Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Be Good with Tech - Part 2

This is the second in a series of articles. If you haven't read the first one yet, it will be best to start there.

Helping teachers and students to use more technology (and working with some who resist) has driven home one point time and time again:

Being “good with tech” is largely a way of thinking.

There’s no magic involved. I'd even argue there aren't hours of training sessions involved. Instead there are mindsets and resulting practices that make it easier for some to pick up the new tools. In other words, these are things anyone can learn and improved tech skills will be the result.

So in this series I will point out a few myths the tech challenged believe that hold them back. I’ll also offer tips and strategies the rest of us use that give us an advantage in keeping up with the never-ending stream of new.

If you read through this article and, at any point, can't accept what I'm saying, please leave me a comment or send me an email. I hope to use any feedback to improve this series.


This time around I want to expose what I see as the get-rich-quick lie of learning technology. It’s a promise to those struggling the most that the job will be easier than it is. Instead of leading to success, it provides a false security and even hinders real progress..

If you've struggled with computers for years, you've most likely fallen into this misleading approach. You’ll probably think I’m making too much out of nothing. I urge you to keep an open mind as you read this, though, and try to see my point.

Instead of phrasing this as a myth to avoid, I’ll be positive:

Tip #1: When approaching a new tool or task, try to think “big picture”, not step by step.

There is a temptation to think knowing more steps will lead to success with technology tools. While it might help in the short term, I never see it lead to deeper, effective learning.

This is not just in the domain of technology. I saw it first when I tried to teach math. Struggling students would take pages of notes filled with lists of steps. They’d follow them faithfully to finish homework. Then they’d try without success to remember them all on the tests.

Now when I train teachers, those who are less comfortable with technology often ask for steps in tipsheets. They want training sessions where we go click by click through a new tool. When they realize I don’t usually start that way, they frantically write down notes thinking it will help later. When I do send a tipsheet out for some essential process, they file it away for when they need it. It's as if getting all the steps is the goal.

It’s easy to see why. Following steps can give a sense of accomplishment. The task at hand often does get done. There’s also comfort in knowing the list is nearby when needed.

The problem is I’ve never seen these teachers reach a level of competency with technology in general. Those people are the first to call when a problem arises. Regardless of how many times I explain the solution or how to work things out themselves, it never seems to stick.

When I start teaching and they start writing steps, I know right away I'll be back soon when they are stuck.

On the other hand, the students I work with in class or the teachers doing the most with technology adjust quickly to new tools. They almost never ask for step by step directions.

Preferring the steps is not a learning style. It’s a shortsighted approach that actually keeps the learner from ever seeing the necessary big picture.

Maps are better than lists

I recently had to find a friend at the University of Michigan. I haven’t driven those winding, busy streets in several years and I never really knew the layout of the campus. I don’t use a GPS, but I did grab a screenshot of the directions from my map app. I also took one of the map showing the general area.

When I neared the exit from the expressway I looked over the directions again. As soon as I got on the roads of the campus traffic was bad and I missed a turn within minutes. The name of one of the roads I was on changed at one intersection and I wasn’t sure if I was still on track. When I stopped at lights I quickly looked through the steps and scanned the scene for road signs to determine where I was in the list.

When I finally had a minute to gather my thoughts, I brought up that map instead. With just a quick glance I got my bearings straight. I knew the direction I was heading and the general direction of my destination. I knew immediately that even if I missed the next road I could take other side roads to get to the right building. I was even able to take in more of the surroundings, which will undoubtedly help the next time I have to visit.

I can’t emphasize this enough. When it comes to competency, the big picture perspective is essential to the learning process. Waiting for someone to tell you the steps and relying on lists for procedures will never be sufficient. Obstacles, problems and changes (which steps can never fully account for) will always lead to frustration in the times you most need to get where you’re going.

The best way to see that there is a real, significant difference between these two types of thinking is to ask a question to someone who is competent in any domain. Ask about directions to a location is in an area the person is familiar with. Ask a tech person to tell you the steps for some process. The first thing you’ll notice is they will have to translate from how they think about the task to steps. They never rattle off each turn or each click as if they’ve memorized them.

The thinking that leads to success comes from relationships in our mind between ideas, tools and experiences. They are connected in multiple ways like rooms in a building or locations across a landscape.  The mental organization necessary is too complex to be contained in lists of steps. A map is a better way to imagine what’s going on in the heads of those who successfully navigate from problem to solution.

A couple clarifications

To be clear, I’m not saying steps are useless. I still look up those “click here, then press this key” lists now and then. Those are best for the first time you have to use a tool to get something done. They’re handy for important tasks you only complete once in a while with tools that aren’t used otherwise. There will always be those tools you really don’t have to master and steps are good reminders.

Also, I am not offering any practical advice here on how to see the big picture. There are some things we can do to form those essential mental maps. My goal for now is only to relentlessly call out this important distinction and to point to a better way for success.

Where are we going?

I keep referring to success with tech tools, but let’s get more specific. This goes beyond just doing routine tasks. It also includes:

  • Learning new tools quickly
  • Applying the tools to new situations
  • Communicating effectively to a variety of audiences through the tools
  • Finding a solution when something goes wrong
  • Using the tools in new ways to create things that didn’t exist before

These skills make up what we call technology literacy. At that level, people are thinking with and through the tools. That level of understanding is required for problem solving and meeting specific needs with the tools at hand. Achieving such a high level of comprehension requires a higher level approach.

If thinking in steps is like getting only where the roads and sidewalks already exist, technology literacy is like finding a new path to a new place no one has visited. Imagine how that’s easier with a rugged mountain bike compared to someone who wants to keep their training wheels on. After a while, wanting the training wheels on is probably what’s making it harder.

True literacy and expression through the tools requires a deeper understanding of what they can do. More than just how, it also grasps the why behind the various tools and elements of a problem or task. Meaning is significant in the process.

Imagine learning to write by simply copying down words void of their meaning. I could probably get a good student who doesn’t speak English to copy all the words of this paragraph. In the end, every time he does it, all he could ever say would be what this paragraph says.

Being literate with tech tools goes beyond forming letters and then words. It’s using those letters and words to write the sentences, essays, poems and more that only you can write. And then it’s saying those things with enough volume and clarity to reach more people more effectively than you ever could have otherwise.

You can see examples of this in projects I’ve written about on this blog. Here are two of my favorites:

In those we accomplished new things with a personal touch and then presented them to the world within constraints formed by our skills, personal experiences and resources. To accomplish that, we had to approach the work from a big picture perspective.

On the other hand, limiting yourself to memorizing steps is limiting how far you'll go.

Getting personal

I wonder sometimes if those people I train ask for steps because they really think steps will help or if it’s just a way to put off the real work of learning. You will have to decide that for yourself. I only hope my examples and analogies here have made the options clear.

In that way, this article is a call to clarify the level of tech use you want to achieve. Do you want to just finish the routine tasks or do you want to use technology to accomplish far more of what you love to do?

I think it’s valuable for anyone to become more literate with digital tools. In many fields where we help others, we owe it to them to learn more so we can do our best. Still, learning happens best when everyone sets their own goals.

If do you want to develop that essential “big picture” thinking, please check back over the weeks ahead. Upcoming articles will provide practical ways to accomplish it. Also, please send along any comments questions so I can better suit the series to your needs.

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