Expert Educator Columns, Featured
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Becky Keene: Five Ways, Not Four

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by Becky Keene
Expert Educator Columnist, USA

This is my first blog post for What’s Fresh, under my column called The Modern Learner. I’ve been thinking for weeks about what to write. Then, last week, I got a chance to work with 18 fourth grade student technology ambassadors at one of Kent School District’s elementary schools, and I knew that’s what I wanted to write about.

I was showing the students how to use their Surface RT devices more efficiently. “There are four ways to get back to the Start screen,” I told the students. “Let’s see if you can work in your teams to find all four ways.” These students are mostly ten years old this time of year, and they love a great challenge. It’s like a treasure hunt, and they were busy pressing all sorts of buttons and using every gesture they could think of to find all four ways. I was pretty sure of myself in my four ways to get to the Start screen. I’ve spent the last year traveling around the United States, leading trainings on Windows 8.1, and I’ve done this at least twenty times with adults.

“Okay, everyone,” I began. “I’m going to call on a random person from each table, and I want that person to show the group one way to get to the Start screen.” By the time I got to table four, we were wrapping it up… or so I thought. Table five had another idea, which I got ready to respectfully decline, since there are only four ways to do it. And then it happened. Table five showed me, and the other table groups, a fifth way to get to the Start screen.

Let’s break this down for a moment, because this is what my column is all about.

Here I am, a highly trained adult, with hundreds of hours of experience training on Windows 8.1 and probably thousands of hours as a user. I’m guessing that I know all there is to know. These kids, with their limited experience and boundless potential, taught me something new in a matter of moments. Student lesson one: never think you know everything. Teacher lesson one: don’t be the expert.

Another significant thing that happened in this situation is that table five didn’t stop with four ways. They had already found all four ways, when they kept going. They challenged my expert authority quietly, indirectly, by seeking to find another possibility even after they were told it wasn’t possible. Their persistence was rewarded when they succeeded, and they got to share it with everyone in the room. And that’s really wonderful. But the other five table groups stopped at four ways. They heard that and never thought to keep going. That made me realize I should have asked the question differently to begin with, and left room for more possibilities. Student lesson two: don’t let someone else set your limits. Teacher lesson two: use open-ended challenges without limitations, and then get out of the way.

The last thing I noticed is that these students were using high levels of thinking for a very simple task. As I circulated around the groups, I noticed they were methodical. Some of the groups had broken down the task into chunks: “You try stuff on the keyboard. I’m going to swipe around on the screen.” Other groups used prior knowledge of their own touch-enabled devices to figure it out: “On my dad’s phone, he presses a home button. Try that.” Some groups had a note taker writing down what worked. Other groups made sure each student remembered one specific way, so at the end they all knew one part. This is a great representation of Sugata Mitra’s A Hole in the Wall research, summed up by Mitra’s profound statement that children will self-organize and learn at high rates when given the right tools and challenges. Student lesson three: make a plan. Teacher lesson three: let them.

Every group in this story was filled with students who were willing to fail in the attempt, as they opened and closed various windows, gesturing with reckless abandon. No one was afraid of deleting something important, closing without saving, or making a mistake. I have done this activity with adults, and the contrast is staggering. Most adults stare at their screens for a moment, and then look to a person nearby for help. “Do you know?” they will ask, “I’m not really sure.” The difference here sums up our modern learner. The modern learner is ready to jump in and do something exciting. They are ready to rise to a challenge and define new outcomes for learning. The modern learner isn’t necessarily bound by someone else’s restrictions. It is invigorating and contagious!

As teachers, it is so important that we keep all of this in mind when working with our modern learners. Watch out, 21st century, these kids are going to make a big difference.


beckyBecky Keene is a program specialist for technology integration in Kent School District, Washington. She has been a classroom teacher in several grade levels K-8 and recently attained her National Board Teaching Certification.

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