The Value of Floundering Around

Searching the NetI have been plagued with a question over the last few days.  When students ask me questions about computers (mostly software, how-to type questions), I most often take the easy path and show or tell them.  But they don’t remember how to do it later.  So the question that’s been on my mind is how much should I let my students flounder around and try to figure things out?  I mean, that’s how I learned my way around a computer.  I poked and tried until I got it to do what I wanted to.  Sometimes it took hours.  But later on, I was able to do it on my own.  I value that learning in myself, but I don’t think I am fostering it in my students.  If they ask me answers to problems or issues that come up with their reading or writing, I don’t always show or tell.  Sometimes I throw the questions back or tell them to think through it a little harder.  So why don’t I do that with computers?  Should I do that with computers?

To that end, I began a new feature in my classroom blog called Tech Tips.  Each week, I will explain how to do something.  I have already subscribed all my students to the blog, so ostensibly, they should have access to the tips and can make of them what they will.  One of my frustrations as a teacher is how little my students appear to use the classroom blog.  I haven’t yet become so frustrated I felt I should just quit, but I have come close.  Which brings to mind another frustration I have.  Students are willing to learn how to use Facebook or IM, but it frustrates me that they won’t poke around my site and learn to use it as well as they do other tools.

I do think it’s valuable to flounder around and even fail for a while before you get it.  So how do I put that into practice without feeling like I’m being unhelpful?

Creative Commons License photo credit: macluke170

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9 thoughts on “The Value of Floundering Around

  1. Ack! I hear you on this problem. It's the classic "show them" vs. let them construct the knowledge themselves. Sure, the latter sticks better but it takes a heck of a lot more time.

    On a related note, I, too have trouble getting my students to read the class blog. Perhaps bringing the blog to the kids on Facebook might increase readership. I've been using the WordPress plugin for my own Facebook profile. I wonder if you could create a group for your classes and use the plugin…hrm…that's got me thinking.

  2. I'm an IT dude making his way to teaching and this is the classic problem of ADOPTION. You come up with this amazing new tool (email tool, documentation tool, anti-virus tool, whatever) — and it's just … well it's great. It's gonna change the way you do business (or the way you teach). It's so amazing, you just can't stop talking about it and praising it ….

    … except nobody uses it. They use their own things, that they like. Facebook. IM. Twitter. What-Have-You.

    There's 2 ways to go with this:

    1) Be a complete and utter Nazi about it. Put things up on the classroom blog that they are REQUIRED to access in order to function in class.

    2) Find out what they are using and adapt THAT to your needs.

    #1 above is difficult to do, you're swimming upstream. I suppose as a teacher, you have a bit more dictatorial control than an IT manager in a company.

    #2 creates greater levels of adoption, but then you feel like THEY are leading YOU — which you maybe don't want.

    Just my $0.02.

  3. Well, don't forget, there's also often a manual and/or a help file. Finding something while floudering doesn't necessarily mean you'll remember it – I know there's been plenty of times when I'll be stuck, thinking, "wait, I just did this yesterday… where was that?"

    Usually I'll walk the students through it the first time, then the second time the student does it individually, with me prompting, "Okay, then? And then?" And the third time I'm there, just watching. After that, I can have that student walk other students through the same process, though I make sure they know they can call me over if they get stuck.

  4. Megan and Bronx, I tried to create a Facebook group for my students and I used to have the RSS feed post to my Facebook so they could do it all within that context. They still wouldn't do it! I went bonkers on them a few weeks ago and subscribed all of them to an e-mail update. I am not fooled into thinking they are using it even then, but I am reaching a few more students. I only post extra credit opportunities on the blog, and I never speak of them in class. Starting next year, I think it's just going to be a requirement. Some of their work will be posted there and only available there. Access is not a problem for my students, as all of them have home access to the Internet, but even if they didn't, they have plenty of access at school.

    However, I see the adoption mentality issues you describe among not just students but also colleagues. Nobody likes change.

    Clix, you and I think about searching help, but I have seen very few students who do it. Why, I wonder? I don't get how they think they will learn it otherwise, and it seems like a sense of learned helplessness. Of course it isn't all students, but there are a select few whose lack of technology skills frankly scare me. And of course I circulate as they work and allow questions, but why, for instance, can't they remember from one paper to the next, how to double space a document without introducing extra lines between paragraphs?

  5. Do you have a SMARTboard? If so, you could spend some class time having them use the board and actually navigate your site themselves.

    One of my fellow co-workers would put trivia questions on different parts of her site and then offer small rewards/prizes for kids who answered them correctly. Extra credit questions could be hiding in your site somewhere perhaps.

  6. Well, first of all, manuals for computer programs aren't always written by writers (though I think companies have gotten better about that). So they can be hard to follow sometimes, especially for struggling readers.

    Along those lines, students don't revise search strings, so if the program has a searchable help, it doesn't actually HELP unless the answer comes up the first time. I've had students tell me "there's nothing on the internet about my topic" because it didn't show up on the first page of links that Google brought back. *eyeroll*

    I think they just don't like asking for help. Do your students phrase it as a complaint about the program? I hear "this doesn't WORK!" a lot.

  7. Laura, I do have a SMART Board, and I've tried not only modeling using the site, but allowing students to use it, too. I have also tried scavenger hunts. I only post extra credit online, and they know it.

    Clix, yes, it's always "there's nothing on the Internet" about whatever it is, and yes, it's always MS Word that doesn't work. Their frustration tolerance is very low, and that's what worries me. A lot of things in life, and not just technology, require one to poke around and figure it out, and I think that willingness to test and try is a critical skill. Manuals are one thing, but, for instance, why doesn't it occur to some students to search online for an answer to their problem? For example, in the post I made last night, I described turning to Google to learn how to embed YouTube movies into PowerPoint when I was unable to find the answer in PowerPoint's help files. And lo and behold, I found two video demonstrations and several written ones to help me out. Searching for help and trying to figure out how to do it on one's own is where I see some deficiency in some — certainly not all — but some of my students, and it worries me.

  8. I think a LOT of it is because they're the "digital natives." They're supposed to be the ones who GET this stuff, not the ones who need help! So a lot of it is arrogance.

    Also? For the most part, they have been able to figure things out on their own up to this point. They haven't been taught about help files or even how to use Google effectively (such as rephrasing or using booleans). Granted, that sort of thing was never covered in any of my classes, but I was in college when Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Altavista were around, and several of my closest friends were CS majors who were happy to explain the different ways that each engine did its searches.

    Finally, in MY classes, when we're in MS word, we're in MS Word, PERIOD. Students try to sneak online to goof around all de time! and the non-goofs have been around the goofs enough to know that if they've got Firefox or Safari running (even in the background), my first question is going to be a very suspicious WHY. ;)

  9. I think you're onto something, Clix. Students don't tend to try help files before they ask. It's definitely something I've noticed. And I've seen some pretty ineffective Google searches.

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