Getting Past Perfect

As teachers, our ideal lesson may be for everything to go smoothly… with no hitches. “Messy” just isn’t in our vocabulary. But maybe it should be.

When I started teaching, I imagined myself in front of the classroom, providing information to attentive and fascinated students. Every one of them. Yeah. That didn’t go as planned.

Of course, I learned, I shifted my game plan. And at some point, I began to embrace technology, seeing the potential for more exciting, student-centered work. And that presented new challenges. One of those challenges had nothing to do with the technology itself. My challenge was that I was still striving for that “well oiled machine” I had imagined as a new teacher. No glitches. No frustrations. Every student learning and loving it.

It took me a while to get past the notion that that wasn’t going to happen. Let’s face it. The well-oiled machine is an exceptional occurrence. And what’s more, it might not always be the best learning environment.

As Carol Dweck points out in Mindset, learning is a process.  We’re all at different points on a continuum of acquiring the knowledge, understanding, and skills that make up our learning, whether it’s physics or history, or technology. As Dweck might say, we may not all be “techies” — yet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there, or that it wouldn’t look messy along the way. So there’s a stance we can adopt that shifts our own — and perhaps our students’ — perception of incorporating technology and learning itself.

Embracing this stance of “I’m learning too” is also an opportunity to model it as we work with our students. For example, I do not know everything about U.S. history. There, I said it. And I’m very up front about that with my students, some of whom still respond with an incredulous “You don’t know that?!” in a tone that seems designed to humiliate. “No, I don’t,” I pointedly respond, followed by an elevator explanation as to why “knowing everything” is impossible, unnecessary, and not a good use of our time unless we’re gunning for an appearance on Jeopardy.

That same stance is appropriate to our incorporation of technology.  The teachers I see working most successfully with tech tools, do so knowing and accepting the learning curve. Just as they don’t pretend to know everything about their discipline, they avoid the desire to be the “sage on the stage” when it comes to technology in the classroom.

Sure, nobody wants to look foolish or waste valuable face-to-face class time. Rightly so. But there is a difference between a reasonable degree of preparation on the one hand, and basing an entire class period on a new online assessment tool — on the fly. With no testing or preparation, I shouldn’t be surprised if there are glitches or even a “complete fail.”

A better idea is to experiment, to practice, and then try something new with students knowing that there may be glitches and rough spots. Sure, it can be humbling. And it might “waste” time in the sense that your lesson didn’t go as planned. But some other kind of learning happened, and everyone in the room shared in it. I can guarantee that your students will appreciate your interest and effort in making their learning more engaging and more valuable.

There’s another unanticipated learning opportunity in experimenting with tech in the classroom.

Many kids get technology. We all know this and see it every day as kids wield their smartphones like a stubby pencil in an old reporter’s hands.

So the next time you’re fumbling with a tech issue in the classroom, use a little teacher jujitsu. Embrace your students as teachers in this area. When I hit a technological snag, I’m not above calling out, “Anybody have any thoughts here?” (sometimes with a genuine tone of pathetic frustration). This turns the situation from “my problem” to “our problem.” And students are more than happy to show off their areas of expertise.

More often than not, I’ll get some good responses and maybe even the solution we need. If the responses aren’t helpful and I don’t figure it out myself, well, we all tried our best and I’ll come back to it later. Learning is a process, after all.

If, on the other hand, one of us came up with the solution, it just underscores the value of collaborative learning. (“Thanks, Julie! How did you figure that out, anyway?”) Or if I figured it out after all, I’ll let them know that their ideas helped get me there. Talk about teachable moments!

Embracing the stances of collaboration and learning as a process with your students can move your practice closer to the end goals of deeper, more engaging learning activities. As you explore and experiment with new tech tools, remember to get past perfect. And reach pretty awesome that much sooner.

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