from Seymour Papert: What’s the big idea? Toward a pedagogy of idea power (2000)

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.

Papert’s goal was to give children a path to powerful mathematical ideas, and he saw programming as a better carrier of the ideas than pencil-and-paper.
Others misinterpret him as making the dubious claim that simply learning to program will make you think better. Papert is astonished that anyone would think he was saying that.
Papert explains that programming can serve as a medium in which powerful ideas can be brought within reach. But the focus, of course, must be on the powerful ideas, not programming itself.
at, the high-profile advocacy site for widespread programming education, our nation’s thought leaders explain why all children should learn to program.
Your country needs a lot of code for some reason. Also, school is vocational training.
Programming will make you rich.
Simply learning to program will make you think better.
Industry needs you to be a cog in the corporate machine.
You can be an informed citizen and gain an understanding of the world around you.
You can be a soldier in our war with Eastasia. (We've always been at war with Eastasia.)
This is the depth of thought that powers nationwide policy decisions.
But hey, congratulations to musician and entertainer for at least having an educational philosophy that’s not unreasonable, let alone horrifying.
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