Of all the academic issues that plague adult learners today, the Robot Effect is one of the most troubling. What is the Robot Effect? It is simply put the turning of students into automatons whose only function is to absorb and then output data precisely as told to. It dehumanizes students, inhibits critical thinking and does not encourage problematizing. This begins during the formative years of K-12 and the effects can last a lifetime. The Robot Effect causes problems that are seen in the workforce today, as well as in higher education, because it enforces the didactic learning style which stifles creativity and innovation. A frame of reference is an idea that is discussed by Jack Mezirow, former university professor and author of the theory of “Transformative learning” states that; “Frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences” (8). The Robot Effect shapes our frame of reference negatively towards education and can be a block for those that could benefit from pursuing a college degree.
When examining the Robot Effect, one must consider the cause, who it affects, when the effect is felt, and why it is a detriment to all who are exposed. The Robot Effect should be viewed negatively because it limits a person’s thinking by forcing students to learn the same way, which does not address the needs of the individual student, it also does not encourage real world type problem solving. It creates a generation of people who are easily replaceable in the workforce. The Robot Effect is caused from an outdated/overburdened and underfunded education based on a teacher student narrative of control. The Robot Effect hurts the workforce by creating an employee base that is unable to critically think and innovate. Innovation is at the heart of business. Every day new ideas are presented and old ideas are re-examined to see if we can improve on them. In these two areas people need to be able to “think out of the box” and innovate in order to come up with new interesting ideas. This is where the Robot Effect is a huge problem. Many who have learned this way lack the habits of mind required to think and innovate as well as be self-directed and independent. The result of this is people who are unable to cope with the business world of today.
The ability to problematize is also essential today for new developments and innovations. The Robot Effect, however, is the antithesis of being able to problematize. Robots don’t innovate, robots don’t problematize, they only do what they are told exactly how they are told to do it. The system is flawed by not showing other/more different ways of thinking. This attitude is prevalent in K-12 education as you are told to answer questions a certain way and not deviate. There are some questions that have definitive, known answers: what color is the sky and what is the sum of two plus two? But not everything is so cut and dry, teachers don’t always tell you the fundamental ideas behind the color of the sky, or the concepts behind two plus two. In the Robot Effect, it’s either right or wrong, 1 or 0, and yes or no.
This of course does not place the blame on the teacher; it is the system itself that is at fault. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian born (and later exiled) educator, references this by saying “Those who use the banking approach, knowingly or unknowingly (for there are innumerable well-intentioned bank-clerk teachers who do not realize they are only serving to dehumanize), fail to perceive that the deposits themselves contain contradictions about reality” (243). In fact there are many wonderful educators who are dedicated to opening up the minds and hearts of the student, but a student must also be self-directed to benefit from them. A good example of this is found in Mike Rose’s essay “Entering the Conversation” where Rose, a professor of social research methodology at UCLA, had a series of instructors who changed his frame of reference and taught him the skills to become a self-directed learner and broadened his abilities as a student. Teachers like the ones Mike Rose had are what free adult learners from the Robot Effect, using an idea known as “Transformative Learning” that was championed by Jack Mezirow. The “problem-posing” method offered by Freire is a similar approach to “Transformative Learning.” “Problem –posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality; thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation.” (249) In this quote from “Entering the Conversation” Rose shows that: “They liked books and ideas, and liked to talk about them in ways that fostered growth rather than established dominance” (108).Sadly, there are not a lot of students today who are able to find these types of liberal educators unless they enter higher education. By that time, their frames of reference may be so jaded when it comes to education that they do not enter into the higher levels after K-12, or the didactic learning style is so comfortable to the student that he/she is unable or unwilling to branch out and become a cognitive self-directed learner. Frames of reference are an important factor in education, and life in general, they shape our world and what we expect from it for example, if you have a negative experience with a math teacher you may end up with a bad attitude towards math in general, If you have a negative experience in K-12, you may not wish to continue education after.
A major issue within the Robot Effect is the idea of control. There are rules built into today’s education systems that encourage the use of dominance and control over a student. The teacher has the knowledge, the student has nothing, the teacher has the voice, the student must stay quiet, and the teacher can punish you, even take away your property, and give you detention, the equivalent of serving time in the jail system for minors. The teacher effectively uses these tools to dominate the class so that the students do what they are told. Paulo Freire can be tied into this idea of dominance when it comes to adult education and the workforce. In one of his pieces “The Banking Concept of Education.”, Freire uses the idea of the banking system as a form of control, where the instructor controls the classroom, establishes dominance over the student, and inputs knowledge he or she believes is most important for the student to have. Not only that, but the instructor also attempts to get all of the students to see only the frame of reference presented. This is a lot like a factory, a place where I’ve spent quite a number of years working at, where being a didactic learner is most useful. The idea that was drilled within our heads as a machine operator was that the machine does not make mistakes. It is the operator that is at fault, and so long as you (the operator) follow instructions to the letter, you will have a perfect part all the time. The issue here is that actual robots have become a commonplace staple within the factory, so why would we continue to educate in a way that creates human robots for manufacturing careers when actual robots can do it better, and more cheaply?
The Robot Effect causes harm to the people within it by making them think in an obsolete kind of way and tailoring them for careers that are being automated, therefore the worker himself is becoming obsolete. This leads to a disparate workforce who are unable to work in the field they were best at, and unable to learn new skills and new ways of thinking to be able to work in other fields that require the worker to be a critical thinker. In his essay “Transformative Learning” “Jack Mezirow references the “Key Competencies for workforce preparation identified by the Australian government, employers, and academics include analyzing information, communicating ideas, planning and organizing activities, using mathematical ideas and technology, working in teams, solving problems and using cultural understandings” (8).” None of these competencies are really taught by the Robotic style of learning, therefore students going into these types of workplaces after K-12 are not prepared for them, instead they require a college education that many cannot, or will not be able to enter into.
There is another, more personal issue involved in the Robot Effect, it is the fear of becoming self-directed, of throwing off the shackles of didactic learning, and no longer being a receptacle of knowledge as Freire would put it. It is fear that can stop many adults from entering higher education. They look back into the experiences of K-12 and think of being told that they were wrong when they had a different idea, or that they were not smart because they learned differently than was expected, and therefore developed the frame of reference that they could never make it college. Mike Rose referenced this fear of education, “And my fears of science and mathematics prevailed: Pereira hall, the math and engineering building, seemed and unfriendly mirage, a malevolent castle floating in the haze of a mescaline dream “(99). To many adults this is how a college appears. It is not just those who choose not to go to college, but even those who are in college are affected by the fears from didactic learning.
To succeed one must become a self-directed learner, but fear of looking stupid in front of your peers and your instructor comes from the experience of being told that you’re wrong in K-12 can stop an adult learner from participating much like the story of Mike Rose and how his frustrations often discouraged him. Also the lack of communication between student and teacher during K-12 can also hurt the adult learner because they cannot create a dialogue where the students’ ideas are heard. Consequently in higher education many students do not attempt to communicate their ideas as they draw upon their frames of reference of what a classroom is supposed to be, as shown to them in the K-12 environment. The K-12 environment according to Freire is one of narration. “This relationship involves a narrating subject (the teacher) and patient listening objects (the students)” (240). The fear created from this relationship is an inhibiting factor when it comes to getting the most out of higher education. Mezirow states that in a successful classroom “The educator functions as a facilitator and provocateur rather than an authority on subject matter.”(11) That currently is not the case in K-12 and we have the Robot Effect to blame. Robots do not engage in dialogue with their programmers, nor do robots even have ideas to communicate. Another fear that adult learners contend with due to the Robot Effect is the fear of questioning the teacher, the teacher known for his dominance over the classroom in K-12 is portrayed as someone who cannot be questioned, and someone who can punish you for questioning them. It is this fear that rules the classroom. Just like a robot, a student cannot question its master.
An important aspect of the Robot Effect is the dehumanization of the student. When a student is dehumanized the very core of who they are is taken away, objectifying them. Mezirow states that “A defining condition of being human is that we have to understand the meaning of our experience. For some, any uncritically assimilated explanation by an authority figure will suffice. But in contemporary societies we must learn to make our own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgments, and feelings of others” (5). Freire agrees with this approach in that humanization states that; “people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality , but as a reality in process, in transformation.” (248) The Robot Effect opposes that defining condition and serves to dehumanize by empowering a single authority figure to explain everything you’ll ever need to know about education. A student who is dehumanized will still have ideas, thoughts, feelings but they will not be acknowledged and because of that, their frame of reference changes into one where they know their thoughts and ideas are not heard and therefore not valued. When in a classroom those who are dehumanized become disillusioned and angry at the education system and can act out or choose to no longer pursue an education as an adult. Dehumanization in K-12 leads to the assumption of being dehumanized in higher education, and in workforce too.
In education there are those who forge ahead with learning, who are not content with being simple receptacles. These people are not overachievers; they are people who are taking an active role in their education. They are the self-directed learners. Being a self-directed learner means that you as a student are the one who is most involved with your success, the burden falls to you when it comes to being successful. People tend to go the way of least resistance, and they tend to blame all but themselves when something goes wrong. Being a self-directed learner puts the work in the students’ hands, as well as the blame. The fear of doing the work and taking all the blame makes the didactic style of learning an attractive alternative for many; it’s also familiar and therefore comfortable since we all grew up with the didactic learning style. Taking your education into your own hands is risky, it’s much easier to become a receptacle as Freire puts it, and it’s easier for the teachers of K-12 who have overloaded classrooms and unruly students. For the adult learner it’s easy to get set in their ways and be afraid of change and doing what is ultimately best for them.
The Robot Effect affects the workplace by creating a workforce that is unable to innovate, critically think, and problematize. It has the effect of displacing workers who only know how to take information and follow it exactly with robots that are more efficient, cost less and usually perform perfectly. The Robot Effect also creates the problems in adult education by giving students a negative connotation of education, which is based on a teacher to student narrative resulting in a classroom where few students participate because of the fear of being told they are wrong just for seeing things from a different perspective than the instructor. Finally the Robot Effect creates the fear of taking education into your own hands due to spending 12 years of school being told to think a certain way, listen to the teacher, never question anyone in charge, and that your ideas do not matter. Then there is the fear that taking your education into your own hands is too big of a risk to take. Compounded by the fear of failure, as referenced by Rose, is why the Robot Effect is so dangerous. This is why something must be done to K-12 education so that our future workers, and adult learners, do not have to struggle to learn to think for themselves.
Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared. N.p.: n.p., 1989. 93-108. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. N.p.: n.p., 1973. 240-51. Print.
Mezirow, Jack. Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. N.p.: n.p., 1991. 5-11. Print.