Cursive Writing and Coding (Part 2)

Here is a recent “Letter to the Editor” in the New York Times.

In the 21st century, every student should learn to program, for three reasons. Computational thinking is an essential capability for just about everyone. Programming is an incredibly useful skill: fields from anthropology to zoology are becoming information fields, and those who can bend the power of the computer to their will have an advantage over those who can’t. Finally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 71 percent of all new jobs in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) during the next decade will be in computer science.

Computer science is the future. Is your child going to be ready for it?

Written by Ed Lazowska, a University of Washington professor holding the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering, was responding to an article about teaching coding in schools. Clearly, a champion of coding, the writer typifies the unharnessed enthusiasm for teaching children to acquire computational thinking through programming. He is a “true believer.”

In Part 1, I pointed out the gradual disappearance of cursive writing from the elementary school curriculum as an instance of reformers abandoning a traditional subject because they see schools as engines of economic, societal, and political change in the nation. They do not see schools as “museums of virtue” where cursive writing would be taught to every second and third grader. Instead, these reformers advocate  that young children and youth be taught programming languages as tools for computational thinking, a 21st century skill is there ever was one. I used the example of Logo, an innovation introduced into schools in the early 1980s as an earlier instance of school reformers as “true believers” in teaching coding to children. They wanted to alter traditional teaching and learning. That innovation flashed across the sky like a shooting star and within a decade, had nearly vanished.

Now, the “true believers” are back. Even though the context and rationale for having K-12 students learn to program differs from then and now, the outcomes will be the same.

Contexts differ

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. Logo, then, would be a vehicle for transforming teacher-centered schools into student-centered ones.

For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to early 1970s had ebbed just as  reformers began piloting programming 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.

Ever since Nation at Risk, reformers-0n-steroids have successfully pushed higher standards, testing, and accountability. Different reforms fitting that mold arrived in the federally-funded Race To The Top, state adopted Common Core Standards, and the spread of new technologies. Here is where coding as a way to equip young children and youth with the computational skills that will prepare them for the labor market in the 21st century is the reform du jour. Monied activists pushing the teaching of programming in elementary and secondary schools are the new “true believers,” ones who get snarky when past similar reforms like Logo get mentioned.

Coding as a Boutique Reform

“True believers” are seldom reflective so do not expect a glance backward at why Logo became virtually extinct failing to last beyond a few schools where  children continue to program using Logo-derived languages.  Why?

The reasons are instructive to current enthusiasts for coding:

1. While the overall national context clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that schools as institutions have lot to say about how any reform is put into practice. Traditional schools adapt reforms to meet institutional needs.

2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding, for the most part, catered to mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class students. They were (and are) boutique offerings.

3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding.

4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer and the research supporting such confidence is lacking.

Surely, those interested in spreading programming in schools now–including “true believers”–should take a look at Logo and draw both inspiration and lessons from this earlier reform.






Filed under school reform policies, technology

16 responses to “Cursive Writing and Coding (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  2. John Macdonald

    I rather think English has become our language of reading and writing, whereas coding is our language of ‘doing’. I see many local Stanford graduates entering the workforce after graduation and excelling, in great part, because of their ability to code. I don’t mean sitting in a basement coding day and night. I mean former students becoming successful managers and entrepreneurs because they know and understand coding well enough to either modify software to benefit their organization or to direct others to do so. I believe coding should be taught as a foreign language K-12.

  3. Thank you for this post. As a former ACOT teacher who lived through the Logo years, I saw the potential. However, the reality was very different. Elementary school teachers, as Marilyn Burns has said, do not usually go into teaching because they are good at math. Logo, like coding, requires teachers to be masters of logic. Perhaps we would be better off teaching logic directly. Frankly, I had better luck getting kids to think by collecting real data based on research questions, putting it into a simple database using ClarisWorks (no longer available), and sorting the data to come up with conclusions based on the data. This, too, took time, but the software was there and easy to use. So much software tries to do the thinking for us today that we spend our time trying to override its logic.
    However we teach children to think critically requires us to use logic and meta-cognition. This can happen in any number of ways. I have used databases to study dinosaurs and comparisons of the Percy Jackson books to the Greek myths. My fifth graders used spreadsheets and databases to determine whether our computers should be in a lab or in classrooms and used a database to choose appropriate spelling words. Ultimately, it all comes down to the teacher, the mandates, time and reflection.

  4. Pingback: Cursive Writing and Coding (Part 2) | coding | ...

  5. Pingback: Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals (Part 1) | From experience to meaning...

  6. jturner56

    Logo and coding are not synonymous in the way your rear-view mirror analysis postulates. Logo reflected an epistemological belief in the computer’s potential to support valued learning. True, it was a progressive view, but progressive in ways unlike coding (or Mathematics) whose school incarnations have generally devolved into regressive shadows… And it is there for all of us to see how “traditional forms of schooling and teaching being back in vogue” has panned out. As someone who’s been involved in teaching coding (everything from Logo to Javascript to Visual BASIC to Pascal depending on student need) I can see it’s potential curriculum value, but fear we will see another cyclical hype cycle leading to valleys of despair if teacher training and curriculum leadership is again found wanting. Apologies if overly passionate, but as a true believer in school education I continue to hope for better. While we continue to put forward straw man arguments education and schools will continue to be at best confused and at worst even more disregarded.
    As always appreciate the thoughts you share.

    • larrycuban

      You make a worthwhile point, John, that Logo and coding are “not synonymous.” Here is a “yes, but” coming. Both have been hyped as reforms, however, solutions albeit to different problems since the context has, indeed, changed between the 1970s and 2010s. Logo aimed at transforming teaching and learning and do away with traditional schooling. Teaching coding to children and youth fits nicely the traditional age-graded schools and the over-riding rationale that schools must prepare students for college and the labor market.Thanks for the comment.

      • jturner56

        It seems like every tech-related change is associated with “solution to education” hype, with marketing and self-interest clouding depth of objective consideration. The EdTech industry is of concern in this regard. But this also makes for easy targeting, up against the more difficult quest of trying to see and construct what is possible (as I alluded to previously re teacher capacity and curriculum leadership). I can only continue to seek objective understanding in ever-changing times. Perhaps it’s a fools quest. But I have seen the potential for student understanding through making choices about programming and their potential to be involved in being part of creating our digital future (including 20 years teaching girls – but that’s another part of the story). Appreciate the response. John

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, John, for the comment.

  7. Kunal Chawla

    Thanks for this impressive blog series, Larry. I must say a part of me left my “true believing” self after I read your thoughts.

    I do wanted to draw a distinction between Logo and the current movement to code, however.

    Having played around with Logo (actually in a class at Stanford GSE), I can testify that it is really cumbersome to use and highly cryptic to teach. If I were teaching Logo in a school I would also have “little incentive or interest in doing so.”

    The difference I see between Logo and (let’s say) Scratch, which is one of the current leaders in “let’s teach kids to code” movement, is that the latter is more intuitive, reduces barrier to entry by not requiring the teacher to download anything on the school computers, and attracts learners by letting them be expressive with art, storytelling and game creation.

    Would this distinction propel the current coding movement towards an outcome that is different than the one seen by Logo?

    (PS: Scratch, even though is a lot more user friendly, is still based on the same ideas as Logo and built by the institutions at MIT that were pioneered by Seymour Papert.)

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Kunal. John Turner makes a similar point. Thanks for mentioning Scratch which I believe Mitch Resnick at MIT, and a young colleague at the time that Seymour Papert and team developed Logo. Were I to re-write or extend the post–as I might do–I would include the points that you and John have raised.

  8. Pingback: Coding is a fad | Geeky Mom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s