The Difficulty Differential

Yesterday, I ran an all day iPad workshop for the teachers at my school. There were two things that were a bit unusual about it. One is that it was an all day event. Usually in a school – or at least in my school – it’s hard finding time for staff professional learning that allows for any real immersion and play. The second unusual thing is that it was held on a Saturday.  (And not just any Saturday, but the Saturday of the first week back after the Summer break!)

No coincidentally, the fact that it was a Saturday was the whole reason we were able to get that extended period of time for learning. When I offered it to our staff (as an entirely optional event for anyone that was interested in coming along) I thought maybe we’d get 3 or 4 teachers show up. Surprisingly, we had 25. Some even brought their children and spouses along. They didn’t get paid for attending, and there was no pressure to be there. But 25 turned up. I was impressed.

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We had a fun day of learning what iPads could do, digging into the nooks and crannies of iOS, learning a bunch of tips and tricks to be more expert users, but then spending most of the day actually making things with the iPads. My goal for the day was to make it learner-centred, fun, hands-on and practical, and I think we achieved all that. I had the teachers looking for information, using maps, browsing the web, creating documents. making videos… all the sorts of things that they might typically ask students to do.

I think it’s really important that teachers attempt to produce the same kind of tasks that they ask their kids to do. Often, we teachers come from a background of using a laptop or desktop computer and although we’ve all mostly used an iPad for our personal use, it’s a very different use-case when you have to actually be productive with an iPad as your only device. Assumptions about the iPad’s ease of use as a device quickly get a reality check when you try to use them yourself for real work. You soon hit the wall with workflow issues, data transfer issues, filesharing issues… none of which are insurmountable but it is amazing how many casual iPad users have never had to deal with some of these problems that become very real when the iPad is your only device. I needed my teachers to see that while the iPad might be “revolutionary and magical”, don’t expect it to be the same as your laptop computer. It isn’t. And you need to take that into account when you ask kids to live with one as their only device.

I gave this group of teachers an hour or so to work on making a video using either iMovie or iMotionHD. I know from experience that many teachers are intimidated by the idea of moviemaking because they think it’s too difficult. And some avoid using it with their students because they feel that they need to be really good at it themselves before they can do it with the kids. The classic case of “needing to know how it all works so I don’t look silly in front of the students” syndrome.

I gave this group a very quick demonstration of the main skills they need to shoot a movie – shooting footage, editing clips, adding transitions, adding sound and narration. That sounds like a lot, but it can be easily explained in less than 10 minutes with a simple demonstration, and everyone seemed pretty comfortable with the ideas even though most of them had ever done any video editing before.  So off they went to work on their movies.

When they came back about an hour later, many were totally engrossed in the editing process. One group shot an amazing stop frame movie and added a soundtrack to it. Others made mini documentaries about the school gardens. We exported the final films, and had a little film festival on the Apple TV so everyone could share what they made.

But here’s what I found interesting.  After they had made their first ever movie, I asked them “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a movie?” This group (who remember had never made videos before) thought about it for a moment and agreed it was only about a 3. In other words, they thought the iMovie software was pretty easy to use and the skills required to make a video were straightforward enough to master.

Of course, just because it’s easy to use,does not mean that they all made amazingly professional looking videos. Most were, shall we say, “a good first attempt”. So then I asked them a second question. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a good movie?” This time they agreed that it was more like a 9. Much harder.

The interesting thing about this is that they saw the “difficulty differential” between making just any old movie and making a really good movie is about a 6. In other words, more than half of what’s required to make a good movie is just polishing up the same basic skills that would be required to make a bad movie.

The really encouraging thing is that most the skills required to make a good movie are not technology skills. If you can make a bad movie, you already have the technology skills you need to make a really great movie. What you need to move from ordinary to good (and on to great) are things like a critical eye for lighting and sound, helpful advice on plot and story, and useful feedback on your visuals. None of which are technology skills.

I think this is really encouraging news for teachers, because all of those are things you can give your kids even if you don’t have strong technical skills yourself. You can say to a student “I like your opening scene but I think it’s about 10 seconds too long”. You can tell a student that “the soundtrack music you’ve chosen is not the right fit for the visuals you’re using”. You can let a student know that “your voiceover track is too soft and needs more volume”. You can give a student feedback that a “scene is too dark and needs to be fixed”.

You can give students good advice, wisdom, and adult perspective. You can help them be better by pointing out what can be improved. You can help them make great movies, even though your own technical skills in moviemaking might not be any better than theirs. And that is an incredibly important realisation. It means that we shouldn’t be intimidated about using technology in our classrooms. It means that we can feel ok about the idea that we don’t know all the answers. It means that we don’t need to know more than the students in order to give them opportunities to create.

I would love it if all teachers had my passion for what technology can bring to their classrooms. I love to see teachers pushing themselves forward to learn new technology tools and getting excited about what they might do with them. But I’m realistic enough to know that teachers have so many other demands upon them that technology is not always going to be their number one concern all the time.

I think as teachers we need to commit to at least knowing enough about technology to understand what things might be possible, even if we don’t have the high level skills required to do some of those things ourselves. And if we understand what’s possible with these technology tools, and we can get over being scared that the kids might know more than us, and instead of worrying about what we don’t know about technology and instead we fill the “difficulty differential” with our adult wisdom, advice and feedback, that’s a pretty good recipe for letting the kids unleash the potential of classroom technology for themselves.

We just need to be willing to get out of their way while providing them with some wise guidance.

PS: If you want the notes from the workshop session, you can get them here.

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11 thoughts on “The Difficulty Differential”

  1. Great post. Two things stuck out for me the syndrome on having to know it all before we can teach it or not be intimidated by it at least and getting out of the way so they can create and learn. The difficulty differential between poor and good and adult wisdom being able to close that gap is also important.

    1. Thanks Mark, yes I really think that closing the gap is what we teachers really do best. I would love all teachers to be genuinely switched on by technology but if not then at least to be able to use their “adult wisdom” to guide kids to use it wisely and effectively. We CAN do that, even if we aren’t across the actual techie stuff…

      1. I appreciated both the approach that you took Chris and the response of PLC Sydney teachers.

        It is wonderful to see the positive impact of excellent professional learning

  2. Congratulations on such a huge turn-up! Maybe you have hit on something new with inviting the kids and spouses which can be the first port of call for an excuse to not attend. Hope that teacher pd energy turns into a rollercoaster for you this term! Well done!

  3. Excellent read! One of the first things a teacher has to shed when integrating technology is their role as an expert. You must view yourself as a facilitator. I rarely learn all the capabilities of a tool – my value comes from my expertise in recognizing a good tool and designing constructive projects with it. It’s humbling (not a bad thing) and necessary. Technology changes too rapidly for us to be experts.

    1. Yep, I agree. Of course, me being me, I usually do learn lots about the tools and I will lay claim to a certain level of expertise in many of them. I do that because I want to, and I enjoy doing it. But the encouraging thing is that most teachers can get away with having far less technical “expertise” than they might think they need.

      As long as we can just know enough to see the possibilities of the technology, and then not block the learning with our own egos, great things can and do happen in classrooms.

  4. Well done Chris….choice is what struck me as a theme through what you described and shared – the pd was optional, the activities open ended and allowed teachers to start from their place in their journey…where-ever that may be. Why is it so hard? This is good learning and teaching with students, it should be encouraged more in PD. Congratulations on a good roll up and thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks Vickie. Yep, choice is the key I think. It’s easy to become engaged in your learning when you feel you the one are in charge of it. If we give kids more choice, less restrictions, greater autonomy, and more responsibility, it’s amazing what they will come up with in return.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Great post Chris. I find one the difficulties of running effective PL with staff is often the need for those in attendance to remove the ‘fear’ they can often bring with them when tech’s involved! Great work mate!

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