Throughout the Technology Integration Matrix there is a consistent reference to student exploration of technology tools beginning at the Adaptation level. The emphasis on not only allowing, but also encouraging, exploration is no accident. In our busy schedules we might be tempted to push time for exploration to the side since we need to keep moving to “cover” all our content. There’s always more to do and allowing precious time for exploration may seem like a waste to some. In this post, I’d like to explain why exploration is essential and to share some of my own strategies for creating a classroom culture where exploration is encouraged and valued.


Why exploration?

It’s efficient. Not every student is going to grasp new skills at the same rate. When we teach as if all students are the same we either leave some behind or bore the others to death. Including exploration as an instructional strategy is one way to have each student get as much as possible during a given block of time, while respecting their individual interests.

It’s rewarding. Making and “owning” discoveries is a very satisfying experience for students and helps to keep them engaged. As a K-12 teacher, I’d often give naming rights to new discoveries. “OK class, when you’re arranging items on a slide, keep in mind Ralph’s Trick for….” Never underestimate the motivation and pride a student has in having a discovery named after him or her (even if they are way too cool to admit it).

It’s essential. Students can’t make informed decisions about which technologies to use in a given instance if they haven’t “kicked the tires” a bit. Exploring is a shorthand way of saying that students are learning the affordances and limitations of a particular technology in a way that is meaningful to them.

It’s one tech skill that will still be useful ten years from now. Technology is constantly changing. Entirely new classes of technology are becoming available. New products in existing classes are launched on a daily basis. And, of course, nearly every popular application is regularly updated. The nuts and bolts of how to use a particular technology will become quickly outdated. Learning how to approach any new technology and figure out how to use it and what it’s best for is a skill that will never lose its value.

Exploring is a shorthand way of saying that students are learning the affordances and limitations of a particular technology in a way that is meaningful to them.

How do we get there?

No one is suggesting that a teacher introduce a new technology on Monday and then on Tuesday give students a “free day” to just mess around with no particular direction.

Instead, I’m suggesting that teachers incorporate exploration as an essential part of learning any new tech and make exploration an on-going feature of classroom culture. Here are just a few strategies for doing so. Every teacher’s style is different, so some of the things that have worked well for me may not be the best approaches for you. Nevertheless, I hope that they spark some new ideas for each teacher reading this.

A purposeful, short exploration period. After introducing a new tech, consider giving students a short block of time to discover something new about the app that they didn’t expect. Ask them to share their discoveries and respond to each other. The rest of the class might not quite remember how to do the fresh discovery, but they’ll remember who found it and can ask its discoverer for assistance later if they need it.

Acknowledge explorers. When the class is working and you notice that a student has discovered something new, take a moment to commend that to the whole class and/or give the student a moment to share the discovery.

Classroom critiques. As often as possible, conduct class critiques of projects. Just posting a grade with a little feedback doesn’t do much to encourage higher-order thinking skills. Encouraging other students to make constructive criticisms and the creator of the project to respond takes the conversation to a whole new level and provides opportunities to share their individual discoveries.

Learning how to approach any new technology and figure out how to use it and what it’s best for is a skill that will never lose its value.

Brainstorm. If a student gets “stuck” on something that isn’t working as desired, it’s sometimes helpful to toss the problem out to the whole class for a minute or two. If different students have explored different features of the technology, they may have insights that others don’t.

Celebrate glorious failures. This one works for me. YMMV. When I see a student who has taken a calculated risk to try something very innovative, but it didn’t happen to work, I make a point to praise the effort and original thinking to the class. Sharing the experience may spark new ideas in other students or suggestions for rescuing the project.

Respect individual/group preferences. When students are given time to explore, allow students to do so individually or in groups. Some students will prefer and benefit from exploring with others. Others (speaking as an only child here) would much prefer to head off in their own direction.

Keep questions as open-ended as possible. If you ask questions about any technology that the students have become familiar with, keep your questions open-ended to encourage a range of responses representing the exploration students have done. If there’s just one answer, it probably wasn’t a very good question—or the students haven’t had opportunities to explore on their own.

Ban easy, familiar solutions. Here’s one method I often employed in the K-12 classroom to force students to explore new territory and get out of their comfort zones. After introducing a project, I’d ask students to take a few minutes to list three possible approaches to the project. Once everyone had three items, I’d tell the students to cross off the items they’d listed. They could use any approach EXCEPT for the first three they came up with. Initially, of course, the class would groan, but as they worked on the project taking a new approach, they would end up much more engaged and satisfied than if they had just stuck to familiar territory.

I hope at least a few of these strategies may be helpful for you. If we want students to be self-directed, confident, resourceful users of technology in both the short- and long-term, then allowing and encouraging “exploration” should be a regular part of our instructional practice.

Roy Winkelman is a 40+ year veteran teacher of students from every level kindergarten through graduate school. As the former Director of FCIT, he began the Center's focus on providing students with rich content collections from which to build their understanding. When not glued to his keyboard, Dr. Winkelman can usually be found puttering around his tomato garden in Pittsburgh.