promise your answer is there in front of you will you look again more closely?
Can I give you hints or ask you a few questions since I'm not going to be handing you the answer?
I wonder if other computers you've seen have a port, wire, button, plug, or click for that?

As I'm sure you know from your own experience that at about this point they get very aggravated. There is gnashing of teeth. There is even whining. The discomfort can last for minutes, days or even over the course of the semester as I continue to sweetly demand that they think for themselves with minimal intrusion from me. Of course I encounter bugs myself, so I keep modeling work-arounds.

Then one day they realize that they CAN find their own answers and they CAN make things work. ZING! Their confidence shoots up. It's so fun to watch when their face changes. It's even better when they take their new-found knowledge over to another student and help them make their own discoveries. I always feel a little stress adn guilt about holding out on them, but when they get it -- Wow! That's the magic that keeps us teaching. It has little to do with which tools we use or the content we teach, don't you think?

I wonder.

Isn't teaching work-arounds what all teachers should be doing with all students all the time, not just in digital environments?

Clarence alludes to the fact that the very bugs we "work around" daily with the technology are the most frequent reason teachers use to avoid bringing their classes to the lab or trying electronically-enhanced lessons. (This excuse vies for supremacy with, "The lab is always full," "I have to prepare my kids for testing," "It's easy for you because you have a lab all to yourself," and "I don't have room for any computers.")

I feel conflicted when I hear all the reasons. I know some are true or at least partially true, especially because Murphy's Law reigns in computer labs. I know it's intimidating. There are bound to be 1 or 2 things go wrong and there are very few support folks around to help when a carefully planned lesson gets derailed by hardware, software, printer, or internet problems. (They fail to realize that even we geeks have our tech learning curve stretched like a rubber band daily. I am humbled constantly by the flaws that show up in my lab and my practice!)

On the other hand, the Glitch Excuse also rankles me because those same teachers will try new lessons, solutions and methods--except digital ones--in their own classrooms. They already write backup lessons in case things don't go well. They already know that old equipment like overheads can malfunction. They even take kids to the lab for computerized assessments when required to. But they've psyched themselves out about using tech for better, non-mandated electronics in their own everyday lessons. They've either surreptitiously or unabashadely refused to use the newfangled machinery because it can make a person feel uncomfortable, inadequate, or awkward.

I wonder.

Are they admitting that they are too afraid or too stubborn to change their thinking to fit a changing world?
Where in that mindset is the dedication to lifelong learning?
What are they modeling to their learners?
Must they be perfect or have complete control of a situation before they can proceed? Is it not okay for them to make a mistake in front of others (even though they've done their best to prepare for contingencies)?

I wonder.

Can administrators in good conscience accept this kind of reasoning when it comes to embedding digital tools and 21st Century skills?

Can a math teacher get away with saying, "I refuse to use those new manipulatives or calculators because I don't know how -- they might break"?
Can a Social Studies teacher say, "I don't want to use maps or timelines. I don't like them."
Can a reading teacher say, "I'm too old to read any other genres. They're too confusing!"
Can I say, "Gee, I won't learn art or music; I'm just a computer teacher!"?

I wonder.

How can we create a shift in thinking for the adults?

My enthusiastic response to Clarence' question is YES! We must teach work-arounds; it's problem solving and critical thinking at its best. We must prove to ourselves that when obstacles crop up they are opportunities and teachable moments, no matter the content or venue.

I wonder.

How will adults learn the work-arounds if they won't show up for the lesson?

I have some ideas but that's another post for another day.

Photo Credit: Chris D. Lugosz on Flickr http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3030/2805048271_90aa8bdedf.jpg