Sunday, May 29, 2016

Poke a Stick at It: Being a Lifelong EdTech Learner

What do you do when you don’t know how to do something with technology?

Recently I was leading a professional development session on Google Classroom for a room full of educators. I had just finished explaining how you can invite a co-teacher to your class, and how they will be able to make posts, create assignments, and grade work just like you. An attendee then asked me, “Can a co-teacher archive a class that is not theirs?”


As a Google Certified Trainer and Innovator, and a constant users of all of Google’s apps, I really try hard to know pretty much every nook and cranny of the Google tools. Of course though, no one can know everything. I simply had never had an occasion to see if a co-teacher can archive someone else’s class.

In short, I didn’t know the answer.

Which brings us to the question - What do you do when you don’t know how to do something with technology?

This is something we all face from time to time. I face it as the “expert” standing in front of a room of teachers. You may face it as the teacher instructing a class full of students. Our students will face it all throughout their lives as they encounter new situations.

My solution is the response I gave to the teacher who asked the question, as well as to the entire room of attendees - You poke a stick at it.

Let me explain...

You can’t know everything

In life in general, and with technology in specific, you can’t know everything. Technology (and Google Apps in particular) is a moving target, always introducing new tools and features. If you are going to use technology effectively, you have no choice but to be a life-long learner.

So one of the first steps in dealing with a hole in your tech knowledge is to simply admit it. Some people think the three toughest words to say are “I love you” but in fact they are “I don’t know.” Especially when we are in positions of authority, we feel we can’t admit we may not know everything. We think we may look stupid or unqualified or unprepared. In fact what we will look like is a learner.

A few years ago, when I served as one of the leaders at a Google Teacher Academy, we were not called leaders. Instead we were titled “Lead Learners”. I love that mindset! We should always hope to learn something new, even when we are the ones leading the professional development. I would go so far as to say if you are not learning, then you really are not engaging your audience, but are just on autopilot giving a lecture.

If you want your audience (teachers, students, etc.) to learn then you need to model an attitude of learning, and you can’t learn something unless you admit there are things you do not know.

We learn best by discovery

So I admitted to my attendees that I did not know if a co-teacher could archive someone else’s class.  I was pretty sure they could not delete the class, but I really did not know if they could archive it.

So what could we do to find the answer? Certainly there were many options:

  • We could Google it. Chances are a Google search would find one of Google’s official help pages, or a useful blog post from someone’s edtech site, or a forum question that a helpful person answered.
  • We could post the question online to see if someone could help us. There are numerous Google-related communities, email distribution lists, and Twitter hashtags where we could ask the question and crowdsource the answer.
  • Or we could have shrugged our shoulders and said that’s one we are just not going to know.

That’s not what we did, My response to the attendees was, literally, “Well I guess we need to poke a stick at it to find out.”

Although there are many ways to get an answer, some options provide a much greater chance of learning, understanding, and remembering. I am a firm believer that self discovery is the best instructor. Rather than just being told an answer, we learn so much more when we wrestle with the problem, test out solutions, and discover the answer for ourselves.

When I used to teach middle school math, this was often the approach I took with my students. I could have just told them that when you add a positive and negative number you actually subtract the numbers and keep the sign of the larger one. Instead we modeled the process of adding integers with colored chips, charges, and balloons and bow ties (I will have to explain that one some time). The students then looked for patterns, saw connections, and discovered the rule. Whoever stated the rule first then had the rule named after them, so for the rest of the year it became “Allison’s rule of adding integers with different signs”.

To point is, we learn best by asking questions, trying things out, problem solving, and discovering the answers ourselves.

The same is true with technology. If you don’t know how to do something, just poke a stick at it. Try it out. See what happens. It is highly unlikely that you are actually going to break anything. And if you do there is always the undo button or revision history or your friendly school technology support staff.

So if you want to see if a co-teacher can archive someone else's class in Google Classroom, try it out. Create a demo class, invite a colleague to be a co-teacher, and see if they can archive the class.

That’s how I learn about technology. I don’t have a degree in Educational Technology (my degree is in Math), nor do I have any formal technology training. I just explore, click menus, see what happens, try things out, solve problems, ask questions, and learn. And you can too!

What are you teaching?

In the end, as a Google trainer I don’t want to just teach educators how to use Google tools. I want to teach them how to learn more on their own. I am only going to be with them for an hour or a day or a week (for those brave boot campers), but they have the chance to keep learning much more than I can teach them after I am gone.

I encourage you to do the same:
  • In your professional learning
  • As an instructor of educators
  • As a teacher of children
If you do not know something, embrace that as an opportunity to learn something new yourself and to teach others the importance of learning through discovery.

So, can a co-teacher archive off someone else’s Google Class? You’ll just have to test it out yourself to see.

Go poke a stick at it.

Additional resources to help you learn more from others:

(photo credit: Mikehattan)

Post by Eric Curts. Connect with Eric on Twitter at 


  1. Great post, as usual. This time more from a personal perspective, very inspirational!

    1. Thanks so much! I am glad you found it inspiring.

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  3. Great post! Thanks! I am definitely a stick poker. One time I deleted the entire Interim module for my whole school on School Speak. Ha! That still doesn't deter me from exploring (I just do it with a bit more caution on that site!)

    Although, I could have done without the cliffhanger. ;) I am knee deep in end of the year things and now I just want to know... can a teacher archive another teacher's class? I will put it on my summer to do list.

    Thanks again!

  4. Thank you for a wonderful post. I love how well you expressed your thoughts and used the expression 'poke a stick ', that's what I do all the time in such situations.

  5. Thank you for a wonderful post. I love how well you expressed your thoughts and used the expression 'poke a stick ', that's what I do all the time in such situations.

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  7. Nice work as usual Eric! I have been there as well! Keep up the great work my friend!

    1. Thanks so much! Great to hear from you Mike!

  8. That happens to me in trainings, too, especially Google-related! There's just so much to know and it never fails, someone always asks me a question about a task that I hadn't considered before! Exploring to find the solution together is a powerful practice. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Lynn, glad to know I am not the only one. Thanks!

  9. Thanks, Eric. Your post was exactly what I needed tonight. I am a lifelong learner who knows that the best way to learn something is to take a look under the hood, ask around, try it out, take it for a spin, etc. Thursday I'm diving into building Dashboards with Abre. What do I know about building dashboards? Absolutely nothing, but I'm going to go and poke a stick at it anyway. Wish me luck. :)

  10. Shannon, you are so welcome! I am glad it was useful for you.

  11. Your post is very inspiring Eric! I like exploring as a learner-stick poking is a great mantra to live by. We've got to give it a try, see where it takes us. Thanks for this reminder.

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