In 2018, robotics and programming classes are globally accepted as necessary. Few doubt the value they add to school curricula, especially in terms of learning STEM. Thanks to the growing awareness of teachers, schools and institutions, robotics and programming classes are being introduced to primary schools all over the world.
Although integrating robotics into intra-curricular education is still underway, this boom for STEM already shows its beneficial effect on students. Computational thinking, deeper understanding of the world, creativity, problem finding and solving are some of the most often mentioned skills developed during these classes.
“… robotics can be applied or used in a multitude of ways. It can be used for recruiting students for STEM, teaching students about STEM, illustrating connections between various disciplines, or as a demonstration of the real-world application of various theoretical concepts.”1
As robotics and programming are becoming widespread in the extra-curricular domain, the focus is shifting onto teachers. Overlooked until recently, teachers are finally starting to be recognized as the main link between schools, students and new STEAM trends.
Below, we will try to present some of the greatest struggles of STEAM teachers nowadays and explain why exactly teachers matter.
THE MYTH OF A “GOOD TEACHER”¶
Everyone, parents and students alike, wish to have the best teachers. It’s common knowledge that having a good teacher guarantees an A-grade outcome.
How to spot a “good teacher”? As usual, there’s plenty of advice available. In primary schools, most authors recommend looking for someone open towards children, friendly. According some articles, “good teachers” must be highly qualified in their field and constantly up to date with recent research. It goes without saying they must be always motivated, charismatic and inspirational. Moreover, any „good teacher” is expected to sacrifice personal time for school; in other words, to give up their private life.
But real teachers are humans, just like the rest of us. Although they try their best and most of them are passionate about teaching, they must deal with obstacles and setbacks in their work environment. And honestly, everyone needs a little time for themselves. Every day, teachers must face problems that their students are clueless about.
Teachers tend to be in constant need of time. Why? Despite popular opinion, it’s not a matter of individual self-discipline. Teachers work not only while in class; they must check and correct their students’ essays, provide feedback, plan the upcoming lessons (taking into account pace of every class, unforeseen events, student preferences, requirements of school curricula, etc.), meet with parents, or even prepare and sort the equipment, especially if they use educational kits. Less obvious duties, imposed by school management, involve administrative tasks, providing written reports, or recording, monitoring and analysing data. Together, they create an unproductive, unnecessary and completely unmanageable workload.2
In the scenario described above, we assume that our teacher works full-time in only one school. In reality, numerous teachers around the globe cannot afford this privilege and have to teach in several schools part-time. The reasons are usually mixed, yet often connected to either low school funds, or insufficient salary and benefits received. This obviously further complicates things.
Considering work conditions, it is understandable teachers might feel underappreciated and lose their motivation at times. Disillusionment affects young teachers the most.
In the UK, almost half of teachers below 36 consider quitting for good,3 simply because their mental health is deteriorating due to overwork. Situation in the US isn’t much better. Roughly 30% of teachers are disappointed with their jobs and one in ten seriously considers leaving.4
Seeing these numbers, it is not surprising they have little time to keep up to date with latest research in their field. Yet even those who don’t exactly fit the popular definition of a “good teacher” deserve respect. Despite hardships, they persevere and do their best to pass on knowledge to those that need it most – their students.
DO WE REALLY NEED TEACHERS?¶
Yes, we do. However, some argue that instead of helping teachers, it would be more efficient to pass them over altogether.
One way would be to create a student-friendly teaching interface supported by knowledge database. Although this idea sounds innovative and amazing, it has flaws. It completely disregards various learning styles and expects the child to complete their education completely willingly on their own. Yes, children are thirsty for knowledge, but they don’t enjoy learning everything the school program foresaw. In essence, this solution could work for some, but there’s no evidence it would work for all children.
Another topic often mentioned in the context of teacher obsolescence is homeschooling. It offers individual approach and real benefits to students, especially if they are living in areas that don’t provide quality public education. However, even if all concerned household members are qualified and received sufficient education to teach on their own, because of commitment and time that must be sacrificed, again, this solution cannot be universally applied.
Technology moves forward, but teachers remain essential. Discarding them in the near future would mean throwing away a meaningful guide and placing hurdles instead.
Teachers work not only to discipline and grade, they also motivate their students. Receiving good grades can motivate individuals, but it’s teachers’ honest passion and enthusiasm that fascinate students the most and encourage them to keep on learning.
In essence, teachers are like the engine that drives students. This fantastic dynamic can be achieved both by seasoned teachers, and by those that start teaching a completely new subject. Actually, a teacher who begins a new subject may create a stronger bond with students. By going through the learning process herself, the teacher gains insight into students’ perspective, which allows her to adjust the material better. A teacher that keeps on educating herself can have an enormously positive influence on students. She becomes the living proof of “if I can do it, so can you” argument – empowering for all parties involved.
Another significant task standing before any teacher is “translating” raw knowledge. Naturally, students have various learning styles, which influence their knowledge acquisition. Usually, it’s up to teachers to present this knowledge in a manner (or manners) that would allow all students to understand and master every concept. Some educational resources may take learning styles into consideration, but in the end, selecting and applying them in the classroom is up to the teacher, who knows her students best.
Finally, the most important role of teachers is to act as guides. They are entrusted with leading the entire class forward, but if necessary, they can also reach out to those who get lost on the way. Teachers are able to spot students that are exceptionally passionate about the subject and usher them to develop their full potential. The responsibility to make most of their students’ abilities rests on teachers and they take it very seriously. In the end, isn’t that what a good teacher should be?
Recent analyses of STEAM in education system further underline the indispensability of teachers. They also confirm that the majority of teachers are hesitant to conduct programming and robotics classes5. It’s understandable, especially since the basic needs of many teachers are not being met. However, the growing demand for IT skills requires students to start learning now and teachers must tackle this challenge. Fortunately, there is a path they can follow to prepare themselves.
“Kradolfer et al. conducted a deeper analysis using sociological methods to understand the blocking factors in the use of robots by teachers who were already familiar with this technology. They came to the conclusion that such limitations could be a result of the high price of robots, the absence of either institutional injunctions or pedagogical research in educational robotics, or a scarcity of appropriate materials and teacher training”6
Firstly, teachers that are starting to conduct lessons in a new field should be able to participate in an introductory training, no matter how many years they have spent teaching. Though experience is valuable, everyone is a beginner in such situations. Start is also easier once someone shows you the ropes, especially since the basic knowledge is needed right here, right now. Moreover, there are always unknowns and unexpected outcomes in any new field; being prepared helps to deal with such events. However, it’s not always enough.
This leads to the second aid that should be available to all educators who begin teaching robotics: professional advice. It’s always helpful, but it’s the most useful if available at a moment’s notice. Not only it assures the teacher she is not left alone, but also guarantees a smooth lesson flow, which makes students happy.
Thirdly, teachers must have access to high quality educational materials. They should deliver sufficient knowledge, while simultaneously being student and teacher-friendly. At present, the lack thereof is one of the biggest problems in K-12 robotics education. According to Mubin et al.:
„One of the major shortcomings … is the absence of well-defined curriculum and learning material for teachers.”7
It might be surprising, since there are plenty of open-source8 robotics and programming materials available. But they are often created by non-professionals, scattered and of varying quality. Compiling them into an acceptable curriculum would take a lot of time and effort, and that’s without any translation involved. Because remember: even though English is considered a world language, most people aren’t native English speakers, especially children. Preparing various language versions of educational materials is crucial to ensure understanding and efficient learning of non-English speakers. Unfortunately, open-source contributors disregard it completely. What’s more, open-source robotics materials are not always teacher-friendly. They tend to overlook teachers new to the field, who are learning along with students.
In truth, this problem is more serious than it looks at first glance; if a teacher cannot understand the content, how is she supposed to pass this knowledge onto her students?
As mentioned above, students do not learn as well without someone to guide them.
Materials, training and support – this is the universal solution to the needs of robotics and programming teachers worldwide. Introducing these subjects into intra-curricular classes can be easy with help from teachers who are prepared and led by professionals. Such educators naturally become role models, inspiring to their colleagues and students alike. Truthfully, almost anyone willing can be a good STEAM teacher, if only they have access to proper support. Nonetheless, being a teacher is not an easy job. So remember to appreciate your teacher the next time you see them.
Robotics for All Ages: A Standard Robotics Curriculum for K-16 by Carlotta A. Berry, Sekou L. Remy, Tamara E. Rogers, 2016 ↩
Workload Challenge: Analysis of teacher consultation responses by CooperGibson Reseach, 2015 ↩
Half of young teachers considering quitting the profession by Rachel Pells, 2017 ↩
Public School Teacher Autonomy, Satisfaction, Job Security, and Commitment: 1999–2000 and 2011–12 by National Center for Education Statistics, 2018 ↩
How do teachers perceive educational robots in formal education? A study based on the Thymio robot by Morgane Chevalier, Fanny Riedo, Francesco Mondada, 2016 ↩
A Sociological Contribution to Understanding the Use of Robots in Schools: The Thymio Robot by Sabine Kradolfer, Simon Dubois, Fanny Riedo, Francesco Mondada, Farinaz Fassa, 2014 ↩
A Review of the Applicability of Robots in Education by Omar Mubin, Catherine J. Stevens, Suleman Shahid, Abdullah Al Mahmud, Jian-Jie Dong, 2013 ↩