Tissue Paper Reforms: Coding for Kindergartners

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.

'We     ... In class today.'

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.



Filed under school reform policies, technology

27 responses to “Tissue Paper Reforms: Coding for Kindergartners

  1. Pingback: Tissue Paper Reforms: Coding for Kindergartners...

  2. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  3. Thanks for giving me inspiration for a phrase I can apply to my industry: “tissue paper marketing” 🙂

  4. Pingback: Tissue Paper Reforms: Coding for Kindergartners | Educational Discourse

  5. Kunal Chawla

    I am a regular reader Larry and so would like to highlight that you may have written this blog before – https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/cursive-writing-and-coding-part-2/

    I browsed through our conversation in the comments of the previous blog and still maintain that the main difference between Logo, and the current “let’s teach kids to code” movement led by Scratch, is that Scratch 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.”

    This movement may turn out to be tissue-paper reform (love the metaphor, by the way), but it bodes well to point out that even though there are similarities between Logo and the current coding movements (like lack of teacher incentives, poor access in schools attended by students from low-income communities), there are differences between the two also.

  6. Another great post by Dr. Larry! I would totally agree about tissue paper reforms. This concept extends to many areas of instructional/educational technology. Sadly, schools jump to new technologies like frogs on lily pads. The main problem is that many of the personnel in charge of decisions are completely unschooled in the use of technology. They have authority, but little knowledge, and often little or responsibility. It’s all in the name of appearing to be progressive and cutting edge regardless of the research. Look at the rush to adopt iPads in schools. Contribution to learning? Scant evidence. Aligned to learning needs? Not so much. Look at the LAUSD for a good lesson in technology planning, or lack thereof. Today, many schools are now reconsidering the bandwagon approach to iPads, in favor of alternative devices such as Chromebooks, hybrid type tablets, and laptops. The new thinking is that such devices align better with productive learning needs of students. For many schools, tablet computing is turning out to be a lot of ti$$ue paper. Sure, coding is a great critical thinking exercise, but there are many other uses of technology that would far surpass the value of coding in a school environment; too numerous to go into here.

    Instead of coding, how about teaching all kids to touch type? Typing speeds are correlated to writing quality. Typing faster than hand writing results in more text, more corrections, more iterations, etc; leading to gains in writing quality. It’s low hanging fruit that schools routinely ignore, despite the potential learning benefits. We put kids in front of computers, and watch them hunt and peck. It’s a colossal waste of time that is completely avoidable. There is a continuing misconception about touch screens. Keyboards are not obsolete, and are the main source on user interaction with a learning device. All things old become new again? Skip coding, teach keyboarding. It’s money in the bank.

    Technolust abounds in schools. We need to meet more basic learning needs and align the technology with those needs. Coding is not a basic learning need.

  7. Pingback: Tissue Paper Reforms: Coding for Kindergartners | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice | Sugar Labs @ NDSU

  8. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Critical thoughts on coding in early school years by Larry Cuban and a great new expression: “tissue paper reforms”.

  9. GE2L2R

    10 years after the publication of The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t be Businesses, someone in the world outside of education finally gets it! This OpEd piece appeared in the New York Times Sunday, August 17. They even used your subtitle!

    SundayReview | OPINION
    Teaching Is Not a Business
    By DAVID L. KIRPAUG. 16, 2014


    Kirp concludes:

    While technology can be put to good use by talented teachers, they, and not the futurists, must take the lead. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.

    David L. Kirp is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.”

    It only took a decade for the ideals in your book to get noticed!

  10. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    “Sadly, schools jump to new technologies like frogs on lily pads.” Great quote from a commenter to Larry Cuban’s post.

  11. Dave your senior ( experience and age only)

    Of course there is another use for tissue paper.

  12. Pingback: The coding fad: Do you count on “transfer”? | bloghaunter

  13. Pingback: Free Software in Education News – August « Being Fellow #952 of FSFE

  14. Regarding

    “…except beyond a few schools where children continued to program using Logo-derived languages.”

    13,878,690 projects shared,
    11,071,774 users registered,

    from https://scratch.mit.edu/statistics/

    Tynker.com (a Scratch clone) claims

    31 million kids and 50,000 schools.

    And my guess is that most kids don’t register or share projects.

  15. Pingback: Coding in Classrooms – ideas & their reflections

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