LIVE @ ISTE 2024: Exclusive Coverage


Improve teacher development using a challenge-based model

Most training workshops actually fail teachers by creating a culture of dependency

collaboration-challenge“I can’t do that.”

“Are you serious?”

“No way.”

These are just a few of the comments I’ve heard at the beginning of one of my professional development workshops.

You see, whether teachers are learning to teach with iPads or Chromebooks or Windows Surface tablets, I typically begin an EdTechTeacher workshop with a challenge, or a set of tasks I expect them to complete within a limited amount of time.

In the case of an iPad workshop, I might have 12 tasks that I ask them to complete in, say, 20 minutes, or perhaps six tasks in less time. These tasks typically involve some basic but also some intermediary or even advanced uses of the iPad:

•    Take a picture
•    Take a screenshot
•    Create a 20-30 second movie starring a colleague.
•    Go to Add to Home Screen.
•    Copy the second sentence in the first paragraph. Open Notes app and paste into Note.
•    Speak the sentence in Note.

For many who are new to the iPad, or new to a Chromebook or some other device, these challenges can be daunting. And even those who have intermediary or advanced knowledge of these devices often don’t know how to complete all the tasks.

So, the immediate reaction is, “I can’t do this,” or “Why aren’t you simply showing me how to do this?” But, invariably, everyone completes the challenge—and only a few have to exceed the allotted time.

Next page: How to structure challenge-based lessons

I could start my workshops by showing teachers how to find and do everything. I could lead them through a step-by-step, do-what-I-do tutorial of various apps —“point here, click there”—and teachers could simply watch what I do and then repeat what I do. But the problem with that approach is, by the end of the workshop, it creates a culture of dependency. The instructor ends up the center of the learning, not the students, and disseminates information to a mostly passive audience. I’m simply not empowering them to learn if I’m at the center of learning.

Instead, I want teachers to tackle and succeed in challenges themselves, so they develop a measure of knowledge, comfort, and confidence going forward. It’s perceptible how teachers’ confidence improves in just the first minutes of a workshop when they can solve a problem.

One important consideration is that I allow teachers to work in groups, so they can help each other. (My one rule is that they cannot touch another’s screen). In that way, I am encouraging student-to-student collaboration, and no one is left learning alone. I also walk around the room, so I can provide individualized, small-group, and just-in-time instruction. Mind you, I don’t tell participants how to complete a challenge, but I will give them a few hints.

At the end of the introductory challenge, I point out to the participants that I didn’t teach them anything, but they learned a lot. And they learned by actively engaging with the device. They learned because they failed, and then they figured out how to succeed. And by failing early and often, they’re developing a foundation for tackling ed-tech challenges on their own.

Throughout my workshops, I gradually increase the complexity of these challenges. By the end of the day, some of the challenges are designed for intermediary or advanced users. But the participants by this point have developed enough knowledge and confidence that they can handle these tasks, even though I’m not telling them what to do.

Next page: Benefits of an active learning environment

And that’s really my goal: I want them to leave feeling empowered that they can tackle technology challenges when I’m not around, or when there’s nobody else available to help them.

It’s hard to put teachers in situations where they’re uncomfortable, anxious, or afraid. Many teachers come into a workshop with some trepidation, a lack of confidence—or even outright resistance. But some of those same teachers who at the beginning openly voiced their displeasure—I had one who told me I shouldn’t get paid for my workshop, because I wasn’t actually showing her how to do anything—have come up to me at the end and said, “Hey, that was a fantastic workshop. I learned so much.” And, “Yeah, that actually was a pretty good idea, making us do it by ourselves.”

By creating an experiential, active learning environment, where teachers are deriving knowledge and developing strategies by doing, I’m simulating an environment I hope teachers might emulate in their own classrooms. In other words, providing students with a challenge, giving them a time limit to complete it, and having them work in small groups is an ideal active and collaborative learning environment for using technology.

Presenting students with a question, a task, or some inquiry-based challenge, where they really have to think, reflect, and work with others, can develop their critical-thinking skills and help keep them on task. This kind of active learning environment also allows teachers to circulate among their students, providing individualized attention and just-in-time support, and it enables students to work at their own pace. For those who work through the challenges quickly, I’ve prepared advanced or bonus challenges, so they’re challenged at an appropriate learning level—and they’re not sitting idly by, waiting for others to finish.

The real challenge for teachers is not learning technology. It’s developing a mindset that they can progress and ultimately succeed in using technology.  Though they’re bound to fail—at least occasionally—it’s understanding that the best technology integration specialists have failed early on themselves. It’s only by overcoming failure that you develop solutions and a growing confidence that you can tackle future challenges.

Tom Daccord is director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organization.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

New Resource Center
Explore the latest information we’ve curated to help educators understand and embrace the ever-evolving science of reading.
Get Free Access Today!

"*" indicates required fields

Email Newsletters:

By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.