Reading, writing, arithmetic … and robotics? Strange though it may seem to many parents, an increasing number of young children are learning essential STEAM skills (science, technology, engineering, and applied mathematics) by designing, building, and programming their own robots.
Educators agree that robotics cultivates interest in STEAM, and the skills gained by building a robot transfer to other STEAM topics. But what makes robotics such a powerful tool for learning? Read on to learn the factual arguments for why.
The Behaviorist Argument
Psychologists have advanced many theories of how we learn. Keep in mind that none of these theories are necessarily wrong or in opposition to any other. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, and models learning in different terms, under different sets of circumstances.
Behaviorist learning theory is an old and well-established pedagogical theory. It focuses on learning as training. For instance, one classic behaviorist experiment involves training a rat to press a lever to receive a reward (such as a food pellet).
As cognitivist and social constructivist theories have taken the fore, behaviorism has become less popular — but its theories are still sound. It may seem crass to compare humans to rats, but psychologists widely accept the idea that people are likely to repeat actions when they receive a reward.
There are few rewards more rewarding than when a robot works as designed. What’s better than a child building their own personalized toy? The world of STEAM opens up to them, and they begin to fully realize the potential of the technology they’re playing with. With that excitement and enthusiasm, children are far more likely to become lifelong learners.
The Cognitivist Argument
Cognitivism focuses on inner mental processes like attention, awareness, memory, knowledge, thinking, and problem-solving. In other words, in contrast to behaviorism’s easily-observable rewards, cognitivism focuses on the invisible. This theory of mind takes a very logical point of view. It almost views the brain as behaving like a computer, with sophisticated logical systems and internal maps of information.
Cognitivist teaching methods often involve supporting the learner while they discover the proper steps to take to solve a problem. In a cognitivist learning environment that uses robotics for instruction, teachers and parents help children learn the proper steps to follow to design and create their own robot that will solve a specific problem. These same sorts of problem-solving skills transfer to other kinds of STEAM projects and learning.
The Social Constructivist Argument
Finally, a more recent learning theory that’s emerged is called social constructivism. This theory states that people learn within communities of people and that all learning is grounded in social interaction. By engaging with each other while they learn, people challenge their preconceptions and engage more with their learning.
Few classrooms have children building robots solo! Classrooms that utilize social constructivist teaching methods will often have kids partnering with other kids for support. This social engagement reinforces the knowledge and skills children gain, in a far deeper way than if they were to learn these skills alone. When kids learn and complete tasks in groups, they’re far more likely to learn lifelong skills and build a real enthusiasm for learning.
Robotics is such a powerful tool for instruction because it’s useful from many different instructional perspectives. By incorporating theories from behaviorism, cognitivism, and social constructivism, teachers can help kids cultivate a lifelong love of STEAM.