Learning to Code : Hello Robota!

My 7 year old loves his Lego. He still plays with them everyday. It’s the first thing he runs to after a long day at school and he will only sit down and do his homework after getting his dose of Lego fix.

Like most kids, he loves anything that is computer related. He has learned some Scratch programming from his elder brother. But unlike the Arduino stuffs his brother fiddles with, there isn’t a physical ‘robot’ that he can command using Scratch. The programming language his elder brother used is too complicated for a 7 year old and we have yet to figure out how to make their Arduino ‘speaks’ Scratch.

We realised that the next closest thing to building his own robot is using Lego Mindstorms. Lego Mindstorms is a series of kits which contain software and hardware to create customizable, programmable robot. It is made for little people but comes with a hefty price tag and it is not something that we would splurge on the kids. So far, the people I know who own Lego Mindstorms are adults, mostly Dads, usually fulfilling a childhood dream.

So my 7 year old was pretty excited when we received an invitation to try out Introduction to Hello Robota programme at MINT Museum of Toys. He would be playing with computers and Legos, how not to be excited!

Over the 4 weekends, he learned about basic programming and the history of robots.

Because I was unable to sit in during the lessons, I’ve got him to tell me what he learned. This was what he had to say after his first lesson.

About the Robots

I learned that the first robot in the world was Liliput. It was built in the 1930s by the Japanese. The second robot in the world was the Atomic Robot. The third one was the Hook Robot. It was called the Hook Robot because it had a hook on top of its head. The fourth robot was Robby the Robot. All these robots were built by the Japanese. The next robot was Astroman. It was the only robot build in Germany then and it was a remote control robot. My favourite robot is Astroman because it looks like an Alien and it can be remote controlled. I wish I have one of these robots.

About his first lesson

I learned about teamwork and the different types of robots. My partner was Ian. We worked together to build a robot using Lego Mindstorms. To build the robot, we were given a book with instructions. We followed the pictures to build our robots but we needed some help from other groups because we couldn’t finish in time. We programmed the robot to move forward for 4 seconds and backwards for another 3 seconds. The robot had 4 wheels. The front wheels were a little bit smaller than the back wheels. It looked like a sports car. We were supposed to make the back wheels of the robot touch the line on the floor. The next lesson we are going to make the robot turns.

As the lesson progressed, he learned about the different types of sensors. They used touch sensors and colour sensors for their robots and they learned how to connect and program these sensors.

He obviously had a lot of fun as he looked forward to his lesson every Saturday. The programme was a drop off session but I was able to have a short chat with the instructor just before picking him up after one of the lessons.

Winston Lau who conducted the lesson has a knack with kids. During the short period that I was there, kids were running up to him, interrupting our conversation and asking him for help. He was able to engage the kids and build a good rapport with them.

While I think that coding isn’t meant for every 5 year old kid, that children need to reach a certain level of maturity, be able to think logically before they can learn computational thinking, which is effectively, the ability to break down tasks into a logical sequence of smaller steps. Winston has an alternative view. He believes that every child is capable of learning how to code. He pointed out to me how the kids never get bored during the lessons even when they couldn’t get their code to work and their robots couldn’t move the right direction most of the time. They were having so fun that they didn’t even realise that they were learning!

Maybe he is right.

Unlike conventional learning in a school classroom, children in a coding class are not penalized for getting the wrong answers. In fact, there is no ‘model’ or right answer because there is usually more than one way to write the code to get the robot to do a certain task. It is impossible to penalize the children so long as they can make their robots move the right direction and there is no way for the children to memorize the answers!

On top of that, children in a coding class stumble and fall all the time. They are testing and failing their code over and over again to gain understanding and mastery. If their code works, great, they get instant gratification for the work they put in. If it doesn’t, the instant feedback motivates them to persist until they fix the error. Coding does seem like a powerful educational tool and it is no wonder many countries, England being the first and Sweden probably the most recent one, to introduce coding in their school curriculum.

 

Note : MINT Museum of Toys will be conducting their next Introduction to Hello Robota programme in June. It is priced at $280 per child and is suitable for children aged 7 -12 years old. You can follow their FB page to check out for their latest updates.

Introduction to Hello Robota is a 4-lesson starter programme aimed at introducing robotics alongside its predecessors, vintage robots, to kids. Using the LEGO┬« Mindstorms EV3 System, kids will learn basic programming skills, such as moving forward and backwards, which will be applied to explore the museum’s collection of vintage robots. Set in a fun and interactive environment, kids will get to learn the fundamentals of robotics as well as learn more about the collection of vintage robots.

 

 

2

A Good School

Few months ago, we were in the process of looking for a Secondary school for our elder boy. He has done considerably well for his PSLE. Though we can’t claim much credit for his results, we did put in effort in finding a good school for him.

Despite MOE’s goal to make every school in Singapore a good school, our own experience showed that the reality is not quite as such. Each year, the heightened anxiety during school registration might be a good indicator to support our sentiment.

We didn’t know any better 7 years ago and we just went for a school that is nearest to our home. It was quite a popular school in our neighbourhood probably due to the awards the school had clinched and the past years’ PSLE results of students. It was then that I realised that different parents may have very different judging criteria for a good school.

I was the parent who questioned when my boy brought home too much homework or when they were not allowed to run in the field during recess time or when they can’t buy a bottle of mineral water from the drink stall because the school doesn’t sell them. That was despite the school being in the Healthy Meals Program. Apparently, sweet drinks made it into the school’s list of healthy drinks but not mineral water.

Our experience with our boys’ school has given us a clearer idea what to look out for when choosing a school. But the truth is, to really know the inside working of the school, we have to go beyond reading the schools’ vibrant web pages and glossy pages of the schools’ journal.

While MOE’s website has given a good list on what makes a good school, the question lies with how well can schools achieve those goals.

We went through the grey handbook that was given to every Singaporean kids registering for Secondary 1. It gives the list of schools in every part of Singapore and all the CCAs and special programs offered by different schools. The book gives a good summary of what each school offers but little about what we really need to know about the schools.

We decided to visit some of the schools and eventually it was these visits that helped us decide on our 6 choices of schools to put in his posting form.

Here are the 4 things we look out for in a school that goes beyond A* and PSLE cutoff point.

Trust and Respect

During our visits, some schools welcomed us onto their premises when we told them we were considering putting our kids in the school and wanted to take a look around, others were suspicious and unwelcome. We understand the need for security in the school, but what threat can a mother with two young kids in tow pose to a school during the December holidays?

We believe that a school with a culture of trust and respect can be observed through the non teaching staff in the school, from administrative staff to security guards and general cleaners. When students grow and learn in an environment where every individual is trusted and respected, the same attitude will be cascaded down to the students. If the general belief is that students are pesky troublemakers, they WILL be pesky troublemakers.

A Caring School

Are school decisions made through careful consideration on what is the best for the students, guided by a consistent value system and principles? Or does the school implement (MOE) policies but fail to achieve the intent of the policy? Does the school hold itself to its own values? Does the school pay lip service to what it says it will do?

For example, I think it is futile to teach students the school’s values by doing worksheets. Can we teach leadership skills and values by having the students do more worksheets? Don’t be surprised that some schools actually do that. As parents, we teach good values by modeling them and setting good examples. We make tough decisions based on our values in our everyday lives and during our daily interactions with the children.

I believe that a school that cares enough will also put some thought into the kind of food they serve in the canteen. When students are expected to spend long hours in schools, I would think that schools have the responsibility to give students the option of buying healthy food during recess and lunch.

The selection of food in my kids’ Primary School is dismaying. Our request for a microwave to be placed in the canteen so that children can bring their own food to heat up during recess was turned down. Speaking to the school and Health Promotion Board people who came by to audit the school canteen proved to be futile in improving the quality of food sold in the canteen. I learned about the problems faced by the school and stall holders. I concluded that the school either lacks interest or believes in different things.

My advice is, check out the food in the canteen when visiting the schools. The rule of thumb, if you think you wouldn’t eat there, why should we expect the students to do so.

Empowerment

One of the things that we want is for schools to empower their students. Empowerment makes the students take charge and take ownership of the things that they do. However it can be risky because things can go awry and the school ultimately needs to take responsibility. It can also be scary for the student because it forces them to try something new, go outside their comfort zones, and they can fail. Failure, can be scary, but a necessary ingredient to success. After all, we only learn how to walk by falling countless times.

During one of the visits to my son’s current school, I was taken aback by a student’s speech. He had said something which I thought wasn’t really appropriate. The principal later clarified that he did not vet through his speech and had only given the student a few pointers on what to talk about.

The principal gained my admiration because of how he chose to give his students free rein to do his speech. I see a principal who values the learning experience of his students over the image of his school. How many principals will risk having his students give a lousy speech that will make his school look bad?

This is probably hard to tell from a walk-in-visit but a school that often let its students be in charge of school’s event such as open house and orientation might be a tell tale sign that the school is unafraid to let the students make mistake and learn from their mistakes. Both failure and success build learning confidence. When students feel confident about decision-making and feel recognized as capable by the school, they gain the confidence and skill to “take” control of their own learning.

Positive Experience

There are many insights that can be gleaned by simply talking to or observing the current students. Are the students generally negative or positive about their school? Are the students proud of their school and its values? Do they come forth to defend the image of the school? Do they behave themselves in public? Students who behave themselves even when their teachers are not around show a high level of maturity and self discipline. Sure, there will be outliers but the trend will always tend towards the mean.

And I think our intuition about my son’s Secondary school had been right. Just 3 months into his new school and my son has everything good to say about his school. It is a big contrast from his 6 years of experience in his Primary school. What his Primary school couldn’t achieved in 6 years was accomplished in 3 months in his new school.

His current school invested significant resources to organize orientation and school camp within the first month of school year. I think the investment had paid off. It fostered camaraderie amongst the students, created a common sense of identity and ownership. Though still new to the school, my son feels that he belongs to the school and is also responsible to uphold the school’s values. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your children is in good hands and that you have a found a partner to journey through this turbulent teenage years.

Our experience with our son’s new secondary school has given us hope that making every school a good school is achievable. However it is only possible under a capable principal and a team of dedicated teachers. Like any organisation, it takes good leadership with effective execution skills and sound strategy to bring vision to fruition.

 
 

6

From A First Time PSLE Mom

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PSLE, a national examination that every Singaporean kid needs to take at 12 years old. Whether you are formally schooled or homeschooled, it’s almost certain that you can’t run away from it. 

So my husband and I have agreed to take a more hands off approach when it comes to our kids’ school work. The elder one is pretty much on his own when it comes to his school work. The younger one who is in Primary 1 still needs nagging before he settles down to do his work everyday. These days, he knows that it is his job to ask if he doesn’t understand and if he doesn’t finish his work, he will have to answer to his teachers.

We want them to be accountable for their own schooling and we want them to understand that knowing their school work is their responsibility. There isn’t really any special arrangement to prepare them for tests or examinations, the only work they do on a daily basis is homework brought back from school.  The teachers have put in a lot of effort to prepare them for PSLE. They started supplementary classes since P4 and now in P6, worksheets and past years papers are regular drills. Because of  that, life at home could remain pretty much the same even during this period. The boys spend most of their time doing their own things, mostly school unrelated.

It’s my first time being a PSLE mum and even though we try to keep things at home as usual, I have to admit that the stress is real.  It’s coming from parents, teachers, friends, colleagues and even the social media. I have found that the best way to deal with the stress is, shut them out. But if you can’t, the next best way is, go get a good workout! And yes, I think it is the adults who need to destress because when the adults feel stressed, it would most likely cascade down to the kids!

So why is PSLE so stressful? Why do kids kill themselves over PSLE? 

Our general belief is that PSLE is an important milestone in life and this is reinforced by what we see around us. It gets you into the elite schools. A disproportionate number of scholarship winners and top achievers come from these schools. Anybody who seem to be somebody in Singapore come from these elite schools – ministers, top civil servants, etc. Many of us having not been able to get into these top schools, would want the best opportunities for our children. That, we believe, is probably one of the best and most important things that we can do for our children. We do not want to compete against the law of statistics. Getting to one of the elite schools will probably give your children the best chance to succeed in life.

So the question is whether our children can succeed in life without making it to one of these elite schools? Are they condemned to a life of mediocrity if they don’t? What is the positive correlation between success in life and good PSLE results? Does PSLE results have a positive correlation with success in life?

And we can’t answer these questions without first understanding our underlying assumptions about success in life. What is succeeding in life? Should we define it against a list of material possessions and the monthly pay check? 

We should also re-examine our underlying assumption that what has worked over the last two generations will continue to work in the future. My generation grew up in a rapidly developing Singapore. We were told to study hard, do well in school, go to university, and get a good job. If you landed a job in a MNC, you have got it made. Yet, many of these dreams were shattered when the MNCs relocated to lower cost countries. What do we know about the future of our country? Of our economy, of our children? Should we continue to shape our children into the moulds that worked generations ago?

Empirical evidence also casts doubts about the importance of going to an elite school. There are people who are top in their fields who do not come from these elite schools. There are also many that go to these elite schools that do not do well in life. 

In the larger scheme of things, the PSLE is an exam for getting our children into the secondary school. That’s about it. It does not guarantee happiness or success in life. It may even be totally irrelevant. It is ridiculous to think that our children’s fates are sealed over this 4 day event. Having a child who thinks that life is not worth living over PSLE result is the saddest things in life. Our children deserve more than that and we should let them find their own way in this ever changing world.

 
 

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