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.

Filed Under: education, learning, robots, teaching

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2012 @ 5:21pm

    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.

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