“The Secret to a Good Robot Teacher”

“Why is educational technology such a disappointment? In recent years, parents and schools have been exposing children to a range of computer-mediated instruction, and adults have been turning to “brain training” apps to sharpen their minds, but the results have not been encouraging. A six-year research project commissioned by the Department of Education examined different cybertechnology programs across thousands of students in hundreds of schools and found little to no evidence that they improved academic performance.” D. DeSteno, C. Breazeal and P. Harris, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Photo: DailyMail

Excerpt: The Secret to a Good Robot Teacher, D. DeSteno, C. Breazeal and P. Harris, The New York Times

“Unfortunately, it appears the same goes for cognitive-training programs. Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity, one of the leading programs in this area, agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that it misled customers with claims that Lumosity improved people’s performance in school and at work. In our view, the problem stems partly from the fact that the designers of these technologies rely on an erroneous set of assumptions about how the mind learns.

It was through other people’s testimony or through interactive discourse and exploration with them that we learned facts about our world and new ways of solving problems… To investigate the importance such social cues might play in learning from technology, we recently conducted a study with 4- to 7-year-old children from schools in Boston.

The children listened to a story read by a robot that looked like a cute plush creature with an animated face that allowed for emotional expressions and eye and mouth movements. For half the children, the robot made use of these capabilities, responding to events in the story and to the children’s answers to its questions in a manner that expressed typical social and emotional cues.

children learn from a friendly animated robot.

For the other children, the robot was “flat”: It told the same story, but didn’t emit or respond with the typically expected cues. As the children listened to the story, we measured their engagement and attention using automated software to track facial, head and eye movements.

image- Gulf News

To gauge their understanding and use of the new vocabulary words embedded in the story, we had the children retell the story to a puppet both immediately afterward and again after a four- to six-week delay. Among those children who recalled and correctly used at least one of the target vocabulary words during the immediate retelling of the story, the total number used was greater for those who listened to the expressive robot than for those who listened to the flat one…Put simply, children were not only more attentive to and motivated by a socially expressive robot, but they also processed what they learned from it more deeply…Notably, it’s not that the children liked the expressive robot more. They didn’t; we asked. Rather, it’s that the presence of social cues made the expressive robot, and therefore its information, seem more reliable and trustworthy.

The upshot of these findings is clear. If we want to use technology to help people learn, we have to provide information in the way the human mind evolved to receive it. We have to speak the mind’s language, and that includes the language not only of information but also of social cues.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Using a Pre-reading Organizer

Directions:  Ask students to examine the title of the post and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have them  examine the photos. Ask students to write a paragraph describing what they think this article will discuss. Students can use a Pre-reading organizer for assistance.

Pre-reading chart by J. Swann


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. There are many cognitive-training programs.
  2. Many erroneous assumptions were made.
  3. Today, technologies make use of virtual agents.
  4. Social cues are important in learning from technology.
  5. Good robots use emotional expressions.
  6. To gauge their understanding, the children retold the story to a puppet.
  7. Moreover, children interacted with the robots.
  8. Toward the end of the experiment, a new animal appeared.
  9. The upshot of these findings was clear.
  10. The children who liked robots showed greater levels of concentration.

Reading Comprehension

True /False/NA-Statements

Directions: Review the following statements from the reading.  If  a statement is true they mark it T. If the statement is  not applicable, they mark it NA. If the statement is false they  mark  it F and provide the correct answer. 

  1. Lumosity, agreed to pay $2  thousand to settle charges.
  2. Designers of these technologies rely on an erroneous set of assumptions about how the mind learns.
  3. The human brain has evolved to take in, analyze and store information in a specific way.
  4. A study was conducted with 11- to 15-year-old children from schools in Boston.
  5. In general children responded more to the robot with the  animated face.
  6. Testers had the children retell the story to a human teacher immediately afterward.
  7. Children who interacted with the expressive robot showed greater levels of concentration.
  8. This test proved that children will grow up to like robots.
  9. Another study was conducted with  adults.
  10. According to the researchers, there’s more to learning than just listening and remembering.

 Grammar Focus


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences  taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

Toward the end of the___, a new appeared, affording kids the ___to ask ___and learn about it. Here, 82 percent of the ___chose to seek ___about the new animal from the properly___robot as opposed to its partner. What’s more, even when both___ offered information about the new animal, the children were significantly more likely to ___the information from the ___one.

WORD LIST: expressive, experiment, expressive, information,

children, questions, opportunity, animal, believe,  robots,

III. Post Reading Activities

Finding The Main Idea

Directions:  Have students use this advanced organizer from Write Design to assist them with  discussing  or writing about  the main idea and points from the article.

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups Have each group list 3  questions they would like to ask any person mentioned in the article. Groups share questions as a class.


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,  two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.



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