Teaching Computer Programming: A Connectionist View of Pedagogical Change

Article excerpt

One of the major issues of teaching computer programming is concerned with determining pedagogical factors that contribute to students' learning and instructional improvement. Classroom teachers are the keys to making learning happen as well as improving teaching in schools. Teachers' perspectives on teaching affect how teachers perceive the nature of the subject, the problems of instruction and how they adopt solutions or ways to improve instruction. Teachers' views of knowledge have great impact on teachers' perspectives and their pedagogical practices. Over the years, two predominant computational theories of mind have emerged from the study of artificial intelligence, namely, the symbolic and the connectionist models. In this article, I argue, based on a qualitative study of 12 computer studies teachers in Hong Kong, that the connectionist view provides an alternative way of thinking about understanding and knowledge which leads to better insight on teaching and facilitates pedagogical change.

Introduction

Computer programming has been a subject widely taught in schools since the 1980s (Mayer, 1988; Nickerson, Perkins, & Smith, 1985; Papert, 1980). Papert encourages a new kind of learning environment which demands `free contact' between children and computers. Children, in getting the computer to proceed on developing computer programs, also engage themselves in thinking development. He envisioned that powerful intellectual skills are developed in the programming process. His advocacy for computer programming as a worthwhile educational domain seemed to have implications for the instructional methods as well as the expected outcomes of teaching and learning computer programming in schools (Mayer, 1988). Research in the past two decades or more has supported the view that the teaching issue does not simply refer to the delivery of programming skills but paves the way for the cultivation of a higher level of intellectual development. Jonassen (1996, p. 233) puts forward the idea that `computer programming is more likely to be used as a mindtool if it is taught more as a problem-solving tool than as an academic subject to be mastered'.

Based on the investigation of the social characteristics of effective learning of BASIC and LOGO, Webb and Lewis (1988) suggest that detailed analysis of the social context can bring important insights into the nature of effective classroom learning environments. Sloan and Linn (1988) also suggest that a careful analysis of classroom conditions can give useful information about the nature of effective instruction for programming. Perkins, Schwartz, and Simons (1988) argue that the pedagogical environment is crucial in learning computer programming. Nevertheless it is widely agreed that learning to program is difficult (Smith & Webb, 2000). A number of recent studies attempt to develop and examine useful tools in helping students learn programming, such as algorithm animation (Guimaraes & de Lucena, 1995; Kann, Lindeman, & Heller, 1997), program simulation (Thomas & Upah, 1996; Yuen, 1999) and visualisation tool (Smith & Webb, 2000). However one of the major issues of teaching computer programming is concerned with determining pedagogical factors that contribute to students' learning and instructional improvement.

Classroom teachers are the keys to making learning happen as well as improving teaching in schools. The improvement of instruction in education is a complex professional challenge to teachers. This paper will start by developing an initial theory of teachers' perspectives on the teaching of computer programming and will explore the underpinning pedagogical assumptions reflected in their perspectives. Teachers' perspectives are likely to impact on their instruction and the change of teachers' perspectives is the first major breakthrough for instructional improvement. I argue that the connectionist view of understanding provides an alternative way of thinking that breaks the taken-for-granted perspectives of teachers, leads to better insight on teaching and facilitates pedagogical change. …