As the 2014 Hour of Code challenge offered by Code.org draws near (Dec. 8-12), I wanted to spend a little time with the history of what has gotten us to the place we are in today. To many educators, the ideas of edtech and coding in schools still seems far off and mysterious. However, the innovators who embrace these ideas are incorporating them into learning experiences and seeing children become inspired and motivated by code.
From 1980 to 2003, technology moved forward, but what moved backward? Examined through the lens of two thinkers: Seymour Papert and Why the Lucky Stiff
Why the Lucky Stiff (_why) was “a prolific writer, cartoonist, artist, and computer programmer notable for his work with the Ruby programming language” (Wikipedia). Seymour Papert was a mathematician and professor at MIT. He was one of the creators of the Logo programming language (remember the turtle?) and author of the 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (and others).
Papert and _why are indeed very different types of thinkers. Papert was a scholar, rooted in academia and with time logged collaborating with constructivist learning theorist Jean Piaget. _why was a self-proclaimed “freelance professor”, who created art, code, and everything in between as tools for social provocation and advocacy. I refer to them both in the past tense because while both are still alive, neither are actively engaged in the contemporary public conversation. Their work and legacies are what live on and serve as inspiration.
In 2003, _why wrote an essay titled: The Little Coder’s Predicament, specifically calling to task all the companies who have systematically been adding layers of features, regulation and security to their technology. These anti-piracy measures had resulted in a societal distancing from the understanding of code, and a lack of ability to access actual code.
…I’m thinking a toy language for consoles and desktops alike could be monumental…
…You’ve got to be able to write a single line of code and see a result. We need some instant results to give absolute beginners confidence…
…Tinkering with hardware is learning. Lobotomizing and renovating is meaningful, magical. On behalf of those who prefer to code, I make these wishes. Not to take away jobs from the Phillips screwdriver…. (2003 essay)
In my post on the Logo, I share that Papert advocated for his dream of children being able to program. He called for easy and accessible tools almost 20 years before _why’s plea. In his essay, _why reminisced about the era of being able to program directly from your Commodore 64, or Atari 800 (which was the very same era that Papert was working on Logo with his MIT team). So what happened between Papert’s call for accessibility in 1980 and _why’s call for accessibility in 2003?
Advancement. Piracy. Fear.
Innovation has driven a more user-friendly experience. However, the more user-friendly the experience, the deeper the code becomes buried. Companies are creating better and better tools, and protecting them more and more fiercely. The more protections, the harder the code is to access. Everything in technology has gotten faster, better, closer, more useable, more understandable…except the code. In the 2003 environment in which _why wrote his article, there were many barriers to children getting involved in coding because it was so hard to get to the code and be able to play with it.
Fast forward to June of 2009
_why addressed a group at the Art & Code Symposium about the program he created called Hackety Hack, which provides a simple tool for learning to code in the Ruby programming language. He spoke about how the landscape has been changing since his 2003 essay, but more work was still needed:
(Regarding dismissive responses to his 2003 essay)…The point they are trying to get across is everything is great. Court is adjourned…everything is fine. But it’s a form of apathy, right? We want to talk about other things, not this. We want to talk about startups, we want to talk about unit tests. We want to talk about UML diagramming. Programmers have these trendy topics that will seize possession of the dialogue and those will consume the resources. Because a teacher can’t make these tools for us, you have to be a programmer hybrid teacher, or you have to be a programmer that’s crazy…
..We need beautiful code. We need maintainable code. These (above) are the topics that seize our entire community. …When you’re beginning these are completely irrelevant topics…I mean, whatever, just enjoy yourself…
…We have people who say “we don’t need more programmers because then my job is at risk.” without thinking that maybe people can just program as a mind-expanding experience…
…You have people who are saying there is no problem, but you just have to talk to two people…teachers and students…how I found out [about the problem of inaccessibility of learning platforms] was by just talking to people who were just trying to learn and just gave up after giving it the old college try…(click here for the full presentation)
Reflecting on all of this, we can celebrate how far we have come in the 5 short years since _why’s speech. Hackety Hack is still available. It has not necessarily taken off, but it has been a key part of the conversation. Logo is still available, and has also been a key part of the conversation. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that Papert or _why would necessarily care about their platforms’ success specifically, because they had a broader goal in mind…a goal that is being realized in many different ways today.
What both of thinkers, _why and Papert, called for was a change to our collective mentality about code. They wanted code to be accessible, visible, simple, hackable, beautiful, and appreciated. We still have a long way to go in terms of computer programming being widely understood and appreciated by many adults (including teachers) but we can be encouraged by the resources that are out there for young people today. Here are a few:
- Scratch is an online community created by MIT where “you can program your own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share your creations with others in the online community. Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for life in the 21st century.”
- Code.org has tons of resources for beginners.
- Hour of Code “The Hour of Code is a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. Ages 4 to 104. Check out the tutorials, and look out for new ones coming for the Hour of Code 2014. The Hour of Code is [also] a global movement reaching tens of millions of students in 180+ countries.”
- Turtle Academy: Learn to program with Logo in your browser
- Hackety Hack: “Hackety Hack will teach you the absolute basics of programming from the ground up. No previous programming experience is needed! With Hackety Hack, you’ll learn the Ruby programming language. Ruby is used for all kinds of programs, including desktop applications and websites.” This is a text-based tutorial.
- Maker Movement: “is a global community of inventors, designers, engineers, artists, programmers, hackers, tinkerers, craftsmen and DIY’ers—the kind of people who share a quality that Rosenstock says “leads to learning [and]…to innovation,” a perennial curiosity “about how they could do it better the next time.” The design cycle is all about reiteration, trying something again and again until it works, and then, once it works, making it better. As manufacturing tools continue to become better, cheaper and more accessible, the Maker Movement is gaining momentum at an unprecedented rate.” (read more).
- Arduino is a “tool for making computers that can sense and control more of the physical world than your desktop computer. It’s an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple microcontroller board, and a development environment for writing software for the board.”
Community and Open Source
What is interesting about all of these resources is their focus on community. Open source culture (for which _why was also an advocate) is becoming more and more accepted. Open source is very basically the idea of giving away your ideas for free, with the hope that others will use, improve, and give back. Each of these resources offer learning opportunities, but not in isolation. They offer ways to network and communicate with others. The goal is not necessarily to develop programmers for a competitive job market, but rather to create community around code. I think both Papert and _why would be proud to have played a role in that…wherever they each may be!
*I acknowledge that this is not a complete history, and that there are many other thinkers who have contributed to the accessibility of learning resources for young programmers. I simply think these two provide an interesting framework for this conversation.
Over the next month, in celebration of Hour of Code, I would like to find children to program with. (At my current school, I focus primarily on teacher education, so don’t have a classroom of my own). I would like to program with children of a range of ages, from preschool to middle school, and who attend different schools. I know a little bit, and think that I have a fairly solid understanding of many of the concepts of programming. However, I know that children are much better at learning languages than adults, and are also better at technological learning, because of their digital nativism.
I am interested to watch how children will interact with code, and wonder:
- What new things I will learn from watching and participating with them? What will they teach me about learning to code?
- What kinds of questions will they have? Will I be able to answer them based on the things that I have learned and am still very actively processing?
- Will coding excite them? Bore them? Something else?
I look forward to reporting back over the next month!
What are YOU doing for Hour of Code 2014?
Seymour Papert, 1983
Why the Lucky Stiff, 2009