In Switzerland, a team of researchers is working on an education program called CoWriter, in which children help robots learn to write, and thus improve their own handwriting. The concept is simple: children are paired with a robot that wants to learn how to write a word, spelled out by the child in plastic letters. The robot then clumsily “writes” the word on a tablet, and gives the child the opportunity to show them how to write it better. This keeps going until the robot perfects the task.

The program is based on the “protégé effect,” in which one person takes a vested interest in helping another, which can have a huge benefit for learning. Teachers know that teaching others helps the learning process, but it can be difficult getting children to help each other. The CoWriter program also targets those children who need the most help and the biggest confidence boost.

Children who struggle with handwriting early on can become withdrawn, refusing to engage with the learning process, which can have a negative impact on the rest of their education. By engaging those children with the protégé effect, they can become more confident and overcome their own difficulties.

The robot, in this case, fills a niche that neither a teacher nor another student can really fill. The robot is programmed to be a bad writer, something that a teacher can’t really do. Meanwhile, getting one child to pretend to be worse at handwriting than another is unlikely to work, either because kids can’t necessarily assume that role, or the fiction would be shattered because everyone in the class knows that they can write just fine.

CoWriter won’t replace teachers with robots though. The robot serves the vital function of being the “worst” student in the class, but it can’t do that without help. The teacher needs to decide just how bad the robot is at the task, depending on which child it’s working with at a given time, allowing the program to adapt to different students with different learning speeds.