Throughout my 35 years of teaching, I’ve watched students grow up in what I lovingly call the “worksheet generation.” In this environment, students are accustomed to a very structured style of learning, where they are handed a worksheet, then asked to turn to page five in their math book and solve problems one through 15. This approach, however, often teaches students there is only one right answer and limits meaningful engagement and creativity.

My teaching experience has taught me that it is no longer possible to prepare students with the 21st century skills they will need for the workforce without moving away from this paint-by-numbers approach. Instead, teachers must develop curriculum that inspires students to not only find new solutions, but to also test their solutions, and improve on them, through trial and error. This can be done using hands-on learning tools like robotics, which intuitively teaches students how to problem solve using critical thinking.

The question is: how can teachers create a robotics curriculum that not only breaks students out of the “worksheet generation” mentality, but also shows them the possibilities of learning with trial and error? Here are four tips for teaching students how to problem solve using hands-on robotics as a tool:

 1. Set the expectation up-front that there is more than one answer.

Students today are accustomed to tests where the questions only have one right answer. When these same students are given a platform like robotics from which to learn, it can be a challenging process because they may not be used to the open-ended questions they face when working with robotics. Teachers should set the expectation up-front that there is more than one right answer and the first solution you try will probably change by the time you finish.

This teaches students the very important process of iteration to help find a solution. Students may have to try something that doesn’t work, but it is guiding them towards a solution that will work. Once students begin to feel more comfortable with the idea that trial and error are part of the process, they begin to look at the project more openly. This is how students start to learn the problem solving process that is crucial to honing 21st century skills: imagining, testing and improving.

(Next page: Robotics for problem solving tips 2-4)