Using Robots Wrong: 3 Mistakes Teachers Make in the Classroom

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Bringing in robots to the classroom is one of the best ways teachers can have students demonstrate their understanding of coding, along with other cross-curricular concepts.  Through physical coding using robots, students see their programs come to life, right in front of them, while teachers can easily see if the task was able to be accomplished.  I have visited hundreds of schools the last few years, speak about coding and robotics, and have worked with hundreds of students and teachers showing them amazing ways to bring these tools into the classroom to enhance the curriculum.  But, I continuously see a few of the same things people do wrong.  I want to bring some of these to your attention so you don’t make similar mistakes, and give students the best opportunities to learn, while teaching skills that will be replicable through their school careers.

  1. “Setting and Forgetting”  There are too many times to count on all my fingers and toes that I walk into a classroom, a teacher invites me over to their mini maker-space in their classroom and shows me they have a robot sitting on it.  They are so proud.  But, like so many other technologies brought into the classroom, there is a misconception when it comes to these being transformative devices and providing learning outcomes.  Just because it is in the classroom doesn’t mean it is going to make learning any better, more effective, or more engaging.  I ask the teachers what they are doing with the robot, and they tell me the students just come over and play with it, but they themselves don’t really know what they are doing.  They assume that because the robot is there, the students will be using it effectively.

What we should be doing is do some simple research on what the robots can do.  Even if you’re not comfortable using them yet yourself, at least watch a Youtube video, or visit the manufacturers website to see what materials are available that can easily be integrated.  Wonder Workshop, creators of Dash, Dot and Cue robots have amazing challenge cards that are design exactly for a self-guided center activity.  Plenty of other companies create similar activities that are easy to apply to a maker-space or center-based activity.

2. “Driving ≠ Coding” Another thing I witness more and more in classrooms is the misconception that just because we have a robot, and we are driving it around, means we are coding.  No, you’re not – you basically have a very expensive remote control car.  There are activities I see where people claim they are making “coding art,” but essentially all they have done is drove their robot through paint and continued to drive the robot around in the remote control function.  The first question I ask is, “what are the students really learning here?”  More times than not, the assumption is that they are being creative because they are creating abstract art.  After talking to students, they tell me they just learned to drive a robot around in paint.  Not the best use of time, although it does create some pretty sweet art!

The other setup I frequently see are these beautifully designed and engineered courses that the robots need to run through, but again, they are using the remote control function.  If the lesson was how to build an environment and simply drive a robot through it, then great, mission accomplished.  But when talking to teachers they are telling me they are coding the robot, when really they are just driving it around.

What we should be doing is creating these incredible art experiences, and design these beautifully engineered courses, but use the coding application and not the remote control functionality.  You will see student engagement quickly increase, because they are determined to solve a puzzle, or get through a course using the least amount of lines of code, or design a star using algorithms.  The learning experience should be creatively coding and not driving around.

3. “Research, Research, Research” There are great robots that are out there, but not all robots are right for the classroom.  Do your research on what works best for what you’re trying to accomplish.  Just because a robot may be a cheaper price, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the right tool for the right job.  Most robots average between $50-$200.  The more expensive ones don’t always do everything you need either.  Look at the features and make a determination.  Too many teachers and schools are wow’d by what they are seeing people post on social media, but you need to ask yourself, “are they using the tool correctly or just using the flashy features?”

What we should be doing is research the robots.  Visit the websites, seek them out at conferences and learn about them.  Do they have educators on staff that are making the right decisions for the classroom in which the software and hardware is being developed?  Do they have curricular tools and resources that make it easy for the beginner teacher to get started?  Do the robots have the ability to grow with the child as they begin to learn more?  Does the batter last long enough for the students to accomplish their goals?  Are there additional things I need to buy or pieces to make it work?  Are there little pieces that I need to worry about losing?  You will quickly see, this are the questions we should be asking when making a purchase for our classrooms.  Companies make promises and try to show you the best of what they offer, but they are the experts using the tool.  What are teachers saying about the product?  Do they have success stories?  Do teachers post their successes on social media?  Do they have a community of educators you can reach out to when you want some inspiration or to learn more?

Let’s start asking these important questions when making purchasing decisions.  The right company will be there will all of those, in-hand and ready to share!  Don’t make the mistakes that many other teachers have.  Yes, this is a learning process for many, but we can learn from these mistakes.  We can have these amazing resources be incredible learning tools for our students.  Feel free to share in the comments what robots have worked for you and your class environment.  If you want to learn more, or need help figuring out what the right tool is for you and your school, reach out.  Happy coding!




  1. Diane R Sendecki says:

    I agree completely I piloted a STEM/Robotics Computer literacy program last year. I found many students trying to convince themselves and others that using the RC type of app for our robots was better. My reply was always, “easier, not better and not Coding or challenging.” I guided my students to challenge themselves to follow through with Coding and programming their robots. I feel the students felt more inspired and engaged with coding, and I’m happy that I’m not the only educator who agrees.

  2. Wes Fryer says:

    Thanks for sharing this excellent article and these tips, Bryan. I definitely agree that driving (via remote control) is not coding. With Spheros or other robots, if left to their own devices, many children will stick with remote control activities rather than coding. Playing is certainly important, but for different reasons. Computational thinking is not necessarily cultivated through free play, but it is developed through the development of coding scripts which address design challenges and/or accomplish goals kids set for themselves.

    • Bryan L. Miller says:

      Thanks, Wes for your feedback! I hope all is well with you. Yes, as wonderful the exposure to these devices are, without some sort of facilitation, you are correct – students will revert back to the driving around and free-play. Our role as educators is to challenge students beyond their comfortability level to grow as a learner, and simply driving a Sphero ball around isn’t the solution to that. Schools are however doing a better job offering professional learning opportunities for teachers around computer science.

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