Coding for Middle Schoolers: Next-Generation Programming Languages for Children Are Taking Up Where Logo Left off and Teaching Young Students How to Code to Learn

By Pierce, Margo | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), May 2013 | Go to article overview

Coding for Middle Schoolers: Next-Generation Programming Languages for Children Are Taking Up Where Logo Left off and Teaching Young Students How to Code to Learn


Pierce, Margo, T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


Forty years ago, when large mainframe computers roamed the earth, few experts gave much thought to how these mammoth machines could be used for education, and fewer still about how they could help young learners create, explore, and learn through technology. At the time, highly trained programmers still worked in inaccessible languages that mainly processed numbers. But all that changed with a turtle. In 1967, MIT professor Seymour Papert and colleagues developed Logo, an early language for children. Its main innovation? A small robot--the turtle--that students as early as fourth grade could program to move or rotate. For the first time, kids got instant feedback and a physical response to their commands to create something using technology.

While Logo's use spread in the 1970s, programming never achieved the influence that Papert had envisioned. It wasn't considered a viable educational tool-certainly not for students in middle grades or younger-until schools had routine access to computers.

Even now, at a time when computers are pervasive in everyday life, many educators still question the value of children becoming articulate in the language of technology--programming. But as STEM and Common Core concepts--with their emphasis on math, science, and critical thinking skins--begin to shift curricula across the K-12 spectrum, coding in class is sparking renewed interest.

"We really need to broaden, to rethink what it means to be fluent in today's society," says Mitch Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at MIT. "The ability to program, the ability to code, is an important part of being 'fluent' today. In the same way that learning to read opens up opportunities for many other things, and learning to write gives you a new way to express yourself and seeing the world, we see that coding is the same."

In schools where programming is taught, it often acts as a stand-alone class or as part of an after-school program. According to Susan Einhorn, the chair of the management team that runs Papert's company LCSI, part of the reason programming hasn't seen greater Integration is that there is no consensus about where it fits within the educational curriculum. The lack of qualified computer-science teachers and educators comfortable enough with technology to teach programming--particularly at the middle school level--is another barrier, as is resistance to a class that looks more like fun then substance.

"Just because something's fun doesn't make it easy. Seymour would describe it as 'herd fun,'" Einhom says. "We learn through hard fun. We have to stop seeing learning as rote. It is an active, participatory thing. When you're engaged in something, then you learn the most because you are exploring it."

Papert also contends that people learn better when they're engaged in creating something that is personally meaningful to them. To that end, MicroWorlds, LCSI's current iteration of Papert's programming language for children, encourages curiosity and experimentation beyond the precise syntax and complex character strings demanded by languages like Java and C++.

With MicroWorlda and and other languages like it, students can drag and drop commands and test their creations without miring themselves in the minutiae of syntax, which can be confusing for both students end teachers.

The strategy isn't new--it was all part of Papert's educational philosophy developed in the time of Logo. "'Constructionism' was a term invented by Seymour Papert," says Einhorn. "It means that, if you're constructing something externally, you help build that knowledge within your head, so that it's not just abstract.... You're also gaining new ideas about how the world works and new understanding."

Coding to Learn

Like Papert, MIT professor Resnick has learned the value of keeping kids interested while teaching them the fundamentals of technology.

In 1989, he cofounded Computer Clubhouse. …

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