Let’s Solve the Right Damn Problem: Intentional Teaching with Technology

teaching and learning graphic

We’ve all experienced failed learning activities, such as painful class sessions, online disasters, or group projects gone wrong.

When we analyze what went wrong, we usually wring our hands and lament the state of college students today, but is it possible that we ourselves are the inadvertent cause of many of these problems? Could our lack of intentional planning be the issue?

Misalignment in our classes can cause many problems. Consider what happens when the wheels of your vehicle are out of alignment. The tires aren’t all pointing in the same direction, making it difficult to steer, causing undue strain and wear, and possibly endangering the safety of those in the car.

The same things can happen when we teach a class that is out of alignment. It’s hard to direct the flow of learning; learning activities and assessments become more burdensome than they need to be; and the safety and well-being of those in the car, so to speak, are unnecessarily put at risk.

Misalignment happens in many ways. For example, we might include a group project in our classes with no real sense of the purpose of the project. Have we thought through our teaching and learning goals for the group task? Do those goals support the course learning objectives? Or did we include a group project because our class size grew and we couldn’t keep up with grading individual assessments?

When we don’t carefully align learning activities to course learning objectives, problems develop in our classes. In our group project example, students will likely recognize that there is no real reason to be doing the group work. This perception leads to frustration and demotivation—not a good way to begin a meaningful collaborative learning task.

We all know that teaching is a messy business and there are pain points in our classes. Our focus here is to investigate how misaligned technology tools often cause more problems than they solve.

It’s been said that, with a hammer in your hand, every problem looks like a nail. If the problem truly is a nail, then the hammer is the best solution. But what if the problem is actually a screw? If you apply the hammer to that problem, you’re going to do a lot of damage.

Taking the time to accurately diagnose the problem—determining what’s really at the bottom of the surface-level pain we experience—is a key step in choosing the best technology tools to solve the right problems in our classes. Instead of dealing with the surface issue, the problem that is readily apparent, we need to dig deeper to get an accurate diagnosis. In other words, we need to solve the right damn problem if we want to truly resolve the pain point.

We can get to the root of the problem by asking a series of “why” questions. Common problems include students who are not attending class or are being unprepared and disengaged when they get there. Let’s ask, “Why are my students not coming to class? Why are they so disengaged and unprepared? Are the learning materials and activities relevant? Meaningful? Why am I asking my students to do what I’m asking them to do?”

Asking these questions peels back the layers of our classes to identify the problem at the core. Having torn down the class and accurately diagnosed the real problem, we can now rebuild it, aligning all the major elements to create a structurally sound and meaningful class.

Backward design can help. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) argue that we should plan our classes in a backward fashion. There are three main steps in this design approach:

  1. Start with the end of the class—the destination. By the end of the semester, what do you want your students to know and be able to do? Craft measurable course learning objectives accordingly.
  2. Design summative and formative assessments that will measure student achievement of those objectives.
  3. Plan instructional materials and learning activities to support student success on assessments. What content and practice will equip students to succeed?

Walking through these design steps will result in a well-aligned class where all the components support each other. That alone should minimize teaching and learning problems.

Recall the real problem we identified earlier. With a class that is in alignment, we can now identify technology tools that support the class design and address the right damn problem.

Aligning technology with the course materials and learning activities gives us a better chance of implementing effective tools. Combining this approach with solving the real problem at hand, the core issue, is sure to prevent the kind of misalignment that is caused or made worse by the wrong technology solutions.

When we solve the right problem with the right tool—using a hammer if the problem is a nail or a screwdriver if the problem is a screw—we go a long way toward preventing classes that are out of alignment. In so doing, we create a safer, more pleasant learning journey for all.

See how this design approach plays out in one for an advertising instructor who is frustrated with the way her large-enrollment introductory class is going. Read “So, What is the Real Problem?”

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. (2005). Understanding by Design. 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Flower Darby is an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University. Wally Nolan is a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University. Their session on this topic was one of the top-rated sessions at the 2016 Teaching Professor Technology Conference.

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