Computer Programming Revisited

By Weinstein, Peter | Technology & Learning, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Computer Programming Revisited


Weinstein, Peter, Technology & Learning


Once pervasive, computer programming classes seemed to have gone the way of the dinosaurs over the past couple of decades. But hold on to your code commands--there's mounting evidence this fossilized discipline is rising from the tar pits.

When we think of computers in the classroom, we picture engaged students interacting diligently with any number of multimedia productivity, communications, reference, or skill-building software applications that are today's standard fare. It wasn't always that way, of course. My own first encounter with a computer was as a high school student in a Basic programming class, where my peers and I sat hunched over monotonous output from a tractor printer, with no Web browser, no word processor, no graphical desktop, and not even a disk operating system!

In those days, computers were little more than super calculators, good in schools primarily for teaching programming--the art and science of creating those long lists of logico-mathematical instructions that tell the computer how to function and what to do. While few of us could then imagine the role information technology would soon be playing in our daily work and education, some teachers still saw the need to offer that elective class in introductory programming. They believed it would help us better understand math theory, and perhaps even lead to a career in the infant field of computer science.

As desktop computers first trickled, then flooded, into the workplace, home, and schools over the past two decades and there evolved a whole new industry dedicated to creating useful digital tools, the availability of a vast range of practical learning and productivity applications began to make the task of writing endless lines of computer code seem like a waste of time for students. Except among vocational education teachers and a few scattered "true believers," programming in schools waned to the extent of almost disappearing completely.

As is so often the case with trends in education, though, we're now seeing signs that programming is beginning to make a comeback. Many educators see this shift as a very positive step, believing that the re-integration of this discipline into the curriculum holds out promise for a more balanced approach to technology education--one in which students can benefit from creating their own programs while continuing to take advantage of practical commercially built offerings. Proponents also feel that the logic, communication, and critical-thinking skills required by programming can go a long way toward meeting educational goals in math, science, technology and even language arts demanded by so many state curriculum frameworks.

One of the stronger arguments of the programming "faithful" is teacher-reported evidence of the ways in which students are benefiting from programming. They learn to check the validity of results, for example, and can see the importance of being exact and correct in their written communications: computers can't understand a sloppy program! Still other educators claim that the content-independent nature of programming makes it the ultimate vehicle for integrating projects across the curriculum. And while easy enough for any student to learn, it also offers great challenge and enrichment opportunities for more advanced students, such as those in the G.A.T.E. program.

Though many, like myself, were not introduced to programming until the secondary grades, this discipline is not just for older students. In fact, Logo, first released in the early 1980s, became a well-recognized "classic" programming language for the elementary set. In this software, users type in a series of keyboard commands to direct the movements of an on-screen drawing tool, or "turtle." A split-screen interface allows students to see their typed text commands in one window, and the immediate resultant changes in designs and pictures in the other, thus displaying an instant connection between the abstract and the concrete. …

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