by Rachell Anderson

I recently purchased a robot vacuum, and I cannot speak more highly of it! I was sick of the constant layer of dust on the wood floors, and this little guy is making it so I don’t have to Swiffer twice a day. Now you might be thinking, “Rachell, congrats on your vacuum, but no one wants to hear about your fun new gadget, we’re here for the ed related material;” but hear me out. As I was working from home today I decided to run the vacuum (side brag- all I literally have to say is, “Alexa, tell the Shark to start cleaning,” and it does!). I got distracted by watching this little guy go about its business, and I quickly started making connections between my robot vacuum and today’s 21st Century learners.

As my guy was cleaning, yes- I have deemed that he is a male vacuum. Perhaps I’m trying to break down the stereotype of women doing the cleaning. Sorry, I digress. Anyways… as he was cleaning, he kept bumping into walls and furniture multiple times, and often had trouble finding his way out of a corner or from under the table. A few times, I have had to pick him up and move him when he got stuck and couldn’t find his way free. I have realized that he gets caught up on one of my kitchen rugs, so I have to move that prior to him entering that area. I have watched that he never starts in the same direction twice. His path is different every time, and sometimes he doesn’t always get to clean the whole house in one day. Hence the reason I need him to clean every day. Additionally, I have put magnetic boundary strips along areas I do not want him to clean; the bedrooms with high carpet, the entry way where I keep my snowy shoes, and in front of the fire place where he keeps getting stuck on the transition from the wood to the tile. Once his battery begins to die he has to return to his dock to recharge. And at that time, I need to empty the bin so he has room to collect more dirt the next time around.

I hope you are already starting to see where I’m going with this. As I think about how my vacuum goes about doing his cleaning work, I cannot help but equate it to learning opportunities we need to encourage in today’s learners. Don’t get me wrong, kids are not robots and should not be compared to them. What I want to draw the comparison to is the similarities between how the robot vacuum operates and how learning should be occurring in this day and age.

So here it goes…

Multiple Paths: My robot vacuum appears to take a different path every time he cleans. I have had it for about six weeks now, and I have not noticed any sort of pattern. Eventually he covers every surface of the house, sometimes needing multiple days to do so, but he never takes the same route.

Like the vacuum our learners need to be encouraged to take different paths during their learning. We need to both help them experience various opportunities, while simultaneously letting them venture down different routes each time. Who cares if they don’t start in the same way every time, eventually they will get the job done. Sometimes it will take them multiple days via multiple paths; but isn’t that what makes learning a personalized experience?

Boundaries: After my robot vacuum experienced my house for the first time, I realized there were a couple of areas I didn’t want him to venture into. So, I laid out the magnetic boundary strips that prevent the vacuum from going into a certain area. The magnetic strip helps the vacuum recognize that he has reached a “Keep Out” area without having to bump into something or get stuck to figure out. He senses the magnet, and turns in another direction.

Our learners need boundaries too. If we give students complete free reign to do whatever they want for a project they may get into areas we don’t want or need them to be. I believe students need voice and choice in their learning, so I’m not saying put boundaries on that, but I look at learner boundaries as being clear with students about the desired outcomes and objectives they need to be working on. We want learners to go off and experience learning in different ways, and in whichever path they want, but we cannot let them completely lose focus and not actually accomplish what they need to learn.

Faith in Frustration: As my vacuum heads to the dining room he is going to spend quite a bit of time under the dining room table. I refuse to move the chairs from the table, if I’m going to do that then I might as well get out the big vacuum and do the job myself. So as my robot vacuum tries to clean under the table and around the chairs, he spends a lot of time trying to free himself. I watch him as he continually bumps into the chair rails over and over, looking for the way out. He bumps, turns a little, bumps, turns a little, until he finally finds the outlet. He then does the same thing with the other five chairs. Throughout this whole cleaning experience he doesn’t get mad and shut down, he keeps trying and trying until he gets free. He doesn’t seem to mind the frustration because I think he knows that he will eventually find his way out. I have faith in his frustration and know that the dining room cleaning may take a little longer, but he will figure it out.

Our learners need to find faith in frustration just like the vacuum has. We need to help them realize that even though it might take longer and it may be frustrating, in the end they will work through it and be successful. If I jumped in every time the vacuum was trying to go under a chair he would never fully clean the dining room floor. His trial and error results in his accomplishment. He doesn’t mind being frustrated and neither should our learners. Frustration is part of growth and we need to encourage students to persevere when they appear to be stuck.

Assistance: I see my robot vacuum appear frustrated under the dining room table, but I know he will get through it. I have seen him be successful in this area many times now, so there is no need for me to intervene here. However, sometimes, regardless of my efforts to let him be independent, he needs my help. He got caught up on the corner of a rug and despite his efforts, he couldn’t get un-stuck. So when he beeped at me (and also sent me a notification on my phone) I came running to the rescue! I pick him and move him to a flat surface, and then he’s on his way to continue cleaning. This only happens about once every 3 to 4 days, it’s inconsistent and unpredictable, but occasionally he needs my assistance.

Assistance is a slippery slope for our learners. If we provide too much, we run the risk of creating dependency. If we don’t provide it enough, we run the risk of learners shutting down all together. We need to be aware that learners are going to need us to intervene and help out on an occasional basis. We need to ensure we have scaffolded learning and then taken the supports away once learners are able to work independently. We can remove barriers that exist so they can continue learning with ease (like how I have learned to pick up the kitchen rug because the vacuum can’t maneuver around it). We need to ensure we are encouraging learners to have faith in their frustration, while at the same time showing them that our support and assistance is available.

The conclusion of my analogy comes while the vacuum recharges. He can only go on so long on one battery charge before needing to be docked. We have to realize that we cannot push our learners all day every day. They need breaks to recharge their batteries too. Finally, once he has docked I have to empty the vacuum’s dust bin. He cannot perform his cleaning duties if the bin is too full. This also helps me see how much cleaning was done. I see this as our opportunity to debrief with students and conference about what they have done and what they have left to do. It’s a chance to do some assessing of learning and make any necessary changes prior the next learning opportunity.

The four needs mentioned above; multiple paths, boundaries, faith in frustration and assistance, are what I have concluded are essential supports for learners in the 21st Century. I created the infographic below to try and sum up what I have concluded about our learners’ 21st Century needs without all of the robot vacuum jargon getting in the way.

As we move towards more personalization and innovation, we have to find new ways to support our students’ learning opportunities. My robot vacuum has helped me figure this out. If I hadn’t invested in this new product, I might never have seen what he can do. I might not have thought of learning in this way. So I want leave you with a quote from one of my favorite authors/bloggers, George Couros. “Often the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking.”