This is my second century. I was 13 when it began—young enough to be almost fluent, but old enough that my technological skills retain a quaint 20th-century accent. (For example, I still use email.)
My parents’ generation, on the other hand, didn’t encounter the 21st century until they were full-grown adults. They’d settled into their habits when this digital tide began rising around them: Facebook, Twitter, viral videos, actual computer viruses, Android, Snapchat, gifs, Reddit…
And so was born that tragicomedy of 21st-century life: young people trying to explain technology to their parents. It’s frustrating both for the kids (“Why are you so incompetent?!”) and for the parents (“Why do I need this stupid device anyway?!”).
“This is so easy. Why can’t you do it?” vs. “This is so hard. What’s the point?” Now, why does that sound so familiar…?
Oh, that’s right! Because I’m a math teacher.
I have plenty of experience in conveying technical details to people who are skeptical of their value. I know that practice is important, that learning is scary, and—most of all—that it helps to understand what exactly it is you’re doing.
So I hereby offer, on behalf of generations already here and generations yet to come, three basic steps for explaining technology to your elders.
After several lessons, my grandmother still couldn’t use her new flatscreen TV. “I’ll never learn,” she laughed, half a taunt and half a lament. “I’m too old and stubborn. Your father is the computer man.”
I pressed on. What was she missing? Yes, she knew that the cable box showed lots of channels. Yes, she knew that the TV had two remotes. Yes, she even knew the appropriate sequence of buttons to push. And yet she kept complaining about a darkened screen that wouldn’t turn on.
Eventually I realized the problem. She didn’t realize that the information comes in through the cable box, and is then projected out through the television screen. She knew there were two machines, cable box and TV. But she didn’t realize that you need them both to be on.
We put down the remotes and talked through this basic idea. “What happens if the TV’s on, but the cable’s off?” “What if the cable’s on, but the TV’s off?” It took time and some animated hand gestures. (Though sharp and witty as ever, she was inescapably 89 years old.) But eventually she got it.
In the classroom, I find concepts wonderfully fun to teach—they deliver the light-bulb moments, the “Eureka!” smiles when something clicks. But that’s not enough. Ideas alone won’t update your antivirus software, change your email password, or reprogram your DVR.
Mastering the concept of “bread” doesn’t mean you know how to bake a loaf. You need to learn some procedures, too.
With my grandmother, this meant recording the exact steps she needed to follow. Once I’d written instructions for her, she smartly insisted on jotting down her own, additional comments in the margins. This worked well, for the same reasons I ask students to take notes in class: (1) Note-taking is active, forcing you to consider each step in turn; and (2) It gives you a chance to annotate and elaborate upon the tricky bits.
Next came the hardest part: Letting her try it herself.
Watching her fumble with the remotes, I felt the urge to step in. A three-second intervention—my hitting a single button—could have saved her two minutes or more. No grandson wants to watch his beloved grandmother spend her precious time on Earth locked in a losing struggle with a cable box.
But making mistakes isn’t just a part of learning. Making mistakes is learning. In math class, knowing the principles for solving an equation doesn’t mean you’ll be able to actually solve any. You’ve got to get out there and do it, erring and tripping along the way. Success becomes automatic only after a bit of drill and feedback.
And so it is with cable boxes. Ten minutes of guided practice can save you an hour of confusion and heartache down the road.
The whole lesson, from start to finish, took perhaps forty minutes. By the end of it, my grandmother’s new TV had transformed from a taunting demon into something a little more approachable—something that maybe, with a little luck, she could work by herself.
To achieve mastery, all three steps are crucial. (1) Learn the concept; (2) Break down the technique; and (3) Practice the skill.
In classrooms and living rooms alike, I find that the “concept” step is most often overlooked. Too often, we ask our students (be they teenagers or octogenarians) to start practicing skills before they have any sense of their context and purpose. Unsurprisingly, they forget or mix up the steps, growing frustrated at the maddening arbitrariness of it all.
We teachers must be wary of “expert blindness.” When our knowledge is effortless and automatic, it can be hard to unpack it for novices. We take for granted that the pupil understands the purpose of the machine, or its fundamental features—when that basic fact may be precisely what’s missing.