Robots can't teach kids how to navigate real world

I read three reports with great interest ("2 humanoid robots are helping out in pre-schools" and "'Critical role for teachers' in shaping nation's future"; both published on Wednesday, and "Kids 'affected by an adult's response to situations'"; last Saturday").

The age of technology is exciting, and brings convenience and connectivity to all who use it well.

However, we should be careful not to take technology too far in the pre-school classroom.

It takes years to train and equip human pre-school teachers with keen observational skills to plan and design learning experiences informed by knowledge of child growth and development, and to shape attitudes and behaviour in young children.

Why would children desire a pre-school teacher who will "repeat their questions as many times as required"? Children desire responsive teachers who will rephrase their questions in such a way that helps them to understand, and acquire listening and attentive skills in processing information for lifelong functions.

Young children learn to think creatively and hone their problem-solving skills by working on their daily social-interactive skills in dealing with unpredictable human responses with peers and teachers, through trial and error.

Do we want humanoid robots to shape the nation's future? If humanoid robots are infinitely patient to allow curious children to "poke or prod" them, can these robots inspire values and character in our pre-schoolers?

Certainly, the mechanical response or the lack of negative reactions to situations by these robots may not adversely affect children's motivation and confidence.

But neither will it give children the motivation to confidently navigate the complexities of human interactions in the real world.

Teachers and robots can teach in interactive ways, but can robots connect with children at a socio-emotional level that teaches them to reflect on their behaviour?

Children require not only interactive teachers but also nurturing ones, who get upset when children are uncooperative, yet persist in their role by seeking out fun and meaningful activities to engage the children.

Pre-school children thrive on healthy attachment with real human touch. Teachers help develop their social intelligence, guiding them to read social-emotional and facial cues and body language to function effectively in society.

The essence of early childhood education is to develop children physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally. I concur that teachers play a critical role in shaping our nation's future.

Let us not even entertain the thought of replacing pre-school teachers with humanoid robots.

Rebecca Chan (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'Robots can't teach kids how to navigate real world'. Print Edition | Subscribe