Just Make – Documenting Play and Exploration in Robotics


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs

I have been wondering for a while about all the hype around the Reggio Emila Approach, an early childhood program that focuses on relationships, documentation, project work, personal expression and active listening. Initially my attention was sparked by Dan Donahoo’s keynote for ICTEV13 Conference and the notion of the digital village. More recently, Cameron Paterson piqued my interest. Firstly, with a post about the links between Project Zero and Reggio Emilia through his discussion of the book Visable Learners. Then more recently in a post exploring the use of documentation in the Secondary classroom. I have been left thinking about what Reggio might offer my own teaching practises.

One of the things that stands out to me in regards to Reggio is the power of play and discovery. The idea of students driving their own projects and inquiry with the teacher providing a space and documenting the various experiences has a lot of potential. Although this could happen in any context, I saw a real opportunity through the teaching of robotics.

I felt particularly challenged by Steve Brophy in regards to letting go. In a post talking about developing a Makerspace, he explained that:

From a facilitator point of view, I purchased everything but opened nothing. I left the whole process to the kids and was constantly amazed by how much the kids would ask “are you sure we can do this?”

Although I had brought in inquiry in regards to wondering about robotics, I was still reluctant to let go of control of the building process. What I noticed in reflection was that for some students this was fine. They liked the structure that I provided. However, there were some that just wanted to explore and I was only inhibiting, rather than harnessing, this.

As I could find nothing in the AUSVels documents that specifically said students must be able to build and program a NXT Mindstorm robot, I decided instead to provide them with the requirement to ‘make’. What unravelled when I handed out the kits was amazing. Some started with instructions, others tested and tinkered. Some explored programming, others making. Some scrapped the instructions part way through, while others picked them up after some initial open explorations. Some walked around to check what other groups were doing, while others supported different groups with their questions and issues. Although I answered a few questions and found some missing parts, I just moved around and documented what the students were doing. All in all, most students demonstrated a depth of understanding and engagement at the end of the first session far beyond what I had ever seen before in a building session.

in a recent post about play, Tom Barrett suggested that:

It is not simply the timeless nature of immersive play but also the way that physical barriers, and even the rules of physics, become non-existent. They are changed, thwarted and ignored. Superpowers ON!

What was so exciting to observe in the lesson was seeing students enact the greatest superpower possible, the ability to not only learn together, but to in fact drive their own learning.


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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator supporting schools with the integration of technology and pedagogical innovation. I have an interest in how together we can work to make a better world.

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Just Make – Documenting Play and Exploration in Robotics by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

4 thoughts on “Just Make – Documenting Play and Exploration in Robotics

  1. Great stuff Aaron, your class sounds fantastic.
    I like this statement
    ‘As I could find nothing in the AUSVels documents that specifically said students must be able to build and program a NXT Mindstorm robot, I decided instead to provide them with the requirement to ‘make’. ‘

    Does that mean that you were also allowing them to potentially not make the robot? Did anyone make something from their own imagination?

    1. Thanks Kynan for the comment.
      I am known for questioning every definition of a ‘robot’. Too often we think robots are considered as having arms and legs. Some did, some didn’t. The focus though was making. Like Brophy’s students, it took some students a bit longer to take up the opportunity, but once they did.
      So, yes students were definitely allowed to build anything. I just discussed with them what they were making, no judgements though.
      My next step is including them in the documentation process, taking pictures of different iterations.
      Still feel that the biggest step was letting go of the ownership of the organisation of the kits. The students need to own all the steps.

  2. Your use of the phrase the phrase ‘letting go’ (when speaking of your practice), is an interesting one. I feel these phrases can easily be viewed from the position of identity, our understanding of ourselves as defined by the term teacher within the current discourse of education. It implies that you must ‘let go’ of a piece of yourself, a piece that had defined you, in order to enter the new paradigm your trying to get to. That is a courages thing to to!!
    Interestingly enough you then insinuates that you gave the students permission to now use their imaginations ‘So, yes students were definitely allowed to build everything’,
    This is not a critique of you it merely I feel it demonstrates how all powerful the dominant discourse of education is within our own identities as ‘teacher’ leading to an expectation of required practices in order to both maintain that identity and also participate successfully within the current system (under the principal of exclusion and selection) .
    Terms such as ‘allowed’ are terms that imply control and hierarchy rather than the systemic understanding of knowledge you are pushing towards with your interest in ‘Connected’ learning. But they are also terms very common to our understanding of teaching in this discourse. What do you think?

    1. I think that you make an interesting point Kynan. I have really been thinking about it for a bit.
      Your comment reminds me of Louis Althusser’s argument that we are always already interpolated. Maybe this is what the compass bearers mean when the call for a revolution. I also guess that your comment highlights the importance at times of ‘unlearning’ certain habits and behaviours.
      In regards to the connected discourse, the question of power goes far beyond the structure of the classroom. There is now the counter challenge being made about the web and what supposed benefits it may bring. Hard to have a connected learner if they are unable to even connect?

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