I’ve been doing a ton of thinking alongside a colleague named Kevin Coulter lately. Kevin is a longtime math teacher who as recently transitioned into an instructional technology facilitator role in our building. Most recently, Kevin was pitching me on a robotics club that he is starting in our building.
In the course of that conversation, he mentioned that he’d bought a Sphero 2.0 for his six year old son to tinker with — and he talked me into buying one for my six year old daughter.
I can’t wait for the Sphero to get here for a ton of reasons.
Perhaps most importantly, it will give my daughter some early experiences with coding and programming — skills that I am convinced will be difference makers by the time that she grows up. I’ve had her tinkering with Scratch Junior over the past year, but she’s never been all that motivated by moving an imaginary cat around a screen. My hope is that the Sphero rumbling around the living room or the backyard will be far more motivating because it is tangible — she can see it and feel it working in a way that just isn’t possible with Scratch.
What I’m most excited about, though, is that the Sphero will give my daughter a thousand opportunities to fail without risk.
She’s going to write flawed instructions time-and-time again. The Sphero won’t move at all — or it will go too far or too fast or too slow to do whatever it is that she’s trying to get it to do. It will make wrong turns and end up stuck under the couch. It’s bound to knock over a few drinks sitting on the carpet. Who knows, it might even bounce off of Nana’s shins a few times instead of going straight through her legs.
Each of those flawed instructions is going to need correction — and my guess is that my daughter is going to be highly motivated to make the corrections. Because she can see her Sphero moving in unexpected ways and because she has specific plans in mind for how she wanted it to move in the first place, I imagine that she’s going to return to her code, find the error in her directions, and make corrections in the moment. What’s more, she’ll experience the instant gratification that comes from making a correction that fixes the flaw in her code — or the need for persistence that comes when there are flaws in a corrected line of code.
You see why this all matters, don’t you?
If we really believe in the power of having a growth mindset — if we are convinced that being confident in your own abilities when faced with challenging circumstances matters — then we’ve got to create lots of opportunities for kids to fail, make revisions to their initial efforts, and see that those revisions worked. That cycle of creation and correction is a fact of life when you are programming — and it builds confidence in learners. Each new opportunity to rework the code that she’s written for her Sphero will send the message to my daughter that mistakes are not failures and that she really does have the ability to think her way out of a jam.
Sadly, that’s NOT the message that students get about failure in most traditional school settings.
Instead, failure typically has HUGE consequences. You spend two weeks working on a project with paper and glue only to find out that you’ve done something wrong. Correction requires TONS of effort that may and/or may not seem worthwhile. Or you spend a month studying a new concept without much in-the-moment feedback about the progress that you are making and you miss twelve questions on the test at the end of the unit. The teacher — rushing their way through a huge curriculum moves on and you are labeled with a C or a D or an F. Your parents are mad and you are embarrassed.
The simple truth is that robotics programs in schools have potential NOT because kids need to learn how to program robots.
Robotics programs in schools have potential because they provide students with chances to fail without risk and with chances to recognize that they DO have the ability to move forward after something goes wrong.
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