Pana M. Asavavatana
Pana M. Asavavatana gives students problem-solving skills instead of step-by-step instructions.

Have you ever been in a situation where you assign a task involving some type of technology to your students and the first thing out of their mouths is, “How do I do that?” I used to take this as a sign that I needed to walk my PK-1 students through each meticulous step to achieve the outcome I was looking for.

Still, I ended up with students asking me over and over again, “What do I do next?” No matter how carefully I outlined instructions or how often I repeated them, my students weren’t becoming more independent. They were instead growing to rely on me as a teacher to guide them through each step when using a digital tool.

This led me to ask myself, in a world where technology seems to govern our methods for organizing and communicating information, what makes a person “fluent” in the digital age? More specifically, what does a competent manipulator of information look like today?

That’s when I realized that I needed to stop giving my students step-by-step instructions for completing very specific tasks with digital tools and instead approach technology the way I had been teaching traditional literacy. I needed to provide problem-solving techniques and strategies to build independence.

As Dan Hudkins, my school’s chief information officer, often says, “click-here” teaching is outdated and doesn’t create students who are technologically fluent. I like to use to the metaphor of “putting handles on learning” as a visual for this aspect of teaching.

Essentially, no matter the grade level, we want to provide our students with strategies they can grab onto and take with them through their digital lives. Ideally, these strategies should survive through the fast-paced changes of the digital world.

So what does this look like in the classroom? I found it helpful to always ask three key questions when planning for learning with the use of digital tools.

What knowledge will my students need to be independent?

The knowledge your students will need to develop digital fluency differs depending on the age band you teach and what ways you’re expecting your students to use technology to support their learning. For example, I work in early childhood and mostly use iPads with my students. My students are still emerging and developing readers, so much of what they depend upon to navigate digital tools is made up of visual information like icons. Therefore, one of the key pieces of knowledge my students need is to understand various icons and their functions within a tool.

What SKILLS will help my students build the knowledge they need?

Students can support and grow their knowledge by developing learning skills. In order to recognize icons and their functions, my students need the ability to analyze these icons in the same way they would pictures in a book, by looking for logical meaning within each image. More specifically, students need to first understand how to analyze new or unfamiliar icons so they can figure out the various capabilities of an app or program. They also need to recognize patterns of icons across apps and programs. This allows students to make generalizations such as, “an arrow icon allows me to share or save material,” or “a camera icon indicates that I can take a photo.”

How can I provide STRATEGIES that my students can carry with them from one scenario to the next?

Students benefit from explicit strategies that target the skills we’re trying to develop. This is where I start to devise ways to “put handles” on the learning so that I build independence in my students. To develop analytical and problem-solving skills surrounding icons, I provided my kindergarten students with a routine they could walk themselves through when they were trying to figure out how to execute a specific task within an app.

1.    Read the screen. What icons do you see?
2.    Ask yourself: What could each of these icons mean?
3.    Next ask: Do any of these make sense for what I am trying to do?
4.    Tap and test.

I knew that strategies like this were helping my students because they dramatically cut down the number of “What do I do next?” questions I encountered.

When we use technology in our teaching, we should aim to set our students up for success beyond any one specific task. When a student says “I don’t know how to do that,” view it as an opportunity to introduce knowledge, skills and strategies that push your students to become independent problem-solvers.

In other words, “put a handle on it,” and your students will have something to carry with them for life.

Pana M. Asavavatana (@panaasavavatana) is the PK-1 technology and design coach at Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan, and the 2018 recipient of ISTE’s Kay L. Bitter Vision Award. She shares insights into her teaching process on her blog mspanasays.com. with the goal of connecting early childhood educators and classrooms, she founded the educational Twitter hashtag chat, #intearlyed (international early educators, formerly #kchatap), and the Traveling Teddy Project, also found under the hashtag #globaledted.