I am convinced all students need to learn at least a little computer programming. I know, I know, the very idea of programming makes many adults cringe and catch their breath at the mere thought. No, I am not talking about teaching kids to program in machine language zeros and ones, or even about doing complex stuff in C++, Perl or Javascript. Yes, some kids should and will learn that stuff. What I am talking about is a basic understanding and practical knowledge of rudimentary programming.

Julie Lindsay included a great quotation from Gary Stager’s “One-to-one computing visions” presentation at NECC today in her session blog notes. The question and answer she wrote from Gary’s presentation was:

Should everyone learn programming?? Well, we all learn Haiku.

Isn’t that profound? We have such faith in the value of traditional education in the United States and elsewhere, and don’t seem to question many of the “traditions” that are practiced because they form part of our own educational experiences. Yet as reflective practicioners, questioning our educational practices and those of others is EXACTLY what we should be doing on a regular basis.

So this brings me back to programming. I had an epiphany (those don’t happen too frequently for me) at David Thornburg’s presentation at TCEA in Austin this past February. David was presenting about open source technologies using Linspire, a commercial variant of Linux. He showed a simple program using Turtle Logo, and it made me think about my own early days of computing– learning to program in BASIC. I never became a real programmer geek, but I’ve always been able to tweak a bit of code in webpages and some web applications as a result of my early introduction to programming.

I think it is essential we introduce all students to at least a bit of programming. I consider it nothing less than giving them a gift today, that may turn into an amazing cornucopia of opportunities in the future. The Internet is here to stay, and I tend to agree with much of what George Gilder wrote five years ago in “TELECOSM: How Infinite Bandwidth will Revolutionize Our World.” The changes most people alive today will see via technology and especially web-accessed content are going to knock our socks off.

So who is going to write the web of the future? Our students today will! We hear so much hoopla about STEM these days in the US: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The Texas legislature just voted in its last special session to mandate four years of math and science for all students graduating from high school, starting with the freshman class entering in 2007. But there is a huge problem with these legislative, technocratic proposals– We need to TEACH DIFFERENTLY, not just mandate “more of the same” traditional education. Look at our dropout rates nationwide! If traditional education was working so well, why are so many people saying we have a crisis? (I think the level of that crisis is being overblown, but I won’t digress on that right now.) I will observe that TECHNOLOGY and DIGITAL LITERACY are going to play increasingly important roles in the lives of everyone in the years and decades to come. And a big part of what will shape the future are the APPLICATIONS that run on the hardware and networks of the microcosm and telecosm, to use Gilder’s terms.

All students need to learn some programming. I want to start working with my own children in the coming year with Turtle Logo, but also explore Lego Robots (Lego Mindstorms.) I want to work with teachers, kids and parents in schools– here in Oklahoma and elsewhere, to promote hands-on learning with these tools. We should not let our leaders, with a straight face, tell us they want to prepare our students for the 21st century workforce by even more rigorously and heavy-handedly force feeding a traditional curriculum to them with paper and pencils! All kids need to learn some programming, and there is no time like the present to get started.

Whether it is part of the official and mandated curriculum or not, I’m convinced computer programming is part of the MORAL curriculum that we need to share with our young people. It’s a tool we need to give them, a gift we need to open together. The creative imagination is a fantastic thing to encourage, grow, and set loose– and it’s high time we did more creative thinking about complex tasks with the technology tools at our disposal in our schools and in our homes.

Do we all need to learn Haiku? Probably not. Will most of our students learn Haiku anyway? Most likely. And that is ok. But I contend we can’t stop with the traditional curriculum. Let’s move forward into the 21st century with a strong emphasis on TECHNOLOGY and DIGITAL LITERACY, not just traditional teaching and learning methods.

The digital natives are begging for us to change our ways. It’s up to us to light the torch and move together out of the cave. I think we’ll all be dazzled by how much sunlight and opportunity for growth there is out in the real world– beyond the limiting walls of the “traditional classroom.”

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4 Responses to All kids need to learn some programming

  1. Robert says:

    I’ve been thinking somewhat along these same lines, on the higher education level. Specifically, I’m becoming more and more convinced as a mathematics professor that computer programming ought to be an integral (pardon the pun) part of all mathematics classes. You just really don’t understand a mathematical process fully until you try to make a computer do it.

    On the K-12 level, I wonder if the traditional way we offer mathematics courses really works any more, and if we ought to some how reorder the material that’s taught on those levels and integrate the math with computer programming. Young kids are remarkably adept at picking up abstract concepts — including foreign languages — so why not computer languages?

    So Wes, the obvious questions: When would you propose introducing programming in the K-12 curriculum, and is there a language currently in existience that would work well at that level? (I’m personally shooting for using Python with my daughter once she turns 4. šŸ™‚ )

  2. Cheryl Oakes says:

    This is so timely. At our district level technology committee a parent suggested we add programming back to our high school curriculum, instead of relying on the local community college to provide programming for interested individuals. I believe the local college should still provide the options for some of our students and I also agree that K-12 we should integrate programming language at all levels.
    In my computer lab I use a couple web based options with students and the excitement is palpable! Anyone can go to National Virtual Math Manipulatives for a great introduction.
    Go to the Geometry page and search alphabetically for Ladybug Leaf and Ladybug Mazes. My student begin using these in grade 2. http://nlvm.usu.edu/en/nav/topic_t_3.html
    There are other programming intros within this site as well. Enjoy!
    For my 4th graders, I introduce the Block Corner which is more programming lanugage and they are challenged, frustrated and then delighted when they crack the code!
    Also, with students working on blogs at think.com my students are constantly searching for “codes” to add backgrounds to their sites and have learned to customize at whim! When my students ask the how to questions, I am turning it around and asking them where they saw the background they liked and to ask that person to teach them. Programming and collaboration at the core. I hope others share great programming sites for elementary students. Rock on!
    Cheryl Oakes

  3. Bethany says:

    I find it interesting that I heard 2 Logo comments in the same day! At the NECC Keynote by Nicholas Negroponte he mentioned not only Logo, but the need for using programing to teach problem solving skills.

    Great minds think alike šŸ™‚

  4. Devon Davison says:

    This article was perfectly timed to fit into my contribution to a class discussion on, “should all students be tauht to program?” Thanks!

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