Saturday, December 17, 2011

Our students are not robots (except when they are)

I have just finished teaching an intensive two and a half week course on Lego Robotics. I met with the same 13 students all day every day during that time, and we built and programmed Lego robots, completing increasingly complex (both for them to program and me to build) challenges. It was an amazing time, but I’m not going to miss either the incessant whir of the motors or the incessant calls of “Ms. K-M, Ms. K-M, Ms. K-M!”

The other constant refrain of the course was, “My robot’s not doing what I want it to do.” To which I would reply, “Your robot is doing exactly what you told it to do; what did you tell it to do?” We talked a lot about programming and free will—specifically, your robot does not have free will, and it will only do what you tell it to do. If you’re robot is not doing what you want, it means you didn’t tell it what you wanted to do. (I managed to thoroughly undermine this line of argument by showing them Short Circuit.)

After the 342nd (give or take) time I had this conversation, I started to relate it to other conversations I’d had with colleagues, usually as they bring me their students’ final products (sometimes these are projects they’ve worked on with me, sometimes not), and they tell me, “This is not what I was expecting students to produce.” And then we look at the assignment and/or rubric, and I often end up thinking (and saying), “Well, based on this, your students gave you exactly what you said you wanted.” Sometimes it’s teachers who are disappointed their students didn’t elaborate and build on ideas—but the assignment clearly asks for a report, and makes no expectation of applying ideas and facts to new situations. Sometimes it’s teachers who are frustrated that students spent more time on bells and whistles and fancy colors (whether the product be a poster, a PowerPoint, or something else) and not as much time on content—but the rubric gives as much weight to color and visual appeal as it does to content.

If we don’t ask our students to engage in inquiry, or use critical thinking, or apply prior knowledge to new information, they won’t. Some will, sure. But most students need to be prompted, guided, and taught to do so. And that’s our job.

I’m often able to revisit these conversations the next time I start planning a project with a teacher, and we’re often able to design something that, from the outset, asks students to use critical thinking skills and demonstrate the application of those skills.

However, our students—unlike most robots—do remember the programs they’ve been told to run before. Even the bad ones. So even though we’ve created something new and different, many students will fall back into old habits.

This is a challenge I know I’m not alone in facing; I’ve talked about it with colleagues both at my school and in other schools. It is so frustrating. We want to make the shift to inquiry-driven, student-centered work that builds critical thinking ability. But we can’t make that shift all at once. But in order to make the small shifts, it seems like we have to overhaul the entire culture. But we can’t. . . you get the idea.

I don’t know the answer for this, but I am starting to think about the spring research season and how we can help students reprogram their own learning behaviors.