All Innovative Designers Need Good Tools

As we’ve been looking at ISTE standard 4: Innovative Designer this week I found myself stuck on the idea  of “Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.” How do we help students identify the right tool for the job? As teachers it’s tempting to give students a tool in order to save time or make our lives easier but in the end are we taking away an opportunity to get students to think about the problem they need to solve and help guide them toward the characteristics of the tool that might help them solve the problem on their own. If you are a constructivist, you believe that “meaning or understanding is achieved by assimilating information, relating it to our existing knowledge, and cognitively processing it (Bates 2015). We owe to our students to help them develop their own knowing about what tools are available to them, what function they could serve and encourage them to use them creatively.

To do accomplish this I think we need to help students build toolboxes. In a well organized toolbox, tools are stored by categories of what the tool is useful for. Hammers are for nails, Word or Google Docs are for word processing, PowerPoint or Slides can be used to organize and share information, and screwdrivers loosen and tighten screws, etc. But what if we started a project by asking “What kind of tool would you need to help you complete your project?” Maybe they’d surprise us. Maybe they would begin to identify things like, “I need a tool to store my research in one place, I need a way to create a flier for our event, or I need a database to track the answers to our survey.” Couldn’t this be a way to have students start to identify categories of tools that might solve their problems for themselves? I think students could benefit from being asked to identify the “problem” they have so that part of their design process might be choosing a tool to help them. It’s possible that it might not even be a technology tool but a person, a manipulative or even good ol’ paper but either way they’d begin to see the selection of tools as part of their design process when needing to solve problems.

I like the idea of a toolbox, for teachers as well as students. The better a craftsman understands and is comfortable with their tools, the more creative they can be about using them in a variety of ways. I’ve been struggling with that as I’ve been looking for a model that will help teachers begin to talk about, label and begin thinking differently about the tools they have at hand or how to get them comfortable enough to reach out and try some new tools. We’ve used the SAMR model this year as a way to give teachers a little structure to think about how they are using tools. I agree with some of the criticism out there, like James O’Hagan’s blog post (O’Hagen 2015). The SAMR model is not always clear, especially in the middle levels, and the levels overlap quite a bit. He also reminds people that there is little peer reviewed research on the model. Every district interprets the levels differently, which makes it frustrating for staff when they find the same examples on the internet or at conferences that are labeled differently. I’ve looked at the RAT model as well, that seems to address some of the weak spots in SAMR. I still have some looking to do.

I’m hoping that a clear model will help teachers understand that just using a tech tool doesn’t magically make your lesson better or the learning more engaging or students get better at a skill. Ultimately, it’s about good instructional decision making and matching the use of the tool to the learning goal and the outcome you are looking for. Using a tool for the wrong purpose or not correctly understanding how the tool can help support a learning goal is ultimately a waste of time for the teacher and the student.

Ultimately, I’m going to need to scaffold this process until both staff and students are more comfortable with tools and what they could be used for so I’m hoping I can either find or develop a visual model that will give them a place to start.

One of the models I’ve been looking at is the HACK model from Northwest Nazarene University. I saw them present at NCCE recently and they are thinking about tech integration on more than one level at the same time. 

The practical piece that gets at the toolbox is that they are also looking at tools and how they serve multiple levels of purpose within each quadrant. I am intrigued, although I may try my hand at developing something of my own that will fit more closely with tools we have available in our district.

Identifying a problem and searching for the right tool to help solve the problem is ultimately the skill I’d want students to have as they dive into any design process. Once they are comfortable with the tools I believe they will begin finding creative uses for tools or they will understand how those tools can do what tools should do…make work easier.


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