Some school reforms are like rebar that have lasted for more than a century. Examples? The age-graded school and the kindergarten.
Some school reforms are like industrial-strength plastic-covered packages which cover new toys, computer cables and gifts. After the plastic sheath is pried open, it can be recycled and appears later as fabrics, fencing, and benches. Examples? The New Math, New Science, New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s lasting for a decade or so then are recycled years later to reappear later as the New New Math, etc. ,etc.
Some school reforms are like tissue paper that, after one or two uses, shreds and is tossed away. Examples? Coding for kindergartners.
Why is coding for kindergarteners neither rebar nor unbreakable plastic but flimsy tissue paper?
Coding as a Tissue Paper Reform
Teaching young children to code (which may or may not be learning to program) reminds me of how Logo–an earlier tissue paper innovation–became nearly extinct in less than a decade except beyond a few schools where children continued to program using Logo-derived languages. Instructional reforms like Logo then and coding now for young children–to switch metaphors–are like those boutique shops that move in and out of malls.*
Why is coding now, a way of implementing a program language like Logo then, a tissue-paper reform?
The reasons are instructive to current enthusiasts for coding:
1. While the overall national context now clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that the national context for schools and what was happening inside schools have a lot to do with a reform being put into practice and becoming rebar, plastic, or tissue paper.
Consider the Logo experience. Over forty years ago, Seymour Papert and his MIT team wanted to restore progressive ways of teaching and learning so that students could construct their own meaning of ideas and their experiences. Learning to move “turtles” around on a screen was a way for students to think logically and computationally. These MIT scientists wanted to dismantle institutional barriers that schools had erected over time–the rules, traditions, and culture– because they retarded student learning, especially acquiring thinking skills. Logo, then, would be a vehicle for transforming teacher-centered schools into student-centered, mindful ones.
For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The national mood for educational experimentation and equity for poor and minority families was shifting. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to early 1970s had ebbed just as reformers began piloting Logo05 in a few elementary schools. In just a few years, Logo became a boutique offering because a “back to basics” reform had seized civic and political leaders and the window for new ventures, anchored in the work of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, had closed. Traditional forms of schooling and teaching were back in vogue.
Shortly afterwards, the Nation at Risk report (1983) warned leaders that unless schools became more effective–the U.S. would languish economically and other nations would leapfrog over America to capture global markets. By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more rigorous curriculum frameworks,. and began testing regimes. Not a welcoming climate for Logo-driven reformers like Papert and his colleagues. In a few years, traditional age-graded schools adapted to the changing national context in both curriculum and instruction.
But now the climate for anything smelling like high-tech, computer science, and new devices has so permeated the culture and the national context for standards, accountability and testing remain firmly entrenched that the idea of coding is one whose time has arrived. Given the history of Logo and how it was implemented suggest to me that coding is tissue-paper thin or at best, recycled plastic.
2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding, for the most part, catered to mostly middle- and upper-middle class students. Articles (see here and here) illustrate the demand for family teaching it to children, in- and after-school coding programs, and expensive summer camps (see here and here). Yes, there are efforts by leaders in teaching coding to include low-income students (here and here) but by and large the primary users are children from middle- and upper middle white and minority families.
3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding. Sure there are exceptions (see here) but the exception is the one that makes it into the media precisely because it is novel.
4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer of learning coding to conceptual and critical thinking with applications to other domains of knowledge and skills. The research supporting such confidence is lacking among cognitive psychologists and educators who see from daily experience that students find it hard to apply concepts and skills learned in one arena to what is being learned now.
Those reform-minded policymakers and practitioners who believe that the past can be instructive to the present and who are passionate about young school children learning either programming or coding (or both) should take a serious look at Logo and draw both inspiration and lessons from that earlier reform. Chances are, however, the hullabaloo over coding for young children will quiet down and another reform will shred like tissue paper.
*Please see comment by Kunal Chawla below.