The challenge for teachers in today’s educational environment is to teach student at their instructional level. Instead of creating an artificial level to instruct the entire class, teachers have to assess each student’s current level and create a plan to ensure that the student has academic growth from that beginning baseline. It’s best to think about this with an example. A sixth grade student has a reading comprehension at a 9th grade level at the beginning of the school year. The student takes assessments during the spring of that school year. When those assessments are scored, it shows that the student is reading at a 9th grade comprehension level. In the past, teachers and parents would be happy with that information, but the recent push towards differentiated instruction has forced educators to look at this information in a new light. What implications does this have for a robotics teacher?
Luckily, teaching robotics seamlessly fits into the demands of differentiated instruction. First, students are encouraged to come up with different solutions to problems. Whether it is a building challenge or a programming exercise, different students are going to come up with different solutions. Students are encouraged to do this in other disciplines also, but robotics is unique because it is so open-ended. There are only so many ways you can solve a math problem, but there is a myriad of different ways to program your robot to accomplish a task.
Secondly, students who are learning robotics are not forced to conform to an artificial ceiling. In another classroom, a teacher has to keep a student’s learning somewhat in line with the rest of the class. When teachers try to differentiate instruction, they create projects or assignments that are open-ended so students can explore those items as much as they can. However, when that assignment/project is completed, students are all brought back to the same point within the curriculum. Teaching robotics revolves around problem-based learning. Therefore, as the students learn how to solve a programming challenge with more sophisticated ROBOTC code, they are accelerating their knowledge both within that project and within the larger curriculum. While some students are mastering the fundamentals of programming their robot to move, other students can be incorporating more complex programming tools, like functions, into their programs. Robotics teachers can point students in the right direction so they can explore different and more intriguing programming concepts to apply to their challenges. It is not necessary that students memorize all of the different programming/building techniques, but that they know how to access the information when they need it. In this way, students are given the tools to create some ownership with their learning. That ownership, combined with the engagement of robotics helps to provide the true key to differentiation: high student interest.
Simply, if students are not interested in what they are doing, they will never develop the intrinsic motivation needed to push their learning. Students will work towards the minimum unless they are engaged and challenged. Teaching robotics provides the perfect platform to accomplish this goal and create a learning environment in which students are receiving individual acceleration and enrichment. Robotics is the perfect means to achieve the end of differentiated instruction.
– Jason McKenna