Saturday, August 6, 2016

Robotics for Resilience

In the aftermath following the death of Freddie Gray (Baltimore City resident in police custody, see ) and other physical confrontations between police officers and minorities, the nation is contemplating how to address the essential social issues.  Issues include economic inequality (see  and ), unemployment, injustice, violence, drugs, and race relations.

Education is supposed to be a vehicle for economical mobility, but now a days this is a daunting undertaking. We tell our children that no matter your race, gender, our wealth, in America you can become anything you want to be. Unfortunately, not all economically disadvantaged students believe this. Outside of school, children of disadvantaged households may become discouraged by circumstances out of their control. For example, only 12 percent of poor children live in two parent households as compared to 60% for all children.  Households with children in poverty may experience unstable parent employment, housing instability, insufficient access to adequate health care, or food insecurity.   Poor children are also more likely to start school at a disadvantage. There is a 27 percentage point gap in school readiness between poor children and those from moderate or higher income families. A child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family. This gap does nothing but grow as the years progress, ensuring slow growth for children who are economically disadvantaged and accelerated growth for those from more privileged backgrounds. In addition, two-thirds of America’s children living in poverty have no books at home.   How can educators overcome these circumstances?

As a recent teacher in a high poverty elementary school in the Baltimore area, I have witnessed first-hand how poverty, parental unemployment, and a lack of trust have driven children to lose hope in their chances for a better life.  Moreover, some of my school’s economically disadvantaged students regularly avoid taking academic risks to “save face”.  They will do anything to not be embarrassed by their weaknesses in performing schoolwork. I have had many private conversations with youngsters in efforts to convince them that such tasks worth trying and that they will only improve by putting forth effort.

Students can be successful when they experience rigorous instruction which promotes a growth mindset, resilience, and it relevant to their needs (see  When students face and accomplish meaningful, challenging problem-based learning, they grow in confidence and grit.  I have witnessed how robotics allows students to accomplish great things and develop more positive attitudes toward not just Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) but also school in general. 

Simultaneously, robotics provides important career and life skills which will make students globally competitive. Robotics provides a foundation for the type of thinking required in the 21st century (see ). It promotes creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.

One reason robotics is so successful is that there is less fear of taking a risk.  Everyone starts with a level playing field because in elementary school nobody comes in knowing how to program a robot.  Students who may not excel linguistically often shine when working with their hands with robots. If a robot doesn’t work, then they tinker with it until it works.  The moment of “failure” is transformed into an opportunity for learning.  How does this work?

Rather than artificially boosting esteem through superficial praise, real agency is earned by overcoming rigorous challenges. We present tasks of gradually increasing, but manageable levels of difficulty.  The instruction provides students with alternative paths to learn and demonstrate understanding. By holding high expectations, but providing multiple pathways to meet such expectations, students are able to conquer tasks by applying their own unique talents. With properly scaffolded tasks and just-in-time coaching, students rapidly see success. This methodology promotes agency.

At the conclusion of our robotics team tournament, we held a debriefing.  I asked students to reflect on their experiences. Paraphrased comments included “If it doesn’t work at first, you should keep trying different things”, “Initially, I was afraid to present to the judges, but I learned that I like it and am good at it”, “It doesn’t matter if you win, as long as you learn something and have fun”, “I’m good at being a leader”, “Teamwork makes it easier to get the most points”, “When it is hard to do something, it feels when you finally make it”, and “When can we do more?”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.  

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