Problem Solving Through the Lens of a 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 . . .

tech support says

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. 

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 3.02.50 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 3.10.16 PM

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)

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 3.20.54 PM

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?

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 3.30.14 PM

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.


This post was cross-posted on the AMDSB Program Department website.

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