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How To Teach a Program You Don't Understand

Jacqui Murray


I am constantly finding new programs I think would be perfect for utilizing technology in the classroom. I might see colleagues using them, or perhaps my PLN loudly raves about them, so I figure I better try them out.

Because I'm a technology teacher, I can usually unravel how to use new technology in the classroom pretty quickly – usually in less than 15 minutes. Am I special? Do I have a magical skill that tells me how to use what I've never before seen without training? Is this something only I can do, and other teachers need to take a class or spend hours struggling, with me sitting at their elbow?

Not at all. In fact, anyone can learn a new program, app or tool quickly and efficiently with just a little inside knowledge and a two secrets. The first secret: It's more about problem solving than tech.

Before I share the second secret, let's talk about knowing how to quickly learn new web tools is important. If you're a teacher, even a substitute teacher, you know there's no shortage of Favorite Tech Tools in the minds of colleagues, students, parents or administrators.

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Here's my list from last month: Edmodo (I'm the only teacher in my PLN who isn't wrapped around this amazing digital portfolio tool), Tellagami, Haiku Deck, Smores and Canva. I learned all of them in the past 30 days except one. Next month, it will be Storify, Storyjumper, Hemingway App, Diigo, Teach Your Monster To Read and Sumdog.

This plethora of web tools gives many teachers I know technophobia. There's no way to stay on top of the learning curve, so why should they even begin?

In fact, it's one of the biggest complaints from teachers in my school -- that every time I suggest a tech project, it includes a tool they've never heard of and don't have time to learn.

You know what? They're right. But there is a way to make it easy. That's my second secret: Most tools are intuitive. That means they are constructed in a way that's similar to all other tools:

  • They use common commands -- file, exit, save.
  • They use common symbols and shortkeys -- red squiggly line for spelling, Ctrl+F to find a 
word on the page.
  • Their toolbars and tools look like lots of other programs--bold, alignment, links, indent.
  • Program layout looks familiar -- toolbars at the top.
  • Right-click brings up relevant commands.
  • A big start button resides somewhere obvious.

When you're faced with a new tool, trust that this will be the case. In fact, using it as a teachable moment with students and try the new tool out in front of them. Show them how you learn. That means you don't need to spend a lot of time preparing. Budget five minutes to review the canvas and experiment with a few clicks, but leave the heavy lifting -- the real experimenting -- for class, with your students. Let them see how you learn a new tool.

Let's test this out on a program I taught myself quickly and it has since become one of my favorites for creating posters -- Smore.

The screen opens like this:

  1. Familiar toolbar resides at the top, helpful videos to explain details, a big BOLD Start button
  2. Six choices. No other options.  If you make the wrong choice, use the back arrow to return to this screen. That's standard.
  3. Step-by-step directions for filling out the flier; easy formatting tools

Once the flier is created, it continues to be a standard process to save/export/share.

You might think this is easier than other web tools, but it isn't. Most web tools try to be intuitive, easy to figure out. They want to be understood so you return.

Which brings us back to Secret #1: Using a new web tool is no different than the problem solving we teach students, often wrapped around the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice (which I've slightly reworded below).

  • Make sense of a program (look around the screen and see what looks familiar) and persevere in solving it (believing you can do it).
  • Construct viable arguments (what's a logical approach to using the tool?).
  • Use appropriate tools strategically (which tools, toolbars have you used in other 
circumstances to solve a problem?).
  • Attend to precision carefully follow steps in prescribed order).
  • Look for and make use of structure (look for patterns of use, familiar from other web 
  • Look for an make use of repeated reasoning (notice how the web tool works and trust 
that it will continue to work the same way).

Note: If you're thinking back to Microsoft's upgrade from Office 2003's drop down menus to Office 2007's ribbon, I agree -- that was a nightmare. I have no idea what they were thinking. That boondoggle of an upgrade was the single biggest boost to Google Apps.

That's it. Those are my secrets:

  • Look around the screen.
  • Notice what’s familiar.
  • Trust yourself .
  • Keep putting one virtual foot in front of the other.

If you have a web tool you'd like to learn and aren't sure how to get started, drop me a note in the comments. I'll give you suggestions or we can work through it together. 


Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, a columnist for, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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