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Opinion: Teach Students to Teach Themselves High-Tech Skills

In preparing young people to enter a professional environment of rapidly evolving technology, one of the best things educators can do for them is teach them how to explore and learn about new tools on their own.

A person holding a tablet in their upturned palm with the word "skills" hovering above the screen.
For many years, a topic of concern in K-12 education has been the importance of preparing students for a lifetime of continuous learning. A 2017 Education Week article tells us: “Learning How to Learn Could Be a Student’s Most Valuable Skill.” The article points out that many high school students have only been exposed to learning experiences created by their teachers, while futurists say employers “will want flexible, adaptable workers who can pick up new content and technologies quickly and efficiently.”

Learning must go far beyond the ability to pass the tests students are exposed to in high school — students must study so they can apply the information and get the desired result. Many students don’t know how to learn things on their own, and it’s our job to teach this important skill. (This is so important that I take it up with my business, economics and current-events students.)

No jobs are static. Many require the rapid acquisition of new skills and abilities through ongoing training. New businesses develop new technologies, requiring employees and product users to learn how to use them. Traditional skills and abilities become new skills for those who need them but don’t have them.

High tech is one of the most rapidly changing fields in the world, and learning how to educate oneself is a vital skill in this field. I’ve visited many high-tech companies, and every programmer I met was using programming language A while learning language B which will replace program A within the next few years. High-tech execs tell me the same thing.

There are many ways for students to educate themselves without relying on formal classroom instruction. Formal training might be the right approach in some cases, due to complexity or perceived efficiency, but in our digital world, there are always new educational resources and paths.

An NPR headline from 2018 read: “Pew Research Center Says Half Of Adults Use YouTube To Learn New Things.” Other sources say the number is higher for both teens and adults. In any case, educational videos are a good approach. Many companies provide help videos so users can learn from company experts.

There are various ways for students to gain digital skills on their own:

  • books, user manuals (where they exist) and written online resources that provide comprehensive coverage
  • online user groups and forums
  • e-learning platforms
  • AR and VR education for gaining a range of skills, from welding to dental surgery
  • peer learning, which also benefits the tutor by reinforcing their knowledge and seeing different perspectives and issues.


When students want to learn digital skills and programs that aren’t part of the curriculum, or that must be learned rapidly, I use that opportunity to help them learn how to learn about using the programs themselves. These are teachable moments! I’m sure I’m not the only one who uses this approach, but I’ve not come across it in the literature.

In this realm, I try not to talk much or answer questions, instead asking them questions in a friendly way. My goal is to put them in the driver’s seat of their digital education. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to become the causative agents in their learning.

I try to help them understand what they are trying to learn. For example, they may need to learn how to use a spreadsheet to handle an inventory problem, organize an event or prepare a budget. I listen and am happy to provide feedback about what they are telling me in order to ensure we both understand the goal — mastering a specific program or using one of several programs to achieve a specific result. I want to make sure they realize that in the end, they will learn the program they want to learn, as well as how to educate themselves.

I ask them how they plan to learn this program, then I listen. I may ask some questions, but I don’t want to provide answers. I want them to do the heavy lifting in a safe educational setting where the fear of failure is far less than in the workplace. I show them the shelves of books that may cover the program they want to learn, as well as any online resources the school has available. They might just take it from there, and I’m happy when that occurs.

When they are uncertain about how to learn the program, I ask them to load it on their computer. Here’s where the magic happens. I strongly encourage them to learn by exploring it:

  • using the menus and online help,
  • by going into every menu and submenu to find out what the program is all about and getting a feel for it, and
  • learning the nomenclature and the flows it uses, et cetera.

In other words, I have them experiment with the program and figure out how to get it to what they want it to do. This works because today’s program menus have a similar format.

I ask if they can hurt anything doing this, and they soon realize they can’t cause any harm by exploring and experimenting. Soon they are excited and telling me things they have discovered and learned to do. When they have a problem and ask me for help, I ask questions to find out what they have tried, how this might be resolved, what help they consulted or tried, when it was working and what happened.

I explain that my not helping is actually helping them in the long run by preparing them for the time they will be alone and need to solve a similar problem. I tell them it is far more educational for them to work through and solve the problem themselves, even if it takes a little longer or is a bit frustrating at times. They will learn what works best for them when they want to learn new things. Because they learned to experiment and to research, later they will experiment by trying different approaches. What works best could be different depending on the task at hand.

As the founder of my school’s high-tech and computer program in the 1980s, I often used the menu-exploration approach to learn the programs I used and taught. I still do that today — push myself to explore menus and program choices — and I always find it productive.

My students have very good experiences taking this approach. As they learn to master the program, I have them tell me what they learned about the program, and what they learned about learning on their own. They have a newfound confidence and awareness that the problems will be different in the future, but they will be able to solve them using the experience they gained.

I find this approach gives them back their self-education problem and lets them solve it. It lets them experiment and find out for themselves how things work. They will learn two things at once, and the self-education lesson will last a lifetime. In the end, they will have perhaps the world’s most important workplace skill: knowing how to educate themselves.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.