“Programming robots helps children change their attitude toward mistakes”

Image: Marco Woldt
Spotlight school, image: Marco Woldt

Swiss primary school teacher Laura Hess observed new cooperative learning patterns when her school introduced robotics and programming to its pupils.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Why did robots come to your primary school?

Laura Hess: Two years ago, a group of teachers in my school set up a project group to find a way to introduce computer science to our pupils. We looked at websites and at teaching aids for content that we could use for all our classes, and decided on programmable Bee-Bots for kindergarten through second grade, and the more advanced Ozobots for third through sixth grade.

Our goal was to make programming hands-on and encourage cooperation among the teachers as well as the pupils. We created teaching boxes with a set of exercises and materials for each level. And last year, each class from kindergarten through sixth grade spent four intensive weeks on programming and robotics.

“By ‘effective’ I mean more than just using an iPad during the lesson.”

The fifth and sixth grade curricula call for media and computer science. And the lower grades are increasingly using digital media in an interdisciplinary way, such as for writing stories. It’s a challenge for us to think about how to use digital media in a more effective way, especially in the lower grades. By “effective” I mean more than just using an iPad during the lesson.

CSG: How do the pupils react to programming exercises? Do they view the robots as play time?

LH: Whenever I walk in with the robot box, the kids are totally excited to get to work, even though the exercises are challenging for them. We introduced block programming with the Ozobots and this was something completely new for my fifth- and sixth-graders. It’s a way of logical thinking that has to be explained well so that the pupils can work independently in small groups to finish their projects.

CSG: Why is this kind of work so challenging?

LH: Today’s society is so fast-moving and there’s little time for looking back and analyzing something. Reflection isn’t really a strong point for children anyway, but in programming, this ability is extremely important. The robots only do the right thing when they have been programmed right: mistakes aren’t the robot’s fault.

“Learning to think logically, to imagine what should happen step by step, to circle back – this is a valuable learning experience that the children don’t get in other subjects so intensively.”

It’s always hard to make children go back over their work and look for the mistake, the point where things went wrong. In programming this is so important that there’s even a special word for it: debugging.

I find it incredibly exciting to see the pupils start to change their attitude toward mistakes. There’s no blame involved, and I’ve rarely seen them so cooperative as when they’re programming in pairs. One describes the directions for the robot, the other programs it, and then together they look for the “bug” when it doesn’t perform as expected. Learning to think logically, to imagine what should happen step by step, to circle back – this is a valuable learning experience that the children don’t get in other subjects so intensively.

CSG: Are the robots here to stay in your primary school?

LH: Yes, because robotics is important for children to understand how our world works. The objects we use every day are like robots or machines, and pupils need to learn how machines “think” – which is what programming is.

“Robotics is important for children to understand how our world works.”

Learning how to program also opens the door to thinking about a whole group of new professions at an early age. I believe that in the future we’ll need more and more computer scientists and people who understand how this world works. By introducing children to programming early on, we create a huge opportunity for them.

 

Laura Hess teaches a combined fifth-sixth-grade class at the primary school in Knonau, Switzerland. The school’s robotics project was one of the Spotlight Switzerland 2019 award winners.

The Knonau Primary School is a public school with around 300 pupils taught in mixed-age classes in grades kindergarten through six. Robot your classroom is a project developed by a group of teachers at the Knonau Primary School to introduce the digital world to pupils in an age-appropriate way with lessons on programming and robotics for the different school levels.

“Robot your classroom” was one of the ten Spotlight Switzerland projects presented at the HundrED Campus Seminar on 30 October 2019 in Zurich. The prizewinning projects highlight emerging best practices for digital transformation in the schools. The initiative is a collaboration between We Are Play Lab Foundation, Gebert Rüf Stiftung, Jacobs Foundation, Stiftung Mercator Schweiz, Beisheim Stiftung, digitalswitzerland next generation, and the Zurich University of Teacher Education.

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