Earlier today, I published a podcast involving this blogger interviewing Brent McGarva, the aforementioned multi-talented Robotics/Music teacher. To listen to this podcast, feel free to click here. Brent was the most awesome choice for teaching Robotics. Why? Because in his own words, there were natural synergies between his primary subject of Music and his new-found love and leading of our fledging Robotics programme. As he notes in the podcast, in music composition, it is all about assembling something one step at a time. In this case therefore, musical instruments are substituted for robots, musical lyrics become coding inputs. What is consistent across both subjects however is the need for creativity, original thinking and of course innovation.
To me, Brent and his Robotics colleague Gareth Haddon (the Social Scientist mentioned earlier, more on him in an upcoming blog) are the embodiment of what the New Zealand Curriculum intended all those years ago. Both of these teachers no longer see their pedagogical skills trapped in a siloed one-subject location. True, many of their pedagogical strengths may sit easier in one learning area compared to another, but this does not mean however that one should remain trapped forever in one subject nor that the skills and understandings can not transition from one area of the curriculum to another. To further emphasise the de-localisation of teachers and their respective skill-sets, one may like to note that this author is an English teacher yet leading Aorere College's digital transformation. One should also bear in mind that what is foremost in the aspirational yet realistic philosophy of the New Zealand Curriculum are the values and the five Key Competencies that have no fixed abode in terms of being in one learning area over another. Lastly one must also remember that the New Zealand Curriculum talks not of subjects but of integrating and flexible and responsive learning areas.
Robotics or robots to be precise have been around since this one was a mere toddler and trust me, that's a really long time despite my incredibly youthful appearance. What hasn't been around as long is the acceptance of the area of Robotics as a legitimate learning context within the school-wide curriculum. Yet if we are serious about this country and others advancing socially and technologically in the very near future, our students and future income-earners do not have to be code-breakers and/or code-makers but they should be at the very least, aware of the role Robotics does play and ultimately will play even more as the future rapidly becomes our present.
Brent among others obviously sees Robotics as yes, a learning context where pieces of metal, plastic and often play-dough are physically put together and then programmed via computer but also (arguably even more importantly) sees Robotics as a authentic context for stimulating creativity, technological design for good and a wonderful context for critical analysis, thinking and reflection. While the students may and indeed do love the physical constructions, what is more significant long-term is that the students are having to innovate, use original thought, learn about teams (and the various roles and duties within) and really learn to problem-solve. As Brent is fond of saying "In using technology, the great thing is you can't really fail."
The growth of Robotics at Aorere College (mirrored also nationally and internationally) points to an increasing and necessary understanding about the need for teachers and students to be acutely aware of the need to understand the wide-spread relevance of Robotics technology and for us to be leading the technology and not the opposite to be occurring. Robotics is in this writer's opinion, as much as about the mind as it is about the hands, the coding or the ultimately produced artifice. As Robotics materials become more readily available and simultaneously more affordable, the onus is even greater to think harder and smarter about how Robotics and the associated fields of technology can assist us in living better and living smarter.
The final reason why it makes sense having a Music teacher takes Robotics is that this individual's limited technical expertise has meant that often he is a learner in the learning space alongside his students and that often, the students are his teachers. This in no way, shape or form suggests that Brent and his counterpart Gareth are unqualified or under-prepared to lead our students in such a field of study. In stark contrast, what it does means is that the students often do have to exhibit and utilise individual and/or creative/original thought to solve a problem or to route the next technological journey for themselves. The teachers in such a scenario "guide from the side" and often lead student learning by creating a environment so disruptive to tradition, yet so conducive for student questioning and self-answering. The teachers are there as a prop more akin to a mirror, where students can see their reflections and consider the most appropriate next steps. Here obviously, there has to be at the very least, a considered and realistic redistribution of academic power, control and pedagogical decisions. These key aspects are so often espoused in the New Zealand Curriculum and by teachers, yet so often abandoned before trial and error and ultimately student independence, learning and yes of course, legitimate academic success in the classroom and beyond.
In hindsight, the worst teachers to have had in this discussed world of Robotics learning would have been the Electronics teacher, or the highly-technically savvy and capable Digital Technologies teacher who would have struggled, due to their relevant competencies, to not jump in and "fix the problem" yet at the same time, would have lost the critical learning opportunity for the students concerned.
In reality, we got it right, I believe really right. Now if Mr McGarva could just build a robot that could teach this English teacher music quickly and competently, now that would be an awesome outcome and a very good prioritisation of resources and time. Maybe it's a little too late for this year so immersed are these students and their teachers in their projects and their collegial and collaborative learning. More like a 2017 project methinks and one, most likely to be solved by the students in a way and via a production that I cannot and they cannot as yet even foresee. This is today's classroom, this is learning, this is the utopic realisation of the New Zealand Curriculum. And all thanks in part to a Music teacher and a Social Scientist. Who-ever would have thought this? Not even a robot would have!