Teaching Robots #EDCMOOC

I have been working through a Coursera course called E-learning and Digital Cultures #EDCMOOC. This post represents the final digit artifact of my work for that course (or rather, “artefact,” as my Scotland-based instructors write).

Among other things, the course and its embedded discussions explored what it means to be educated in an age where much of human knowledge is very easily accessible online and in the not-too-distant future when there will be even easier ways of connecting our minds with that information, beyond simply reading it on a screen (think Ray Kurzweil).

What should math education look like?

I struggle with this question personally, as well as on a daily basis as I seek to empower my students to understand math–what should math learning look like in such a world?

My guess is that such an education should focus most on the creative and original aspects of human thinking that can’t easily (or at least can’t soon) be mimicked by a computer. However, it is a constant struggle not to fall into the trap of treating my students like simple computers.

I support students in a low-achieving school. The students, their teachers, and the school itself are under intensive pressure to pass  big standardized tests to prove the kids are learning. The school’s response to this pressure and to the fact that students are academically behind where they should be is typically to teach most of the material fairly superficially and spend time focusing on lots of test-taking strategies to decode the questions that are being asked and convert them into correct answers.


When tutoring a student, my instinct, therefore, is often to help them understand the general procedure they have been taught to solve a problem, and give them a few contingency plans to use in certain situations (what happens if x=0?).

It occurs to me that this is also what I’d do when programming a computer to perform a moderately complex, but routine task: create a process for it to follow, with a few other procedures to follow in certain specific situations for which the original process wouldn’t work perfectly.

I don’t want to think of students as computers or robots to be programmed. I am reminded of a song from the musical Ragtime: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpRNa01JZYY <–This makes good background music for reading this essay!

The song glorifies the new-found efficiency of the assembly line and of people who work on the assembly line:

See my people?
Well, here’s my theory
Of what this country
Is moving toward.
Every worker
A cog in motion.
Well, that’s the notion of
Henry Ford!

One man tightens
And one man ratchets
And one man reaches
To pull one cord.
Car keeps moving
In one direction.


Even people who ain’t too clever
Can learn to tighten a nut forever,
Attach one pedal
Or pull one lever


I am not a cog

As an educator, I do not want to be a cog, nor do I want to spend my time developing my students into future cogs.

I want them to actually understand the world and engage with the world. Cogs don’t do that, computers don’t do that, robots don’t do that.

The problem is, the reality in many contemporary low-achieving schools is just that. The scary thing is that this is a reaction to being low-achieving. I think we need to explore the possibility that it is really a cause of being low-achieving…..

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this (yet). My guess is that it has lots to do with developing students’ intrigue and students’ responsibility. I am excited that, as I write this, the 2013 winner of the TED Prize has been announced as Sugata Mitra. His focus on kids’ natural curiosity is exciting.

In the meantime, later this week, I’m signing some of my guitar students up for a songwriting course on Coursera. That’s a start, at least!

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1 Response to Teaching Robots #EDCMOOC

  1. Don’t throw in the towel – so many amazing things are happening!!!


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