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Posts tagged ‘programming’


Let’s Not Start from Scratch: Some Early Research on ‘Coding’

Last week, I tweeted, “When you’re teaching coding to students, research the cognitive challenges kids & teachers had in 80s & implement from there. #PriorKnowledge

This has arisen from the frustration that many today are not not aware of the challenges and opportunities that were experienced—and researched!—on the first wave of children programming in schools during the 1980s.

…let’s pick up where we left off…

It’s great to be excited about ‘coding’ these days, but it would be even more exciting if educators were to pick up where we left off. With the background knowledge of the research on programming: the problems, the misconceptions students face, the common (novice) errors, the questions, and so forth—educators could start at a higher point and move forward more efficiently. This would not be too different from gathering background knowledge in any profession—rather than inventing and discovering all from ‘scratch’ (so to speak)!

Don’t get me wrong, I love the discovery approach, but within reason.

I was asked if I had any digital resources on this. So I decided to put a few of the old research pieces together in this post. It is by no means a comprehensive list! It does not address the totality of research from that era—nor the research in more recent years. But, it will give you a taste of our dreams and challenges from that period.

In here, you will see David Perkins—who, of course, leads Project Zero at Harvard and has a long history of cognitive research.

You will also see my old friend, Gavriel Salomon (Gabi) whose work I have frequently referenced in this blog. He left us last year and is sorely missed. (We had some fun at a conference he organized in Israel in 1986. As I was giving a keynote presentation, one of the audience members disagreed with a point I made and spoke out loudly. I was rather taken aback, as my Canadian sensibilities and customs were different. Before I had a chance to respond, Gabi jumped into it, and took up the challenge! I could only giggle.)

Conditions of Learning in Novice Programmers

  1. N. PerkinsChris HancockRenee HobbsFay MartinRebecca Simmons

Vol 2, Issue 1, 1986

Under normal instructional circumstances, some youngsters learn programming in BASIC or LOGO much better than others. Clinical investigations of novice programmers suggest that this happens in part because different students bring different patterns of learning to the programming context.

Many students:

  • disengage from the task whenever trouble occurs,
  • neglect to track closely what their programs do by reading back the code as they write it,
  • try to repair buggy programs by haphazardly tinkering with the code, or
  • have difficulty breaking problems down into parts suitable for separate chunks of code.

Such problems interfere with students making the best of their own learning capabilities: students often invent programming plans that go beyond what they have been taught directly. Instruction designed to foster better learning practices could help students to acquire a repertoire of programming skills, perhaps with spinoffs having to do with “learning to learn.”

Spaghetti vs Ravioli

The chunking of code, was one challenge I faced with kids in the 80s. They used to write long strings and just add a command, try it, add another, and so on. We ended up calling that ‘spaghetti’ code. We talked about making ‘ravioli’ instead! 😉 Chunk it into meaningful pieces!

turtleAfterbugs – Tiptoeing Back through their Thinking

The issue of giving up on errors, or bugs, I dealt with playfully. I wanted them to tiptoe back through their thinking. It became something delightful for them to seek bugs. Read how—here.


The Fingertip Effect: How Information-Processing Technology Shapes Thinking


Vol 14, Issue 7, 1985


“Contemporary beliefs about the impact of information-processing technology (IPT) on thinking are examined. Whereas some suggest that learning to program and other contacts with IPT will empower thinking, it is argued from both theory and evidence that typical contacts with IPT today do not meet certain conditions for significantly reshaping thought. Whereas others suggest that IPT will have a narrowing and dehumanizing influence, it is argued that the striking diversification of IPT now underway will eventually allow for many styles of involvement. In the long term, as this diversification spreads to nearly all aspects of society, thinking may change in certain basic ways as it has in response to literacy and print.”

Transfer of Cognitive Skills from Programming: When and How?

Gavriel SalomonD. N. Perkins

Vol 3, Issue 2, 1987


“Investigations of the impact of programming instruction on cognitive skills have yielded occasional positive and many negative findings. To interpret the mixed results, we describe two distinct mechanisms of transfer–“low road” transfer, resulting from extensive practice and automatization, and “high road” transfer, resulting from mindful generalization. High road transfer seems implicated where positive impacts of programming have been found; insufficient practice and little provocation of mindful abstraction are characteristic of investigations not demonstrating transfer. Our discussion affirms that programming instruction can improve cognitive skills under the right conditions, but cautions that implementing such conditions on a wide scale may be difficult and that programming instruction must compete with other means of improving cognitive skills.”

Implications for Deeper Learning

I have written extensively about this issue of transfer—in this context of coding. There are great challenges associated with it. So the questions remain—how do you support it in your classrooms?

Read some thoughts about cognitive residue—this issue of transfer here and indeed here.

The Final Report of the Brookline Logo Project: Part ll

Seymour Papert, Daniel Watt, Andrea diSessa, Sylvia Weir


Research on Logo: A decade of Process

Douglas Clements  

“Depending on the environment in which it is embedded, Logo can constitute a trivial enterprise or a variegated educational experience. We claim that few educational environments have shown as consistent benefits of such a wide scope from the development of academic knowledge and cognitive processes to the facilitation of positive social and emotional climates. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, realizing these multifarious benefits does not imply lack of focus: Integration into one or more subject matter areas maximizes positive effects.  A critical factor, however, is a clear and elaborated vision of the goals of Logo experience shared among administrators, curriculum developers, teachers, and students. Such a vision provides a gyroscope that guides the myriad activities of educators: administration, curriculum development, lesson guidance, and moment-by-moment interactions with students.”

So, as Seymour Papert said, “If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.” This from this wonderful 1987 Papert paper called Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking.

In Summary

I applaud and welcome the enthusiasm of educators who are implementing programming (coding) with students. My hope for is that we will all take the time to visit, or revisit, some of the significant findings of the past—so that we are better prepared to to move our students to deeper learning.






Pedagogy before Technology: Not a New Thing


Don’t say, “We are finally paying attention to the pedagogy!”

It is unacceptable.

Pedagogy is why we started so many years ago!

How many times do we hear the following these days?

“It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning.”

“We have to think about pedagogy instead of focusing on the tools.”

But the most disturbing claim suggests that ONLY NOW are we thinking about pedagogy before technology—that everyone in the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s paid attention only to the hardware, the software and ‘teaching the tools’—devoid of pedagogy.

…ONLY NOW are we thinking about pedagogy before technology

quiet-150406_1280Please don’t say that. It’s absolutely incorrect—and, in fairness, rather hurtful to many who have had dreams of the kinds of things we are hearing more widely today. We have fought, and fought hard, for effective uptake through those decades in the face of those who ignored, and dismissed, us as outliers.

…some veteran, and influential, educators ignored us in the past…

And, it is not only some who are new to education who are guilty of this. We are seeing some veteran, and influential, educators who ignored us in the past, now moving us all forward with discussions of new pedagogies.

How we wished for their voices three decades ago. Imagine where we might be now.

Build Upon the Past

However, now we have a new generation of educators who, in many cases, have embraced the affordances of technologies. We welcome your enthusiasm, your energy and your building of effective classrooms for our learners.

…we must build upon that which has been done in the past

questions-1328465_1920I believe that it is important that we must build upon that which has been done in the past and move forward from there. If we start fresh—as if it is all new—we are not leveraging the successes and failures of previous times. We must learn from our experience.

To do this, one needs to know the history of educational computing.

I will share some of my experiences and observations having started on this journey in 1977.

This will require a series of posts. 🙂

A Series of Posts

I could do this by topic—coding, global projects, inquiry, science and math investigations, leveraging productivity software for inquiry, and so on. Or I could do it chronologically—which is the way I shall choose to approach this very rich history.

Logo Maze Poster(sm)Over this series of posts, you will read about:

  • Developing thinking and metacognitive skills through programming (coding) with grade ones in 1977, the Logo movement of the 80s, programming in HyperCard and HyperStudio in the 80s and 90s, teaching kids HTML through the 90s
  • Connecting kids through global projects in the early 80s with a command line interface on our computers, a Day in the Life project run with the Soviet Union via fax machines, National Geographic Kids’ Network collaborative science investigations in the 80s with teams of students from around the world, Global Schoolnet, FrEdWriter and FrEdMail (free wordpro and email networking for kids in the mid-80s), iEARN (International Education and Resource Network)
  • Being mathematicians, scientists, and engineers through building robotics and making in the mid-80s with Lego TC Logo robotics kits
  • collaboration – in addition to the collaborative global projects mentioned above, we had the development of CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments) in the mid-eighties; ThinkingLand (late 80s), and Journal Zone (early 2000s). These were environments focused on creating knowledge building communities in our classrooms
  • Inquiry-based uses of productivity software (mid-80s onward)—using drawing tools, databases and spreadsheets for mathematics & science inquiry of geometry, speed, acceleration, etc.
  • Exploring, tinkering and creating in Virtual Reality (Mandala and CitySpace) in the 90s
  • Multimedia creation (HyperCard, HyperStudio, Web Creation, desktop publishing, Laser discs)
  • Beginning in 1982, we deliberately focused our formalized professional learning on curricular implementation by including curriculum and/or pedagogy in the workshop titles (Math Investigations using Spreadsheets; Planning Ahead with Outliners; Metacognition and Programming in Logo)

This is just a sampling of topics.

girl-and-hammerNext Post: Pedagogical Stance of the 1970s: Piaget In! Skinner Out!

The next post will tell the story of how—and why—we got involved with microcomputers in the late 1970s. It will include a description of the educational context of the 1970s—the student-centred, inquiry-based, open-classroom, student-in-charge environments where we were believers in a Piagetian constructivist approach and had dismissed the Skinnerian behaviourist, operant-conditioning principles of earlier decades.



‘Making’ Does Not Equal ‘Constructionism’

‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make their own minds.’

‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make up their own minds’—quite literally—regardless of the artifacts being constructed. This is the view I prefer to take.

‘Making’ should focus on taking charge of, and constructing, your mind—your learning. Making objects and artifacts is a means to that end. ‘Making’ is a central tenet of constructionism, tinkering and inquiry—or ‘tinkquiry’ as my colleague Brenda Sherry and I like to say. But it is not the whole story.

Don’t equate ‘making’ with ‘constructionism’.  ‘Making’ ≠ ‘constructionism’— necessarily.  One cannot assume that because kids are ‘making’ that they are building new schema—that you are embedding them in a constructionist pedagogy.

Seymour Papert and Idit Harel in 1991 said,

It is easy enough to formulate simple catchy versions of the idea of constructionism; for example, thinking of it as ‘learning-by-making’. One purpose of this introductory chapter is to orient the reader toward using the diversity in the volume to elaborate—to construct—a sense of constructionism much richer and more multifaceted, and very much deeper in its implications, than could be conveyed by any such formula.” In Constructionism (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991).

The ‘Maker Movement’ isn’t Just About Electronics and Coding!

carbon monoxide detectorKinetic SculptureThe maker movement has become extremely popular in the last few years and is usually associated with the ‘making’ of things with circuit boards, 3D printers, lego, found materials, wood shops, metal shops, coding/programming and other electronic gadgetry.  It’s similar to DIY (Do It Yourself) – and ‘craft nights’. There are countless Maker Faires and Maker studios all over the globe.

But, is it only about ‘making with electronics’ and ‘coding’? No. I don’t believe it should be.

‘Making’ isn’t only about electronics and coding.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind. I think Seymour Papert might agree with me as you will read later on.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’…

The Critical Part is the ‘Making of One’s Own Mind’.

Indeed, the critical part is the ‘making of one’s own mind’—the constructionist piece—not the nature of the artifact being made. As I suggested, making artifacts is the means to an end, in my opinion. Constructing one’s schema and texture of mind is the end-goal.

Now, of course, here I am telling you what I think about ‘making’ and ‘constructionism’ but I cannot think that you will merely learn it by reading. It will take my provocations and your efforts for you to construct your own understandings of these ideas—these constructs. As Papert and Harel said,

“If one eschews pipeline models of transmitting knowledge in talking among ourselves as well as in theorizing about classrooms, then one must expect that I will not be able to tell you my idea of constructionism. Doing so is bound to trivialize it. Instead, I must confine myself to engage you in experiences (including verbal ones) liable to encourage your own personal construction of something in some sense like it. Only in this way will there be something rich enough in your mind to be worth talking about.”

A long time coming!

DeweyPiagetWell, this kind of thinking and practice has been a long time coming—well, this time around! Let’s face it. Dewey spoke of it early last century when he spoke of experiential learning.

This time, since information technology has been affordable and accessible, it was Seymour Papert and his colleagues who founded this notion of ‘children as makers’ – when he coined the term ‘constructionism’.  Seymour studied with, and subsequently worked with, Jean Piaget who was instrumental in the origins of the constructivist learning theory—along with Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky and others.

What is constructivism?

BrunerVygotskyConstructivism is a theory which suggests that people actively construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world and are not merely passive recipients. These understandings arise through experiencing events and then reflecting on those experiences.  If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into our previous ideas and knowledge—our schema—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore modifying our schema.  Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.

Regardless, we are active creators of our own knowledge. This occurs through asking questions, exploring, and assessing what we know.  It happens through inquiry.

Does this mean the teacher’s role is diminished?

Not at all. A constructivist approach celebrates the active role of the teacher in helping students to construct knowledge rather than to merely regurgitate meaningless facts. In constructivist classrooms, you will see project-based learning, problem-generation and problem-solving approaches, and inquiry-based activities where students are generating driving questions, generating potential solution strategies and digging into investigations.

You will see students making their knowledge and processes visible to the other students where it is all available for discussion and collaboration. Meaningless facts aren’t memorized in a decontextualized fashion but rather a meaningful body of knowledge is constructed and becomes part of the student’s interrelated collections of memories. The teacher’s role is far from irrelevant. It is critical as a facilitator, educator, and co-investigator.

Constructivism leverages the student’s natural curiosity about the world and how things work. Their engagement is invoked through respect of their current knowledge and real-world experience. Their hypotheses and investigative methods are honoured and honed.

PapertConstruct ‘a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe‘.

So along comes Seymour Papert – and in the mid-sixties – begins to think very deeply about the role of kids making things——>publicly.

This is, as I said, when he coined the term ‘constructionism’.

“Constructionists believe that deep, substantive learning and ‘enduring understandings’ occur when people are actively creating artifacts in the real world.” Papert & Harel “

Constructionism holds that children learn best when they are in the active role of the designer and constructor. But the theory goes a step further.

Constructionism “is the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”

Constructionism Relies on Visible Thinking & Conversation. Making May Not.

But it is not merely the act of constructing that is essential. Powerful things happen when that act of constructing mediates deep conversation with others. The very act of articulating ideas, sharing thoughts, confusions, ahas, questions, potential solutions makes knowledge building explicit. Sometimes words are spoken. Oftentimes facial expressions and body language communicate. We might draw diagrams or build prototypes. All these serve to make the thinking visible and, therefore, discussable—not only with others but for oneself. We learn our subject matter well as we think hard about it and are very intentional about constructing not only the artifact at hand but also our knowledge and success.

…constructing, or making, is not enough…

Constructionist learning is very powerful due to the rich texture of this public creation of artifacts.

Let’s look at some of Papert’s work in action.

Alright. So it is clear that today’s ‘maker movement’ has strong roots in Papert’s ‘constructionism’, in Piaget’s constructivism, in Vygotsky’s social constructivism, in Dewey’s experientialism, and in Scardamalia & Bereiters’ theories of intentional learning and knowledge construction.

However, today’s maker movement is nearly always described in terms of ‘electronic’ making—or making with coding or robotics or lately 3d printing.

Making Up One’s Own Mind

But, I maintain that the real focus should be on helping students to ‘construct their own mind’—for to do so helps them to ‘take charge of their own learning’—which is not just a matter of student agency. It is also a matter of intentionality and skill in knowledge construction. The wraparound of a knowledge-building culture is essential in a ‘making’ environment to reach this goal.

So What Do You Make?

As Papert said, and I totally agree, it matters not whether one is making a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe. I think what is important is that we understand the breadth and depth of constructionism and related theories and that we don’t merely equate making with constructionist learning.

So what do kids make? Have them make what moves them. Make something that matters. Make something hard. Have ‘hard fun’ as Seymour would say. But, above all, focus on crafting the surrounds—the culture—that encourages and supports kids in constructing new knowledge. Focus on the building of the mind as they are creating their public entities—be they poems, songs, multimedia presentations, other works of art or indeed more ‘maker faire’ robotics-based artifacts.

Make up your own mind on how to do this best.



Invent to LearnThere are now many books on the topic of ‘making’—but, these two are deeply rooted in a constructionist approach to ‘making’ because all of these authors have been central to building of this theory as colleagues of Seymour Papert.Guide to 3D printing

“Using technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings engineering, design, and computer science to the masses. Fortunately for educators, this maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing.”


Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 2.15.25 PM

Idit Harel at ISTE

K-12 Learning Platform

GlobaloriaIdit Harel is the founder and CEO of this online platform for courses in STEM, computing, game design and coding.

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