Japan Today
Daisuke Kuramoto teaches children about computers in a workshop in Tokyo.

The growth of robotics in Japanese schools


Daisuke Kuramoto’s passion is engaging children in computing. He has spent years developing eLearning resources for businesses and running monthly computer programming workshops for children through his voluntary company, OtOMO. Kuramoto has also written a book on computer programming in elementary schools and will be supporting educational organisations with programming activities.

Here he provides us with an update on robotics, computer programming and elementary schools’ adoption of these technological advances.  

In its report, "Japan: the Land of Rising Robotics," the University of Tokyo reported that since the 1970s, Japan has been at the world's cutting edge of industrial robotics. In terms of the value of exports, Japan is responsible for nearly 50% of the global market share. And this looks set to continue. Demand for robotics from both the public and private sector in Europe, the Americas, China and other countries outside of Japan, continues to drive demand.

The growth of robotics has the potential to change the way we operate in all walks of life; in turn this provides Japan’s economy with an incredibly powerful opportunity.

It is therefore surprising that the education ministry in Japan has only recently introduced computer programming into the curriculum of all public elementary schools and it won’t be made compulsory until 2020.

To date, very few elementary schools have started introducing programming and robotics, mostly because teachers are naturally very nervous about teaching these skills that most don’t know themselves; they are not programming engineers. This is a major barrier to development.

My first piece of advice to teachers is to take it easy and at this stage just invest in a few learning resources to practice with. More about that later.

Robotics in elementary school doesn’t need to involve high level theoretical programming. The more teachers engage with robotics and programming learning activities, the more confident they will get.

What is important at this stage is for children to have the technology and processes embedded in their learning; after all, whether they are going to become an artist, doctor, fire-fighter or teacher, robotics will inevitably be a part of their future careers.

While the change in the curriculum isn’t compulsory until 2020, teachers across Japan need to start looking for resources, support materials and advice to engage children in the excitement and fun of all aspects of robotics and programming.

I also recommend that elementary teachers follow the philosophy I base my OtOMO workshops on. The students don’t sit there learning programming, we play around with robotics and programming to embrace the exhilaration and joy you can get from what this technology offers.  

So, teachers should avoid ‘teaching’ programming. Children need to be given the freedom to be creative about what they want to create, not receive instructions on what to do and how to do it.

The next step for teachers is to find high quality resources that let the children learn through exploration. It is vital to engage their curiosity into all aspects of programming and robotics before they take the next stage into actually learning more formal programming. And as mentioned before teachers need to start buying these resources so they are comfortable using them in the classroom.

There are several good resources on the market such as MBot and LEGO Education’s WeDo but I particularly like Boson Kit from DFRobot. Boston kit has two side: firstly it offers a good introductory level of programming skills with micro:bit and it is also great to use in science lessons. The kit allows the children to actually construct a robot on a base plate and then the connectors let them use the reliable wiring system.

What makes it so powerful is the fact that it provides a logical mechanism that combines various inputs and outputs, including micro:bit, a tiny programmable computer, designed to make learning and teaching easy and fun. By offering a combination of parts the children are free to explore and in turn, learn the application. This is such an important part of their early education. Unlike some of the other resources on the market, Boson Kit is also very reasonably priced.

The great thing about such resources is that the teacher doesn’t need to be a skilled programmer. Once the children have opened the box, the teacher can simply set them a broad task and let them see where their imagination leads them.

For many teachers who are used to ‘teaching’ and delivering step by step processes, this new way of engaging children can be hard to adjust to. However, it is important that teachers take a step back and become a facilitator rather than an instructor, letting the children explore and learn as far as their imagination will take them.

I always advise teachers that they need to guide their students to understanding that a computer is a tool that allows them to be free in expressing their maximum creativity.

Robotics is an emerging technology and is therefore important that children at least understand the basics. Teachers need to expand the possibilities of this technology by ensuring children have a keen interest in it.

I have seen many children who are turned off from school work but like to study using technology. Aside from using robotics to teach computing, teachers should grasp this opportunity to incorporate it into all areas of the curriculum to engage these reluctant learners.

The new changes bring a challenge for teachers; learning computing skills at elementary school is not about following a strict curriculum with measured standards.

In its new curriculum guidelines, the education ministry of Japan has thankfully stated that programming is not a single subject; it should be taught through related areas of the curriculum such as with mathematics in units of geometry, in science lessons using units of electricity or plant development.

While programming measurements will be included in each subject I believe that teachers have to also consider each child’s creativity and ability to problem-solve. I call on all teachers to respect the importance of this and why it is, to a certain extent, unlike any other subject in the curriculum which is more measurable.

Daisuke Kuramoto will be delivering workshops on DFRobot at Booth 8-27 at the EDIX Tokyo 2018, May 16 to 18.

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 teachers have to also consider each child’s creativity and ability to problem-solve. 

And yet, at the start of last year we had the Education minister on the news spouting how he wants to remove all Humanities classes from high schools and universities because "They don't suit Japanese education." There is nothing in the Japanese school curriculum that promotes creativity or problem-solving skills. In fact, it's completely opposite. They focus on rote responses to standardised tests in order to shuffle students through school with passing grades of 30-40% and little actual education. According to a recent report, companies don't want educated freshmen. They want empty shells to manipulate. I've been teaching at study abroad prep college for many years and the students who return to Japan with a foreign education find it very difficult to get a job when they return to Japan because they are actually educated in specific fields. Many of them and up working in bars because they can speak English. Therefor, the above statement is nothing more than lip-service for the masses.

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Impressively good educational system when it comes to robotics, sciences, and similar things. I have seen so many people online who have always criticized Japan for its lack but never directly praised it for what it has. I am just so glad I am not one of these people. It is usually an attitude of some western people, some non-Japanese people, or some western-minded Japanese people to tend to look down on Asian progress instead of just commending the good that an Asian country like Japan has, as if a perfect country existed or as if their own countries were perfect. So far, thank you, Japan. Many of my former students who have passed the JFT exams have been happily working in your country and some are planning to live there because of your educational system.

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