Thursday, October 2, 2014

Help Me Help You - An Ed Tech Jerry Maguire Moment

Asking Better Questions When Collaborating

I have noticed this pattern when working with my client-teachers.  It's this way that some folks ask questions that, even though everyone is on the same side that, all trying to be great collaboration-worker-bees, seems to actually obfuscate the goal or objective. It also tends, if left uninvestigated, to achieve suboptimal solutions.

So I thought I would write a little thought-piece to help my teachers help me to help them.  I would like to suggest a shift in a certain habit of mind that I see sometimes.

Suggestion: Ask about your end goal or product, not about the process you've already decided you think you want to use.  
If you've already decided a process and/or a tool before you ask for help or advice, you're artificially narrowing the scope of the collaboration.

An Example: 

  • What the teacher actually said: How do I use (name of product I've never heard of) to wirelessly get my PC laptop up onto the TV.  I asked (name of IT guy) but he said the district doesn't support that.
  • What the teacher actually wanted: After I move my desk to the back of class
    <away from the TV> can you help me find a way to display my laptop on the TV.
The teacher here had already decided the process had to be wireless, and had already decided that the one product they knew about was the tool that it had to be done with.  But the important part in this case wasn't even necessarily that the display be wireless, which is what both the "IT guy" and I initially focused in on. To the teacher, the important part was that the desk be moved from the front of class.  Its placement at the time--between him and his students--allowed them to monitor his attention on them during screen-based instruction to better time their off-task behavior.

Now, once I understood his actual goal, we were able to come up with a solution he hadn't thought of. Our arriving at that solution began with me asking a variation of a question I find myself asking quite often, "What do you really want to accomplish here?"  In this case, I believe what I asked was, "Why does it have to be wireless?"  This lead to getting at the heart of the teacher's real goal. That was fine; I don't mind asking questions and having a dialogue.  But there are downsides to that kind of inquiry all being on me (or any support person).

The biggest of these potential pitfalls is the client-teacher being frustrated (the mortal enemy of excitement and exploration).  This frustration stems from either an assumption on the part of the teacher or from unrealistic expectations.  The assumption that I sometimes get from teachers is that by asking a version of "What do you really want to accomplish here?" I am either saying "no" or I am somehow being dismissive. I never am, and I realize that I need to be reflective of my tone and approach, however, sometimes people's reactions to you are about them, and not you.  I've actually had a teacher respond, "Can you just answer my question, please."

Another downside is unrealistic expectations.  The unrealistic expectations come from a phenomenon in Ed Tech, I like to call "How Hard Can It Be?"  I think some folks in tech who are both knowledgeable and passionate get folks excited, or impressed, who then assume that either our expertise or the technology itself is unlimited in it's capability.  Of course neither is true. The truth is that neither of those things are unlimited--working with tech can be amazing and joyous, but it can also be confounding and a little frustrating (example: as I write this, Google Hangouts is behaving strangely--delays up to 20 minutes on messages in the same thread depending on which device I use).  Managing these expectations can help to mitigate disappointment that isn't really based on the situation or choices available, but more what a teacher thought they were going to be able to get or do.

Another Example:

  • What the teacher actually said: How do my kids insert bar graphs or charts in Google Docs on the iPad.
  • What the teacher actually wanted: I want my kids to continue to write about and chart their fluency progress in a graphic sort of way on their iPads. We've been doing it in Pages, but I want to use Google Classroom and I think it has to be done in Google Docs to use Classroom.

Again, here, had I simply answered the question that was asked, the answer would have simply been, "You can't."  But that would have been a huge step back and as you can see from what the teacher "actually wanted" would have allowed a misconceptions to persist.  The truth here is two-fold.  First, as much as I love Google Apps for Education--which is a hugely, massively large amount, on an iPad Pages is the better choice for the task she wanted her students to do. Second, in Google Classroom we can turn in pretty much any kind of file format, plus Pages on iPad will convert to .doc or PDF for you.

Isn't part of the work of a coach to delve into these things and collaborate with the client-teacher to find the solutions?  
I am not saying that I wouldn't, or even that I want to have to do it less.

However, isn't part of being a good collaboration partner learning to work better and develop good habits of mind that allow us to get to solutions better instead of dwelling on communications hang-ups?