Marc Prensky, in his recent article in the Feb/Mar issue of EduTopia, “Programming: The New Literacy,” makes a persuasive case for helping learners of ALL ages master a key element of the new literacies of the 21st century: Programming. The following paragraph near the end of his piece really caught my attention:

Our machines are expected, thirty years from now, to be a billion times more powerful than they are today. Literacy will belong to those who can master not words, or even multimedia, but a variety of powerful, expressive human-machine interactions. If you are from the old school, you may not enjoy hearing this, but I doubt there is anything anyone can do to stop it.

That statement, “a billion times more powerful,” is certainly attention-getting. What is the source or reference for that prediction? No endnotes or citations are provided in the article, unfortunately, so I am not sure.

The Old School

What educator reading this article is NOT “from the old school?” I consider myself a pretty leading-edge person when it comes to learning and technology, but I still am from “the old school.” I think ALL of us educated in the 20th century are from “the old school.” Even our new pre-service teachers earning their teacher certifications TODAY in 2008 are, in most cases, still from “the old school.” True, the students have grown up with many new technologies and digital communication opportunities, but the actual paradigm of school (predominant instructional pattern) to which even our most recent additions to the educator workforce have experienced tend to still be QUITE “old school,” in my perception.

Yesterday, I asked the college student who works at the dry cleaning store near our home if any of his professors were using podcasting at the University of Central Oklahoma. His response: “You mean putting their lectures online for us to download and listen to? Nope. But that would be really cool.” Traditional, lecture based university education. It’s everywhere. We’re surrounded by “the old school.” Where IS the “new school?” I certainly know about “new school thinking,” and we are connected via the edublogosphere to MANY educators implementing “new school” ways of thinking, learning, and teaching– but examples of a truly “new school” seem to be in short supply where I now live and work in Oklahoma. I’m looking, but I haven’t found one yet.

I agree with Prensky’s central thesis that traditional literacy skills are insufficient for the educational organizations of the 21st century, and we must find ways to encourage students to develop these skills formally as well as informally, including PROGRAMMING skills. This message about “the new literacies” is similar to David Warlick’s message in two of his books I’ve read and recommend, “Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century” and “Raw Materials for the Mind: A Teacher’s Guide to Digital Literacy” Prensky’s position is similar to that of Gary Stager as well, who I heard present at TCEA 2007 on “The Value of Student Programming and Constructionism” with David Thornburg.

I take issue with Prensky’s choice of words, however, near the conclusion of his article on programming. This may seem to be a minor point, but words matter, and in this case I think the semantics of his question reveal a great deal about his pedagogical orientation– and perhaps the underlying pedagogical assumptions of many of us involved in formal education. Prensky writes:

All of which brings us to an important question: If programming (the ability to control machines) is indeed the key literacy of this century, how do we, as educators, make our students literate? This problem is a particularly thorny one, because most teachers, even many of our best math and science instructors, do not possess the necessary skills, even rudimentary ones. Most of the tools (and even the concept of programming) were developed long after these teachers were born or schooled.

The key phrase in this paragraph is, “make our students literate.” As scholars like John Dewey and Paulo Freire would likely agree, authentic education is not something DONE TO a learner. Our focus in education should not be HOW DO WE MAKE JOHNNY LEARN HIS PHONICS. In so many instances, writers and advocates for educational change remain steeped and trapped in educational thinking which is fundamentally coercive. A “learning context” is termed a “teaching situation” because the writer’s vision is that students are showing up at a given time and place to have something DONE TO THEM, as if learning was like a surgical procedure where an organ was removed or an artificial limb installed in the body.

Learning in both formal and informal settings should be an invitation, not a mandate. Our public education system in the United States is part of our inheritance from the industrial revolution, and that heritage was ridden with coercive elements. The whistle sounds, the workers clock in and report for duty. The supervisor patrols their work: repetitive, monotonous, exacting, and insures each person is alert and on-task. The whistle sounds, the lunch break begins. And so it continues. Even our bell schedules and bells in K-12 settings (particularly secondary settings) are an inheritance from this industrial production model for compliant factory workers.

Certainly learning is often difficult, and requires intense effort as well as perseverance. Education in the 21st century should be marked, however, by increasing levels of CHOICE for learners rather than mandates from benevolent elites on high. Our consumer society is replete with choices. Anyone ordering a drink from Starbucks or Sonic can attest to the AMAZING variety of choices we have when it comes to food and drinks. Even ordering a Coke at Sonic involves choices: “Would you like some vanilla, cherry, or raspberry flavoring added?” As human beings, we LIKE CHOICES. As learners, WE LIKE CHOICES. 21st century learning should be characterized by many things, but one of the most basic elements should be FREQUENT INVITATIONS TO HAVE CHOICES ABOUT OUR OWN LEARNING.

Digital technologies make this type of content, task, and assessment differentiation more realistic and “doable” than ever in the 21st century learning environment. There are many reasons to embrace 1:1 learning, but one of the most simple is this one: Learners are empowered to have CHOICES and be self-directed in their learning. This does NOT mean learners don’t need teachers. It does mean, however, that the role of the teacher must shift from one of content dissemination to one of learning facilitation.

In his article, Prensky writes, in response to his own question about how we can MAKE students literate with programming skills:

The answer is not yet clear, but we can either come up with creative solutions to this real problem, or, in their absence, the kids will, as they are doing with so many things, figure out ways to teach themselves.

I agree with this response: We need to get CREATIVE. We need to offer after-school clubs which provide students opportunities to play and learn with Scratch software, Lego Mindstorms, and PicoCrickets. Teachers need to give students CHOICES when they create knowledge products to reflect their learning about an idea, including the option of turning in a computer program or story written and communicated in Scratch– or if available, MicroWorlds EX. As teachers we need to accept the fact that we CAN’T hope or expect to master all the “point and click” details of every software program available for creation and collaboration in today’s learning environment. It is essential that teachers gain firsthand, personal knowledge creating and collaborating with digital tools, and teachers need to continue to provide structure and guidance in the learning process. Teachers should NOT be threatened by the fact that students know more than they do about programming in specific software programs, however. Instead, teachers should utilize this knowledge imbalance as an opportunity for students to bring their own expertise into the classroom and share it with others.

For more on the topic of helping students learning programming skills, including some great tutorials and articles related to Scratch software, check out Bob Sprankle’s recent post on his “Geek of the Week” blog titled, “Why Teach SCRATCH?”

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  • “All of which brings us to an important question: If programming (the ability to control machines) is indeed the key literacy of this century,…”
    I don’t believe the “the ability to control machines” will be the key literacy of this century. I believe it will revolve around having enough wisdom and skill to live well in a world where machines have allowed us to change the world in ways that are deleterious to our mental and physical health. Our main problems are not a result of being unable to control our technology but of being unable to control our impulses and desires.
    An interesting read about Choice: The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz
    I do however, believe that choice in learning is a great thing.
    Cheers.

  • Ed

    As for keeping on top of the curriculum of technology, the idea made me think of the saying for teachers that they should be guides on the side rather than sages on the stages. This advice asks teachers to relinquish a great deal of control (and ego) over to their students. You rightly point out limiting the students to old school paradigms is stifling, no choice and external motivations. In addition, a teacher cannot profess control over a subject he or she has little knowledge over. However, that teacher can provide the environment and tools to create and then assess the ability to create based upon the framework of literacy that is provided.

  • I would agree with you Wes that semantics, in this case are very important!! As we begin to talk about technology in the 21st century, I will share the mantra that I use often with my students and teachers, “it’s NOT about the technology!” We so often talk and write like it is! Mark may have meant to imply that we as educators need to create an environment that will help our kids become literate (not that I want to speak for him), however, many of our decision makers, at the local and state level, will take Mark’s ideas in a literal form which will continue to promote “old school” ways of thinking. We need to be conscious about our word choice so that people truly hear what we are saying about changing teaching and learning paradigms for the 21st century!

  • Marc talked about programming skills being the key competency when he came to Perth last year to deliver his digital natives digital immigrants presentation. Just as I disagree with the digital natives/immigrants debate I also believe he is wrong regarding programming skills. If anything we could say that programming was a more important skill to have in the early stages of the web whereas the web has now changed to such an extent that people with no programming skills can become incredibly successful provided they are digitally literate. Programming is important to him because games and the money to be made by people creating these games.

  • Love the post. The shifting from “sage on the stage” to guide and coach is the biggest difference technology will bring. I work as an administrator who sees some teachers hesitant to embrace technology largely because it means abandoning their comfort level with chalk and lectures. Choice and the freedom that comes through integrating technology leads to higher student engagement, relevance, and LEARNING.

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