Reopening the debate: Should children program computers?
In Mindstorms I made the claim that children can learn to program and that learning to program can affect the way they learn everything else. I had in mind something like the process of re-empowerment of probability: the ability to program would allow a student to learn and use powerful forms of proba- bilistic ideas. It did not occur to me that anyone could possibly take my statement to mean that learning to program would in itself have consequences for how children learn and think. But I reckoned without idea aversion. When the reference to ideas was filtered out of my claim that Logo could help children by car- rying ideas, what was left was a claim I never made that Logo would help children, period. I was amazed to find that experiments were being done in which tests of “problem-solving ability” were given to chil- dren before and after exposure to 20 or 30 hours of work with Logo. Papers were written on “the effects of programming (or of Logo or of the computer)” as if we were talking about the effects of a medical treatment.
The difference between these two conceptions of the role of programming is of the same kind as the dif- ference between the two interpretations of Piaget: in both cases the crucial difference is between pri- macy of the epistemological (talking about ideas) and primacy of the psychological (talking about how a person is affected by a treatment). I do not mean to dismiss the “treatment” studies as without value. For many children the opportunity to program a com- puter is a valuable experience and can foster impor- tant intellectual development. 16 But encouraging programming as an activity meant to be good in it- self is far removed, in its nature, from working at identifying ideas that have been disempowered and seeking ways to re-empower them. It is even further removed from picking up the challenge to expand and deepen the theory of idea power sketched in the previous section. In my discussion of Michael, I sug- gested that what would benefit him would be better support for idea work. What I am suggesting here is a program of idea work for educators. Of course it is harder to think about ideas than to bring a pro- gramming language into a classroom. You have to mess with actual ideas. But this is the kind of hard that will make teaching more interesting, just as idea work will do this for learning.