Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Computers Programming Kids?

For a reading for one of the classes I'm taking this semester, we read part of Seymour Papert's classic book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. If you are Lego fan and have every worked with their robotics kits--also named "Mindstorms"--you are working with materials developed in collaboration with Papert. And, if you are of a certain age, you perhaps remember Apple LOGO (the "turtle" you could command around the screen?) which was developed by Papert as a way of teaching young children how to program computers.

I don't think I understood it this way when I was playing with LOGO as a kid. I was just messing around...though Papert would probably say that is the point. His philosophy is an off-shoot of constructivism called "constructionism" that involves creating (constructing) physical objects to represent complex ideas. This comes through pretty clearly when you think about the Lego robotics kits, doesn't it?

A functioning model of the Curiosity Rover, created using Lego Mindstorms NXT
Image by Erre [CC BY-SA 2.0]

It is a little interesting to me to think about whether the LOGO computer program is "construtionism"--building models to represent ideas. The "turtle" of the LOGO program isn't a tangible object, after all, but Papert did base the idea of the turtle on an actual turtle robot that you could program to draw pictures...very similar to the "turtle" in LOGO. Does this mean that the object constructed in the computer is the same as the physical object? Perhaps not the same, but the representation might be the same...?

While Papert's ideas fascinate me, I'm not sure I totally agree with his philosophy, though I do find it intriguing. However, this quote rings true with me about the role of computers in school:

"In many schools today, the phrase "computer-aided instruction" means making the computer teach the child. One might say the computer is being used to program the child. In my vision, the child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology."

(From Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, which was published in 1980.)

Kids are the thinkers, not the machines. Kids should do the thinking, the work, the mastery. Can the machines help develop the thinking? Perhaps. But kids should be programming computers, and not the other way around.

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