As an educator and parent, I feel I have been waging the war against screens for more than a decade.  In the classroom, even with adults, it’s a challenge to get learners to focus on what is happening in our space in the present moment; at home, it can be a battle to get my kids to engage with me rather than friends in distant places via text or SnapChat. Lately, I’ve been wondering how I can do more to make the screen a starting point rather than a battleground.

What we can all agree on is that technology is here to stay. Our students have to know how to use technology.  It’s part of our daily life – everything from checking out at the grocery store to staying connected with aging family members. But how are we teaching kids to use it? Are we encouraging creativity and innovation or are we promoting resignation and servitude?

I think the challenge is to teach people, young and old, how to utilize technology to solve problems rather than to feed appetites. This requires higher-level thinking skills. In many ways, this is similar to an entrepreneurial mindset. 

As an entrepreneur who has had countless conversations with mentors, colleagues and investors, I have heard this question over and over again: What is the problem you are trying to solve? This is the starting place for new ideas. 

If we give space for our students to solve problems, then our role changes from teacher to facilitator. We are there to provide guidance and direction rather than to dictate orders. For some this can be an uncomfortable shift. The level of discomfort may also be a reflection of the leadership style of the administration. Are we valuing teachers as partners in problem-solving at the classroom, school, and community levels?

According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, we create engagement by promoting application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Taking Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into account, however, our students must have their physiological, safety, and belonging needs met in order to function at these higher levels. This is the nexus for social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL has both an adult and a child component.

We, as caring adults, are responsible to provide for the physiological, safety, and belonging needs of our kids, so they can become the best version of themselves. I believe they have within them the genius to solve problems beleaguering our world today. We need to protect, provide, and promote them so they can fulfill their purpose.

It is, therefore, impossible to separate the conversation of EdTech from SEL. When I talk about using tech as a starting point rather than a battleground, I mean how can I ask questions and give space to make room for my students to collaborate with each other and with me. 

For example, my daughter and I took a trip to NYC for her 16th birthday. Being from Nashville, neither of us is accustomed to getting around a big city. After a day or so of me getting us repeatedly lost, my daughter was fed up. To her the problem was: We are wasting time because Mom is getting us lost. How do I get us around the city? Her solution was to download Google Maps and navigate our trek on subways and streets to our desired destinations. The benefits were that she learned how to get around the city where she hopes to attend college, and we stopped wasting time. Additionally, she further developed character traits of Courage – facing her fears, Patience – bearing pain and trials without complaint, Perseverance – sticking to it; not giving up and more.

Thinking of Vygotsky’s theory of play, tech can provide a digital playground where students can practice their SEL skills in a safe, low stakes environment.  If they mess up, it’s okay…they are learning.  What we must do is to be sure to be intentional about the life lessons learned as they work to solve problems… help them connect the dots. That’s what a good mentor and leader does.


Here are some project ideas:

  1. Give each student a monthly budget. Tell them they must figure out how to live for a month on this budget. 
  2. As a group, examine current headlines. Challenge them to work in groups to create a positive social media campaign to bring people together.
  3. Working in teams, have them identify a school or community problem. Have them research and create a solution.


About the Author

Tamara Fyke is an educator and creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, which equips K-8 educators with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical, and also provides the supporting resources necessary to empower students to be socially competent, emotionally healthy problem-solvers who discover and maintain a sense of purpose and make a positive difference in the world.

Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter .