Problem Solving Through the Lens of a Teacher Technology Coach

What is the first word that comes to mind when I say “problem solving”? For me the answer was always “math”.  And having taught for a number of years, typically I reserved lessons related to “problem solving” for my math class. But after reflecting on my once narrow view of problem solving, I began to recognize that problem solving was happening all around me in my classroom – especially when my students were using technology. The kicker? I wasn’t teaching it. My students were solving problems without me. They were taking action and learning with technology. How was this possible?

In the last few years I have widened my lens and view problem solving as a skill set that not only permeates all subject areas – and learning environments, but in the context of “digital”, also requires us to also learn new literacy skills. What follows is my now understanding of the relationship between problem solving, new literacies, and learning with technology.

Problem Solving: Learning How to Use a Device

When we first begin using technology, we learn early on that things don’t often work the way they are “supposed” to . . .

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It’s challenging to learn how to use “the device” since it appears so new and unfamiliar. But what if instead of thinking about learning how to use “the device”, we shifted our thinking to see the device as a tool that requires us to learn a new new set of literacy skills, and an apply our current set of problem solving skills in new contexts?

We often say, “I don’t know how to use technology”, or more specifically, “I don’t know how to use an iPad.” And in my earlier thinking, I believed that was the case – I didn’t know how to use the device. So how could I possibly teach with it and solve all of those “tech” problems? But learning how to use an iPad really only requires you to know how to push a button, tap, and swipe across the screen. So what if it wasn’t the technology you didn’t understand, but instead it was a new set of literacy skills that you just hadn’t tapped into yet? Or better yet, a new set of literacy skills that aren’t necessarily new – you just need to connect some dots? And what if you already have the necessary problem solving skills, you just need to learn how to apply those skills in the digital world?

Have you ever thought of learning how to use a device as a collection of oral, visual, audio, gestural, tactile and spatial patterns of meaning? What if you already know many of these “modes of meaning” – and now it’s time to connect the dots?

For those of you who are new to using iPads, or blogging for the first time, when you first turn on the device or log in to your new blog dashboard it can be very overwhelming because you have probably never seen anything like it before. But what if you can calm your rapidly beating heart, and take a closer look at what you see. What if you think of the information presented before you as a new kind of text – one you must decode, interpret, and analyze, as well as make connections, infer, and question? What “modes of meaning” (visual, gestural, spatial, symbolic, etc) are familiar? Where have you seen those modes of meaning before?

Problem Solving and New Literacies

Let’s begin by taking a close look at a blog dashboard . . .

Problem Solving Post_2016 (2)#1: Log In

If you have an you have an account with a particular website, like a blog for example, when you log in you can usually expect to see the option to log in to your account in the top right hand corner of the site – this is also where you would log out, and access your account settings. Can you think of another site where you might you see this information located in the same place??? Google is one example of countless others. Knowing where to look for things (spatial modes of meaning) is one of those “new literacy” skills I mentioned above. 

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2.  Profile

Your profile is typically where you can update account information like email address, change password, upload an avatar (image), etc. On a blog dashboard it’s located on the right hand side (typically closer to the top of the page). Where else might we find our a profile on a website??? Let’s look at Twitter this time:

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Hmmm . . . no word “Profile”(this is where our problem solving skills come into play), however what does this image have in common with the image taken from the blog dashboard? – my profile picture and my name. And if you click on the picture of my name you land on my Profile page. Knowing how to make connections across digital learning platforms (visual modes of meaning) is another one of those “new literacy” skills.

Let’s look at #3: Signs (Symbols)

What do we know about the symbol “+”? I think it’s safe to say that we all understand that “+” means to add something (math problem solving skills at work!). So if we click on the “+” in the blog dashboard, we can add a new post, page, widget, etc. So, where else might we find a “+” sign on a website??? Pinterest! (again, another example taken from countless others)

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Now you have to look a little harder to find the “+” on this site, but if you want to add a pin to a board on Pinterest, there it is, bottom right hand corner. Notice anything else familiar? If you look in the top right hand corner you will find you Profile and Settings marked by your name, and a common symbol (the gear). Knowing what different symbols mean (symbolic modes of meaning) is another one of those “new literacy” skills.

#4 & 5.  Signs (Symbols Cont’d)

I briefly touched on this above, but understanding the variety of symbols used across digital platforms will also improve your new literacy skills and your problem solving skills when using technology. The speech bubble symbol shown above in the blog dashboard is commonly used to identify where you can access and leave comments. So, where else might we see this symbol??? How about Facebook?

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At the bottom of any post you read on Facebook (and many other social media sites) is the option to Comment, represented by the symbol of a speech bubble. You may also notice other familiar symbols at the bottom of this post, which include a “thumbs up” to “Like” the post, and the “Share” symbol represented by an “arrow”. These signs/ symbols, like many of the other text features I’ve mentioned above are fairly universal – once you learn how to read digital texts as multi-modal (visual, spatial, gestural, symbolic, etc) you will be able to access and utilize digital platforms and devices with improved fluency.

#5.  So let’s look at some of the other Symbols:

  • tack = post
  • camera+music note = media
  • chain links = links
  • paper = page
  • silhouette – user
  • envelope = subscription

When you know what and where to look for things online, you are able to use what you know about site organization, signs/ symbols, gestures, etc. to decode unfamiliar spaces. And here is where those problem solving skills come into play. Just like the English language has spelling patterns and rules, so do websites and apps. However, there are always exceptions to those rules. And the same holds true for learning a new set of literacy skills to decode and comprehend digital texts.

When working on other sites, you may find these symbols represented exactly the way they are above, or they may have a slightly different appearance, be located in a slightly different place, or you may have to work through a sequential order of symbols to locate what you need and accomplish a task. Where our new literacy skills – and problem solving skills come into play, is in our ability to decode and comprehend different modes of meaning in different contexts. Let’s take for example the Explain Everything app, and compare it to the screenshot of my blog dashboard. The task – add media. The symbol used to add media in a blog dashboard is represented by the camera and music note. When you create a new file in Explain Everything, you will notice in the left hand task bar there is no “add media” icon the way we see it in Edublogs.


There is however a “+” sign – which we understand means to “add” something. By taking a quick scan of the other symbols in the left hand task bar, and by process of elimination, we can reason that the “+” sign might get us closer to adding media to our file. When we touch the “+” sign, we are introduced to a collection of new signs/ symbols to accomplish various tasks. You may recognize the symbol to “add media” in Explain Everything as the square box with the mountain and sun. This is typically the symbol used to “add media” in other apps. So by touching that new icon we get access to our camera roll to add our media file. Problem solving + new literacy skills = success.

Achieving tech-cess requires a combination of new literacy and problem solving skills. We use our literacy skills to make connections, infer, question, analyze, and synthesize: decode and comprehend digital texts in new contexts applying new literacy skills. But the application of these new literacy skills also requires us to apply our problem solving skills to make meaning within new contexts, across new platforms, and devices. It is our ability to apply our problem solving skills, paired with our experiences interacting with digital texts that help us learn new literacies, and become more literate in a digital world.

Leigh Cassell

*New Literacies – a recent area of study referring to new forms of literacy made possible by digital technology developments.

Critical Thinking in Literacy – Primary

Here is a fantastic strategy for developing research and communication skills in literacy, and supporting the student outcome of critical thinking.
Students in Allison Plumsteel’s grade 2/3 class were learning about report writing. Through viewing and deconstructing examples of report writing, and co-constructing the success criteria for an informative and organized report, the students were led through a Gradual Release model to develop their skills in researching, organizing information, selecting the best information for their purpose, and evaluating the quality of the information. This was followed by students selecting a presentation mode that best suited their learning style and purpose (Adobe Voice, Adobe Slate, Explain Everything).
This picture is just a snapshot representing one piece of the gradual release of responsibility model, and serves to highlight how critical thinking is embedded in the process. While collecting facts and information about their selected topic, the students recorded their information on a graphic organizer web. Then they paired up and read each piece of information to determine what category it best fit into (example Habitat, Food, Protection, Characteristics). Each fact was circled in a colour to match the category the students selected, based on the headings identified in other mentor texts. Students then reflected on whether or not they had sufficient information to provide the reader with a meaningful reading experience. Students then returned to the research phase to add appropriate details.
Next, the students were able to use the colour co-ordinated facts to group them together easily under subheadings and begin the process of transferring their jot note facts into sentences and then organized paragraphs. The students were then introduced to the apps that they could select to communicate their findings in their report.Critical Thinking and Collaboration example2

How is Your Literacy Block Working for You? Try the Daily 5!

How is your literacy block working for your students and you? Mini-lessons, small guided groups and conferring all sound wonderful but where do I find the time while keeping the others doing meaningful work? My answer was and is “The Daily Five”.PicCollage

This framework, developed by educator/authors Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, provides structure to your literacy time and gives students choice, building independence while being productive and engaged in authentic reading and writing.

The Daily Five is a research based framework that allows teachers to structure their program using the components that are meaningful in their own classrooms. Students are taught to build stamina at the following options: Read to Self, Work on Writing, Read to Someone, Listen to Reading and Word Work. Students have control over the order of the options and in some, the task to be completed. This choice gives the students a sense of independence and ownership for their learning. It gives the teacher a chance to individualize learning goals with students at their just right levels.
The authors encourage teachers to make the framework their own but provide insight on what has worked for them in their easy to read book and website, “”.
My literacy block usually follows the following format:
10 minute Mini-lesson (accuracy skill)
15-20 minute Rotation – students choose from the 5 options, I run a guided reading group or confer with individual students
10 minute Mini-lesson (comprehension skill)
15-20 minute Rotation – see above
10 minute Mini-lesson (vocabulary/word work)
15-20 minute Rotation – see above
5 minute Sharing
25 minute Writers’ workshop (my choice – not part of The Daily Five)

My students get the choice of two or three rotations most days and must have chosen each of the five options at least once throughout the week.
I have used this framework with success in grades one, two and three and my students would highly recommend it. When students ask if they can “do a daily rotation” during indoor recess, you know it is working!

Submitted by Pauline B., Teacher in AMDSB