“I’m not good at math.” “I’m not very good at computers.”

Nonchalant The personal computer has been around for about 30 years. For most of us, the Internet has been around for about 10 years. And yet we still have a sizable percentage of teachers and administrators who can barely work their computers. What does this say about us as educators? As employees of supposed learning organizations who purportedly are all about 'life-long learning?'

Is saying "I'm not very good at computers" the modern counterpart to "I'm not good at math" (both typically accompanied by a chuckle and a c'est la vie hand wave as if it didn't matter)?

Photo credit: Nonchalant glamour

27 Responses to ““I’m not good at math.” “I’m not very good at computers.””

  1. I asked my principal several years ago if he would respond to a teacher who said they couldn’t do math and wouldn’t learn as lightly as he did someone who said the same about computers. Never got a good answer from him. I do see them as similar comments and both as problems. In both cases we are talking about important life skills that teachers must be able to model for their students and increasingly things teachers need to use in their own practice.

  2. I’ve been begging my principal to use the Outlook Calendar to schedule events in our school for the past three years. Currently we have to manually sign up on a white board that someone has to manually update every week. Needless to say it’s a bad system. Unfortunately my principal’s response, “There are yoo many teachers who don’t know how to use Outlook.” Outlook? Are you serious? How do they check their e-mail?

  3. Our children went to a school in what was identified as a disadvantaged neighbourhood. The school board provided computers for each classroom, a board intranet with accounts for all staff, and web space for each school to use.

    In most classrooms the computers weren’t even plugged in until sometime in November, because that’s how long it took the technician to make a call to set up the equipment. Most teachers refused to use email, some with the excuse that the teachers’ lounge had only a few computers and they had to wait too long for access – others simply waved off computers with the sort of comments mentioned above.

    I approached the principal and a few teachers about improving the school web site, which hadn’t been updated in two years and didn’t reflect major changes in both administration and the school name, nor even display a current calendar of the school year. I was repeatedly told that it was a waste of time and effort, as most parents didn’t have a computer or internet access at home. Meanwhile the principal griped about how her photocopy budget was outrageously high – which was no small wonder considering the volume of newsletters, memos and other notices that were being sent home, sometimes twice & three times, with every single child in every single family. We generally got anywhere between 3-6 copies of each notice!

    It seems to me that teachers and administrators would be modelling not only a positive attitude towards STEM by embracing the use of computers and internet to improve home-school communications, but also teaching creative problem solving. Think how much that school could save in time and materials by posting each notice a single time on the web site!

    If the parents don’t have computers now and the schools act as though they are unimportant, parents with fixed incomes will budget for other things like a game platform and new TV. But if computers are important to the school and teachers use them as an integral part of the teaching process, parents without the equipment will be more likely to find ways to get a computer and internet access.

    Even in the poor neighbourhoods parents generally want the best for their kids and will move mountains to get equipment for home that they perceive as being important to the children’s education.

  4. Hi Scott,

    There is nothing like a job that can ONLY be done using a computer to insure that all teachers and administrators have at least a functional capacity to use the beasts.

    Like math and music, my sense is that the way we’ve approached tech training in the past creates “learned helplessness” still. <“>http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/learned-helplessness.html>

    I am always a little nervous when some says “a sizable pecentage” of anything without citing a source or defining competency. While our district’s staff are at varying levels of computer use, I would honestly call NONE of them computer illiterate. (OK, maybe a couple.)But for the most part everyone in our schools uses his or her computer everyday to accomplish at least administrative tasks and communicate.

    All the best,


  5. I agree with Doug Johnson about the learned helplessness that I’ve seen. Math, music, art, computers, foreign languages … all are seen as aptitudes and not as something that everyone learns. A child who says, “I’m not good at reading” is quickly given more instruction! Perhaps this should also happen for anyone who begins with the “I’m not good at . . ” sentence.

  6. I think it’s almost worse with math. Just trying telling someone in a social situation, even another teacher, that you teach math. They’re almost proud to tell you how poor they are in the subject. (As they look for someone else to talk to. 🙂

    When I tell someone I do tech training, the response is almost always to ask for advice or help with some problem they’re having. And trying to solve a vaguely understood computer issue when neither of us are in front of the keyboard is far worse than doing any kind of telephone support.

  7. I think that teachers have learned to be passive-aggressive about computer use in the classroom and it is mostly a budget issue. They come into the classroom wanting to use technology, but then they can’t get enough equipment to have a 1:1 classroom and are frustrated by the lack of support. Then when the district wants the teachers to use the computers, they usually buy proprietary systems that require a lot of training and can often be used only at school. This makes even the most tech-savvy teacher want to throw their hands up in disgust. Those who are less tech-savvy just want to teach and so they claim ignorance for as long as they can.

  8. I’m of 2 minds about this.

    1. It drives me nuts when teachers act like they just can’t do technology.

    2. I feel like people give me way to much credit for what I can do. They act like I’m some type of wiz with the computer. I am just competent. I can set up what we need. I treat the IT people right and ask them questions. I read your blog and several others. 9 times out of 10 when they want something special done I either check the different blogs, CNET Podcasts, TWIT Podcasts, or I call our IT people.

    I tell my kids that learning starts with “I don’t know the answer how can I find the information and figure it out?” Teachers should have the same attitude.

    • I totally agree with you Kimberly. One thing I am most proud of teaching my students is to find a way to find out.. not just say, oh I don’t know how to do that. With YouTube, you can find out how to do ANYTHING! I wish my fellow educators would embrace this rather than calling me because they “don’t know how to do this.”

  9. I made the same point in a Twitter post a while back. Why is it that we don’t accept excuses from students (“I’m just not a math person…”) yet we accept the same excuse from teachers (“I’m not a techie…”)?

  10. I heartily agree with you. In my school/district the older folks are actually the more conscious about checking (and responding) to email. We younger teachers are used to getting so many emails that we don’t feel the need to reply back to each and every one.

    This creates a bit of a clash when an older teacher expected a reply, even if all they were doing was sharing an link.

  11. Is saying “I’m not very good at computers” the modern counterpart to “I’m not good at math”

    No, because that would seem to imply that people aren’t saying the latter, which they are more than ever.

  12. Try telling them you research it. There’s no better way to instantly shut down any social line of communication, even with physics/CS/engineering people.

  13. Very frustrating to work in ANY organization, not just schools, in which an interest/mild expertise in using web 2.0/social media is seen as being a “techie” (used perjoratively). As an example, I asked a lawyer in my organization about the RttT “firewall” and was blown off as speaking techno-geek.

  14. Would any educator at any level ever say “I’m not very good at reading”? Doubt it.

    (Or why when a group of teachers go out to lunch, the math teacher is handed the check to calculate the tip?)

  15. Is saying “I’m not very good at computers” the modern counterpart to “I’m not good at math”

    I would argue it is more akin to saying, “I am not good at reading and writing.” Computer skills are more about literacy than arithmetic. Then again, these are all arbitrary classifications and the argument could be made that math skills are another type or aspect of literacy.

  16. In reference to Doug’s comment, “But for the most part everyone in our schools uses his or her computer everyday to accomplish at least administrative tasks and communicate.” I think it’s very important to make the distinction between being able to accomplish administrative tasks (attendance and grade reporting?) and communicate (email?) and being literate in effective searching, media literacy, and SO very much more. That’s a huge distinction. Saying administrative tasks and communication means you’re “good at computers” is like saying that because we can color and stay between the lines that we’re good at art.

  17. The irony in the comments amazes me…

    On one hand, it’s been stated that anyone not good with music, art, languages, or math be compelled to study each more. In a sense, encouraging generalism regardless of interest or natural aptitude.

    On the other, you are all specialists–techers of math, science, engineering, etc. Could you step into a classroom and teach Chinese? And if you didn’t teach it, but were required to learn it to have a parent teacher conference with one parent, or to complete an evaluation, would you not resent it just a little? In the modern wirks, being Mandarin bilingual is probably just as valuable to some students as a computer. I certainly wish I was offered the opportunity and would have gladly skipped Chemistry.

    And why not Chemistry? Every day of our lives we use MILLIONS of chemicals. Far more than we use a computer. Does a chemistry teacher lambast an English teacher who doesn’t know that their glasses are made from polypropelene?

    As humans, we are partially wired for specialism, and society rewards it as well (if it didn’t there would be no certification required for teaching). If someone chooses to not be a techy, they can still often be just as productive ad their specialty without it.

    And when they wear that choice as a badge of honor, remember that it is partially a little rebellion against learning what they equate to Chinese, and partially deference to you for skills they recognize and respect. “Wow, you know Chinese? I can’t remember a thing from the French class I was forced to take high school. Hey, this guy at work knows Mandarin. Can you teach me to say a dirty word in Chinese? He’d get a kick out of that…”

  18. And who would want to know more about a machine whose spell check turns “modern world” into “modern wirks” anyway?

  19. I’m catching the end of this, but ditto about 18 times. and to top it off, I feel sometimes like the district expects the speed of a steamliner (not the Titanic, but could be ) but giving me the boat a size of a dingy and trying to row as quick as one.

    On the positive side, I remember someone once saying, that success is not just being given a good (poker) hand, but taking a poor deal and playing it well.

  20. I think it’s absurd when I hear these types of comments. Educators almost say their not good at computers with a quiet “pride” in their voice! I didn’t even touch a computer until I was well out of college – now I teach little kids (6 and 7 years old) how to do things I learned when I was in my early 30s. I love it! I get hugely frustrated with teachers who really don’t want to learn – but get upset with students who do the same thing. Lead by example! Students observe more than what they hear.

  21. Educators by profession should be dedicated life long learners. Can you be a life long learner and not be able to run a simple computer function, yes, but why would you not want to try? Teaching students is easier when you build relationships. Students live for technology. Teachers and administrators do not have to be experts at technology but some knowledge is important. When students see we value technology they want to do more with the curriculum that we are invested in. Let the students teach us the computer technology that is difficult (for some) and what a wonderful environment of life long learning will be created!!!

  22. Coming from a corporate background (but now working in education), I am endlessly fascinated by how different the educational world works from the “real” world.

    There is no other industry or sector (I can think of) where employees (which is what teachers are) can dictate what they will or will not use in their jobs. This doesnt just happen with technology, I have seen teachers refuse to use math programs because their method is better.

    As an IT professional, yes, I concede that technology comes with it’s challenges…and yes, it does not work 100% of the time. But, to borrow a teaching concept I like, when it doesnt work, wouldnt it be great if you the teacher learned how to fix it or have a workaround for the next time? Instead of reacting with “disgust”, see it as a teachable moment for you.

  23. Learning technology in 2013 is as important as learning to read and add. Period. Exclamation point.

    • Oh really? What “technology”? Is it computer programming? Application software? Internet search/research? Genetic sequencing? You can not wave around terms like “Technology” or “Science literacy” without saying what you actually mean (well, you can, but you sound like Dilbert’s boss). 20 years ago there was no World Wide Web, GPS signals were scrambled for military use, and the Human Genome Project was 10 years ago. What technology should the students learn for the next 5, 10, or 20 years? The best that we can hope to do is teach them how to learn new skills, because teaching them anything as it exists now will probably be useless by the time they are entering the job market.

  24. My mother is retired and knows how to use a computer. She believes that social media is the spawn of the devil and bans us from using our cell phones in her home…she tries anyway!

    My dad can’t operate his dvd player and calls us to their house to turn it on so that he can watch movies.

    I teach PD where I have to STILL point out where the Microsoft “flag” is…the “Start bubble” and it’s always followed with…

    I’m just not good at technology

    You wrote this article in 2009…It’s 2013


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