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It’s simple.

I hear it all of the time.

“Today I have some simple tips…”

“This workshop will cover 5 simple strategies for…”

“Don’t worry! Today’s staff development is covering some pretty simple stuff.”

“It’s so simple you won’t even believe it.”

We start staff developments this way, we say it at the beginning of lessons in classrooms, we type it in workshop descriptions. Simple – Simple – Simple!

When I look up “simple” in the dictionary it is described with adjectives like “basic,” “uncomplicated,” “fundamental,” “straightforward.” When working with technology, these adjectives rarely apply. No two systems are truly identical, and no two users are ever the same. When we describe something as “simple” we are either being dishonest, or disregarding the levels of skill people are walking in the door with. No matter why we say it, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think I understand a number of reasons we might say it, but generally we are attempting to set the bar lower in order to de-stress an audience. No harm done, you might think. Think again! By claiming that what we are about to do is “simple” we are sending a message. That message will be decoded differently by people around the room, and as far as I can tell none of the implications are good.

Caging any topic or skill as “simple” is a lose/lose/lose proposition:

  1. The people in your audience with low tech skills just had a pang of fear flash down their spine. These skills might NOT be simple to them. In that case, they feel even worse about their abilities than they already did.
    “This is supposed to be SIMPLE? I have no idea how he is doing this!”
    If they are able to accomplish the task/skills, they may feel like “So what. This was just simple stuff, apparently.” They have been robbed of a feeling of success and empowerment.
  2. The people in your audience with relatively normal tech abilities will be able to follow along and complete the tasks/skills as you work through them, but will also not feel a sense of accomplishment because
    “This was easy, but it sounds like I should have already known how to do this.”
    Again, any emotional reaction short of success is a missed opportunity when you are working to change a mindset or culture.
  3. The people in your audience who feel confident in their abilities just tuned you out because they feel like they already know the simple stuff, even if they don’t or this is new content altogether. Worse yet, they might distract others in the room through their overt “Look at me, I don’t need to pay attention” behaviors.
    “Whatever, buddy. This is a waste of my time.”

With this in mind, how can we respect the various skill levels, and attempt to engage all learners? Here are a few variations on a theme I might try out at the start of my next workshop:

  • “Today we are going to do some things that may be new to some of you, while others may do this every day. If you have experience, please help me by keeping your eyes open for neighbors who may need a hand here or there, and we will learn as a community.”
  • “Some people would call the skills we are covering today “EASY”. Not me. Nothing is easy the first time you do it. Hopefully by the time we leave today everyone in the room will think of the things we are doing today as EASY, but it is OK if you don’t feel that way right now.”
  • “When you hear someone describe all of the things a tool can do, or watch someone like me who is experienced with this tool, you may feel overwhelmed. This is normal. We’ll start by watching, then tackle this one step at a time. Others may see me demonstrate these skills and remember how you felt the first time you tried it on your own. Once you have walked through this a time or two it will feel much less intimidating. Before this session ends, maybe we will have time to share some “pro tips” from people who have done this before. Most importantly, know that we have a number of resources that will support you once you leave here today. Some are online, some are on the phone, some may be sitting in the chair beside you.”

What are some other ways to lower the stress in the room without calling something “simple?” I’d love to hear your ideas!


Posted in My Thoughts, Tips & Tutorials.


Teachers LOVE timers. Egg timers, electronic cooking timers, stopwatches, they are the tools that help keep the classroom focused, orderly, and avoid seeing everyone spiraling out of control, upsetting the balance of life in our ecosystem, disrupting the space-time continuum, or worse – not getting all of the units covered in our basal series!

Seriously though, here is a great list of computer based timers that might be useful for your on-screen needs. If you have a projector in your room it is even better, because the students can see the time ticking down and prepare themselves to move on to the next activity.

Macintosh Software

  • The best software timer I know of is called ApiMac Timer, and is already installed on every Teacher laptop in LPS. YAY! Look in your Applications folder!
  • Mac OS X Widget: 3-2-1

Windows Software

Web Based Timers

Posted in My Thoughts.

Creation of New Knowledge

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” -B. F. Skinner

The standardized assessments we often use to judge the success or failure of students & schools is based largely upon the ability of students to mechanically regurgitate facts. Most teachers would argue that knowledge and facts are two different things.

“New knowledge” does not necessarily mean bringing brand new information into the world (although it could!) The new knowledge we speak of refers to ideas and understandings that are new to the student. The powerful part of the phrase comes earlier though, as we say “Creation” or “Construction” of the new knowledge.

Our lives are an ocean of raw information that exists in the form of facts, figures, rules, information, images, ideas of others, and other stimuli. Some of what we encounter fits with what we already understand. Some does not. In these cases we have to evaluate whether this new information is valuable to us or not. We know that real learning happens within this process of thinking critically about information and constructing our own understanding.

How can we foster this process of creating new knowledge? By starting with the ideas of the students, instead of starting with facts as they are generally understood outside of our classroom. (Like in the textbooks or on the internet.)

We can begin by asking the big, worldly questions that spark interest or discussion amongst students, instead of beginning by presenting information that is already evaluated (by the world) and presented as fact. “Why is grass green instead of blue?” “Why don’t more people choose to live in rural Nebraska?” “If you started a bank, why should people use yours instead of another one?”

At that point we step out of the way and allow students to put their own ideas and thoughts out there, then we guide them through the process of investigating their own ideas. Are they accurate? Are they supportable with facts? Do they have any data? Has anyone else had a similar idea? Where can they do further research?

We never really “own” knowledge until we know something well enough to debate its’ merits or teach it to another person. If there has not been a significant use of technology up to this point in your project, this is where the technology could step in. Using presentation tools, movie making software, animations, drawings, writing, video cameras, or any other technologies available in your building, ask students to explain their ideas and findings to an audience.

Creation of new knowledge does not have to take the form of a project, and student use of technology is not a necessity. You can start a lesson with a video clip and ask leading questions. You can use a magazine article, a piece of music, an old saying, any sort of thinking device that piques the curiosity of students. The act of beginning a lesson with a question instead of a statement causes cognitive dissonance – a gap in knowledge. As human beings, your students will be compelled to tune-in and pay closer attention until they figure out the answer. It is the critical thinking process of getting there that holds the power. This can be accomplished in the span of a single class period in many cases.

One way to evaluate whether students have gained new knowledge is to pre-test. A formative assessment before they begin can help you with informed instruction methods during their new learning while offering a baseline of information to compare against with post-lesson assessment.

The assessment of new learning can also come from the products created by the authentic assignments you asked them to complete. The task you have as an evaluator is not to be distracted by the products themselves. You are looking for documentation of learning, not technology use. Specifically, you want them to include the data that they decided was not useful, and why.

Another crazy idea might be to ASK your students. At the end of the lesson, ask them to write down what was covered in class today that they already knew, and what they feel like they understand now. It sounds simple enough, but students love the opportunity to tell you what they already knew, and that makes it easier to tack on what they (perhaps begrudgingly) learned today.

Posted in My Thoughts.