Learning That Sucks...in the best way possible

We had a robotic vacuum.  We named her Sasha.  She was awesome.  Then she broke…



If you have ever run a vacuum in your life (and if you haven’t, why are you reading this?), you know the ins and outs.  The weird piece of string you go over, back and forth, again and again, finally picking it up, examining it, then throwing it back to the ground and running over it again to see if you can get it to suck up.  The front light that seems to cast more shadows than brightness, forcing you to go back over areas you cannot be sure are clean.  But vacuums seem to be the one chore that nobody minds too much.  Yes, it’s time consuming and may be something you dread, but you get to drive something and the total control and power can be slightly intoxicating. 

As I was vacuuming our floors the other day, reminiscing about the good times we had with Sasha, I got to thinking.  Vacuuming is a decent metaphor for learning.  While no metaphor is perfect, stick with me for a second.

With a traditional vacuum, it’s less about the vacuum and far more about the pusher.  The person pushing the device is in total control, making sure every nook and cranny is vacuumed.  It’s largely based on time more than sucking power, as you typically end up going over the same areas multiple times just to be sure, or because you have to get back to another area.  In this metaphor, the person pushing the vacuum is the teacher.  They are in total control of direction, they empty the bag to see what they got, they survey the floor to see what was pulled up, and they plug / unplug the device to give it power. 

But I think a robotic vacuum is more like what we should be after with regard to students.  If everything is working correctly, the vacuum uses a weak but effective process to map out the area.  With some robotic vacuums that may be a laser, with others it is a simplistic GPS type arrangement.  So, just like some students who come to any given curriculum with better or worse tools than others, students must get the “frame” by which to see where the learning will lead them.  Those outcomes, if made obvious, give them something to help when those pesky strings show up.

At the same time, as the mapping process is taking place, the vacuum is working.  It can seem quite odd to the onlooker, because the vacuum doesn’t seem to work in a thoughtful pattern, going very far out of the way at times, and re-vacuuming some areas four, five, or even time different ways.  But the robotic vacuum is always moving forward, motivated to get the job done.  When a master teacher is thoughtful about catalysts and games and compelling questions, students move forward without much need for prodding, learning inside the arena we have set up. 

When the robotic vacuum is stuck, it sends out a signal.  Early versions started to beep, but modern robots can send you a text message: “I’m stuck.”  Savvy robotic vacuum owners start to realize the common sticking points and try to create a passage whereby the self-driving vessel doesn’t get stuck, even if that means doing more work.  Likewise, we know that learning should not be easy, but it should be possible.  Students who get stuck can become frustrated, but if the learning experience keeps their attention and motivation is high enough, they’ll take the long way to an answer.  So master teachers set that up from the start, especially after seeing routes other students take. 

The robotic vacuum also goes “home” at regular intervals to charge its batteries, allowing the dust to be removed from its basin.  Likewise, master teachers realize that no student can be learning all the time (because they aren’t actually robots…).  Students need to connect to other things, just as all people do.  So, master teachers set up opportunities for students to connect to support / help, but are just as intentional about creating opportunities for students to connect socially or to something purely because it is enjoyable.  As we cannot force a student to connect to any one thing, the creation of options becomes important.  That holistic approach, helps keep academics stay both relevant and enjoyable, rather than a draining nuisance. 

I guess this all begs the question, which metaphor works better for your classroom?  Do you believe yourself to be the driver of each student’s learning, controlling the entire experience from top to bottom?  Or do you create environments which allow your learners to make their own map, creating compelling catalysts, removing blockades while ensuring learning isn’t too easy, also ensuring connections far beyond learning? 


The irony here, as well as one way the metaphor breaks down, is that the robotic vacuum model is actually far more difficult for the (master) teacher.  It takes a lot more strategic thinking, practice, time, revision, and on and on.  The robotic vacuum method requires a master teacher be involved, ensuring what may seem like chaos at times is not. 

At the end of the day, I’m not a spokesperson for robotic vacuums, but I can tell you that I believe the research posted on their websites.  If you allow a robotic vacuum to work, it will get your floors cleaner than you can yourself.  Likewise, if you create a student-led model for learning, and you cultivate it, your students will learn better than through the traditional, teacher-centric model.  And learning won’t “suck” either.  😊

Good luck and good learning.