The Secret To Better Education… Is Dumb Robots?

from the surprise... dept

A year ago, in writing about innovation in education, I mentioned an observation I had about learning, combined with a prediction about how technology could help revolutionize education in a good way:

One of the other lessons I learned in teaching (and in tutoring before that) was that the best way to truly master a subject is to teach it yourself, and have people asking you to explain it back to them. This is why I’m not joking up above when I talk about the possibilities of having certain subjects taught by other students as well. You might think you fully understand a subject, but just wait until people start asking questions (similarly, despite quite a bit of study in the subject, my full “understanding” of certain aspects of information economics didn’t become really clear until I had to explain them repeatedly via this blog). And, of course, it need not be students teaching students — but you could have software designed to act like a “learning” student, where the student has to “teach” the software.

It appears that others have had the same idea… and been doing some studies about it. Via TechCrunch, we learn of some new research, by Shizuko Matsuzoe and Fumihide Tanaka at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, that found that when students “taught” a “dumb” robot, they learned a subject much better (in this case, it was Japanese students learning English):

Matsuzoe and Tanaka found that the children did best when the robot appeared to learn from them. This also made the children more likely to want to continue learning with the robot.

They note that most traditional “educational” robots tend to work in the other direction… acting as “teachers” for the kids. But those appear to not be nearly as effective as when you flip the relationship. As I found back when I taught, having people continually ask you questions to clarify their own understanding forces you to truly understand the subject yourself at a much deeper level than if you’re just a “student.”

You can take a look at the full study over here (which, it’s great to see, is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License). And there are some really interesting findings. First, the difference in performance with and without the robot is pretty significant:

But perhaps even more interesting is that “3 to 5 weeks later” result. This actually went against the researchers’ hypothesis going into the research (I’m always a fan of research that rejects researchers’ initial hypothesis!). They expected that after a few weeks had passed, students would gradually forget some of what they learned. But what they found was really encouraging. It seems that the experience itself made them even more interested in continuing the learning process, and those who learned with the robot really seemed to figure out how to “teach themselves” much better:

Contrary to our initial assumption, the average percentage of questions answered correctly was in fact higher than the results obtained on the day of the experiment (we predicted that it would have been lower because the children might have forgotten the learned verbs). Subsequent interviews with parents (details in Section 6.3.3) provided us with some clues for this result. Most parents told us that their children appeared to enjoy the experience of teaching the care-receiving robot so much that he or she continued to play the game at home, even after several days, weeks, and wherever similar objects were found.

While this is still early research, it’s definitely encouraging, and hopefully more people will start to explore similar ideas. Teaching kids by having them teach others could be a really effective way to create a much deeper level of understanding within students, rather than just teaching them to learn by rote.

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Comments on “The Secret To Better Education… Is Dumb Robots?”

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Vog (profile) says:

“As I found back when I taught, having people continually ask you questions to clarify their own understanding forces you to truly understand the subject yourself at a much deeper level than if you’re just a ‘student.'”

I’ve long thought the same way, too, and I’m a firm believer that the most important thing to learn is how to teach yourself. From there, the rest is much simpler.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is actually a pretty good idea. When I want to learn more about whatever I surf forums. They’re a good place to find some questions you yourself might never have thought of. Even if you know something inside and out there is always a angle you’ve never even considered looking at it from.

I’ve been turning into quite the Photoshop junkie over the last couple years. I mean I’ve used it as a hobby since the 90’s but I’ve been digging into every aspect of it hardcore for a while now. More times than not other peoples questions end up helping me with something else.

Just remember the only stupid question was the one never asked.

Anonymous Coward says:

That’s why whenever I read text it’s always good to ask and answer questions. When taking classes ask questions, don’t be shy, make sure you know the subject well. Divide your mind into two parts, one part that’s truly dedicated to being skeptical about what you think you know or are reading, about it’s true veracity, about it’s precision and accuracy, logical consistency, correctness, etc… and the other part that attempts to answer provide all the answers. If reading a book, when reading it, challenge the information in it, challenge its correctness, consistency, logic, challenge it with other information you know (or think you know) and try to extrapolate the answers from teh book. If unsure, look it up on the Internet, do research, ask your teacher, etc… to find answers. Make sure you know your stuff.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

and what’s a really good idea is for you to do problems, like math or physics or other problems, after reading the text. But what I don’t like about textbooks (and newer ones I think are starting to change) is that they don’t always provide answer keys to all the problems (and you often have to pay for an answer manual to get the answer key and the student answer manual only has like half the answers). You should try the problem first, try to get to an answer, and then compare answers and methodologies (or, if after trying for a short while you can’t get to an answer, do another problem and come back to the problem. If after a while you still can’t do it you may look at the answer key). Textbooks should provide answer keys to all the problems or else most students won’t even attempt those problems. Heck, you’re better off at least looking at the answer key than ignoring the problem altogether, you will still at least get a better idea of how to do the problem (though making you figure out harder problems with less training is good mental exercise) but you can’t do that if answers aren’t provided. and many math books often don’t provide enough examples to solve all of the end of chapter problems.

Adam (profile) says:

I taught Mechanical Engineering for nearly 40 years and my wife taught Kindergarten and grades 1 & 2 for 35. Even in those widely spaced venues in a young person’s learning experience, “having people continually ask you questions to clarify their own understanding forces you to truly understand the subject yourself at a much deeper level than if you’re just a ‘student” is true. In university and grade school alike, it’s sensitivity to the questions and empathy for the “I don’t get it looks” in the room that separates a good teacher from a bad one.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Pretty old idea

I think this misses the first step, which is to motivate the learner. They need to know why they need to know something.

In addition, I like: Education provides knowledge. Knowledge, training, and experience provide skill. Skill is what you sell in the marketplace, either to an employer or a customer.

Wally (profile) says:


“One of the other lessons I learned in teaching (and in tutoring before that) was that the best way to truly master a subject is to teach it yourself, and have people asking you to explain it back to them.”

My father taught the same way, students loved him. His major in college was a Bacherlors Degree in Chemical engendering and taught Chenistry for most of his teaching career.

You also have to find a way to grab a kid’s attention and wonderment. To little children, a robot seems to be best because of its predictable nature. Chemistry is awesome for teenagers when you have a teacher that fills bubbles with natural gas and lights them. So it does vary from age to age.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps, but as we all know, Dumb Robots are often quite helpful when it comes to silly comments written by a former bagel baker originally from Long Island.

Nonetheless, everyone becomes amused from time to time, and this is one of those moments which requires a reader to stop, pause and ask how good is the fishing season this year from Masnick’s yacht. If your like me, you’re probably wondering if he’s tossed you a bagel on the end of the pole, or, maybe if your lucky, it’s a doughnut filled with jelly. My guess is that it’s a doughnut.

Anonymous Coward says:

Actually, it’s a little misleading here. You don’t need a robot to accomplish the same thing. Some would call it a “teachable moment”, the creation of play that teaches. You don’t give them all the answers, you let them play and discover the answers as they go. Let them work with things in a way that isn’t particularly “learning”, and they learn.

The only difference between smart and dumb robots is that one provides all the answers and doesn’t make the kid think. It should come as no surprise that the option that doesn’t use the kids brain also doesn’t teach them much.

Anonymous Coward says:

As a child, I remember having a horrible time memorizing names and dates for my history class…but I had NO problem memorizing the 151 (at the time) different Pokemon. Why? (besides the fact that Pokemon are more interesting than names and dates) because the Pokemon craze was just spreading and I wanted to get my friends into it. In order to get my friends into it, I had to teach them how the gamed worked…what the different types were, how they interacted.

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