Learning with robots

This piece is not about “learning about robots”. I’ve deliberately titled it “learning with robots”, as I’m keen to address the question: what are the unique aspects of the learning experience that come from working with physical robots?

The answer is partly suggested by the toys we give to babies and very young children to play with. They are not just toys, but instead physical objects that allow small humans to learn about the world by interacting with them – they are tactile and manipulable and help the child to develop motor skills and to learn for themselves how the world around them works, understanding cause and effect relationships. The same philosophy follows through into Montessori schools. The prepared environment of a Montessori classroom contains physical learning materials that appeal to all the senses.

What are the characteristics of educational robots?

Depending on the model used, the types of robot used in the classroom typically engage the senses of sight, sound and, most importantly, touch, because they are physical objects. Robots often also have sensors that can measure factors such as light, or distance, or the presence of other robots, enabling them to not only move but also to respond to their environment. Importantly, a robot does nothing unless it is programmed in some way. The learner working with a robot has agency over how that robot will behave in a given context and is able to explore multiple alternatives. In some cases, for example Lego Mindstorms, the robot itself can even be constructed by the learner for a particular purpose. The Edison robot, designed for younger learners, is also Lego compatible, while mBot robots are compatible with Meccano.

What type of learning happens with robots?

Working with a robot allows the learner to make predictions about the world as part of a problem-solving process, to test out those predictions, to learn from the results, and to adapt. This learning very much follows the cycle of experiential learning – Plan, Do, Reflect, Act. Learning with robots is also highly constructionist – learners make something, and from that making they construct their own knowledge and understanding. One of the great features of robotics from a learning perspective is that they give immediate feedback. Students come up with an idea, they write the code for the robot, then set it running and see exactly what happens. They can then respond to any unexpected behaviour by revising their code. 

What skills can be developed?

The specific skills developed with robotics tend towards the technical. Coding and electronics come to the fore, with a good deal of computational thinking. With more sophisticated robots such as Lego Mindstorms there is also a large element of engineering design. However, there is also a range of higher level skills associated with working with robots. Students can work in teams, communicating and learning collaboratively, while coding a robot’s behaviour requires extensive critical thinking and problem solving, and a good deal of creativity

How can robots be used across the curriculum?

Perhaps one of the hardest things to address when working with robots is how to use them in a cross-curricular context. It is relatively easy to use robots to teach STEM subject areas such as maths, physics and technology, but what about less technical areas of the curriculum? In Korea, where there has been a major move towards using robots in the classroom for younger learners, they have been used to teach subjects as diverse as languages and music. Using Bee-Bot accessory mats, young learners can use these robots to help them learn the alphabet, explore stories, and engage with history and geography. In other examples, students have built narratives and characters around the actions of their robots, and Sphero robots can be used to work with shapes that the robot can follow. 

Robots are already part of life, performing important roles in society. They’re no longer just shiny futuristic beings appearing in films alongside Will Smith. It’s important that our learners are given the opportunity to understand how robots work by programming and interacting with them and, to ensure this can happen, it’s important we take advantage of the vast array of potential learning activities across the curriculum.

This piece was originally published in Interface Magazine.

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