Beyond Pop Computing

Globaloria’s CEO and founder, Dr. Idit Harel, is a Future20 presenter at the 2017 SXSWEdu Conference in Austin, Texas.


This Future20 talk was delivered at SxSWedu on March 8, 2017, as a tribute to Seymour Papert (February 29, 1928 – July 31, 2016) and Marvin Minsky (August 9, 1927 – January 24, 2016) and to honor 2017 International Women’s Day - celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Another article by the author about this topic was published in Quartz Magazine in May 25, 2016: American Schools are Teaching Kids How to Code All Wrong.

 

1. Daniella and the #CSForAll Movement

Meet Daniella. She’s 14 years old, a young woman growing up in a public school in Houston. Let’s keep her in our minds in the next 20 minutes. To celebrate International Women’s Day, my talk today is about her, and how Pop Computing is affecting her and limiting her potential. This year at SxSWedu there are about 25 sessions about Computer Science Education, designed for kids like Daniella. On the surface it seems that our #CSForAll Movement is finally HOT. However, it’s time to explore where’s the movement, and where’s Daniella in this equation.

If Daniella is lucky, she probably heard in her home that the US Department of Labor projects that a few million jobs in computing and related industries will go unfilled by 2020, and that 40% of these jobs do not exist today. Maybe Daniella also heard that these are going to be good jobs that would allow creativity and economic mobility for her and her family, with great earning potential over the course of her life from youth to adulthood.

In response to this, there has been a national movement to teach computing concepts and culture to Daniella and her friends in schools across the country. Many organizations, including my own company Globaloria, are up for the challenge. We agree: our country must make a commitment to teaching Daniella and every child computer science. It’s a new human right as essential literacy. But: Is Daniella going to learn to do code as a piece worker, or as an innovative change agent? That’s the question I want to explore today. 

2. The History of CSForAll Movement: What’s the Vision of its Founders?

Meet the MIT Learning Explorers. I’d like to highlight some of their powerful ideas today, and the historic fact that the CSForAll Movement did not start this year, not even last year. It’s been around for several decades! I’ve been participating in the movement for over 30 years (and we didn’t call it ‘coding’ back then, because we absolutely did not want to promote, what Seymour Papered named, “techno-centric thinking”).

The theoretical focus of the MIT Learning Explorers Minsky, Papert, Kay, Negroponte -- their big ideas, learning tools, objects and books -- was to think about thinking, NOT about jobs. They always emphasized the art and science of computer science, and the importance of mathetics (the art of learning it) in cultivating the computer-scientist mindset within every child and every teacher in the nation and the world. The theoretical motivation was first and foremost on ‘learning learning.’

The theoretical focus of the MIT Learning Explorers Minsky, Papert, Kay, Negroponte — their big ideas, learning tools, objects and books — was to think about thinking, NOT about jobs. They always emphasized the art and science of computer science, and the importance of mathetics (the art of learning it) in cultivating the computer-scientist mindset within every child and every teacher in the nation and the world. The theoretical motivation was first and foremost on ‘learning learning.’

I was lucky to be in Cambridge in the early 80s, to witness the early days of the movement. In fact, almost everything I’m about to say today was already said by my MIT teachers and colleagues 50 years ago, directly or indirectly, as they envisioned back in the 20th century, at the then new MIT Media Lab, what ‘being digital’ in the 21st century would mean for learning, teaching, and schooling. (My talk today, is a tribute to my mentors Seymour Papert and Marvin Minsky who both passed in 2016; and also to Nicholas Negroponte and Alan Kay, who thankfully are active and creative in this movement and related ones.)

The startup days of understanding the role of computing and computer programming in learning, naturally included a clear vision about 1:1 computing (because you must use the computer “like a pencil” if you want to program it!). From the very first stage of “playing with computational-thinking,” we had a clear vision about what children’s learning can become with these programmable personal computers. In the wild 80s, we imagined Daniella and everyone in her school carrying in their backpacks a few learning devices that are powerful, programmable and making mathematics, science, art, history and music, more engaging and relevant to solving the world’s most pressing problems.

These giants and their teams of scientists, engineers, psychologists, and artists, worked hard for half a century on inventing computational learning environments and tools to improve thinking and learning of all kinds (not only technical coding), and they aimed at creating artificial intelligence and machine learning of the most creative kind, that takes into consideration the power of computer programming for developing new approaches to science as well as art, where technology as a driver for both radical inclusion and radical creativity, globally.

I was a graduate student in their learning labs, as we researched and spread provocative ideas, conceptualized futuristic objects and built programmable learning systems — robotic turtles, dynabooks and digital aquarium, programmable Legos with gears and sensors, or low-cost plastic laptops that with solar-charging batteries and screens that kids in Africa can read in the bright sun to learn and share knowledge with kids in other countries.

These powerful, sometimes fuzzy, ideas were captured in books with funny names like Mindstorms, Society of Mind, Emotional Machine, Being Digital, The Children’s Machine, Constructionism and Children Designers. Most important to note in this history tale, is that all these cool learning tools, were designed to think about thinking – NOT about JOBS.

They were designed to bring the art and science of computer science, and mathetics (the art of learning it) to all people as a creative act; as gift to cultivate the computer-scientist mindset within every child and every teacher in the nation and the world. The theoretical focus and motivation of these Learning Explorers was first and foremost on learning learning.

What this means for our Daniella, is that learning computer programming, computer science concepts, and applying it into her daily education practice, is not about “job prep,” but rather about her learning to think and learning to learn — for life.

3. Pop Computing

When I hear in 2017 my colleagues ask questions such as: “Does CS fit in elementary, middle school, or high school?” “If we add CS to the school day, what should we cut out to make space?” “Should CS count towards core graduation requirement?” “Should CS count as a foreign language?” – I’m concerned that we don’t unfold the epistemology of the Learning Explorers; that we don’t respect the epistemological beauty that computer science and computer programming can drive; that we risk missing the big picture of this new literacy.

As a result of all that type of questioning, what I see very often in schools, is a phenomenon I refer to as Pop Computing. Pop Computing is the teaching of watered-down CS content using simple coding apps. I often see education leaders putting a check-mark on providing after school clubs with small doses of light-and-fluffy versions of coding a few hours on a weekend, once a year, calling it CS education. This Pop Computing has been proliferating as a fast response to the increased need for coders in the workplace. And let’s admit it here: it’s rather superficial.

popcomputing2

The typical coding apps underestimate Daniella’s capabilities. They keep her entertained, teaching her what’s comfortable and catchy, but not immersing her within a new computational literacy. It’s “coding entertainment.”

While calling all policy makers and education leaders to legislate “computer science education for all” is a very old thing and a very good thing (and I wrote about it here), the coding culture promoted by certain organizations (like Code.org and its Hour of Code with library of movie-branded celebrity-branded “coding apps”) provide a large collection of quick experiences, of what we can describe as “coding entertainment.”

4. Pop Computing is Similar to Pop Music

Here’s a helpful metaphor and the reason for why I call it Pop Computing. The popular coding apps that don’t get at the heart of computer science but rather stay at the surface, are designed to make sure Daniella is comfortable and entertained. It may be similar to the pop songs on today’s “Top 40” which are fun to listen to, fun to sing and dance with, but, offering no real insight into musical understanding. Is Top 40 ideal path for getting Daniella into music? For building her systemic music literacy and mastery of theory of music?

Computer science is the equivalent of immersing in a thicker study of music—its origins, influences, aesthetics, applications, theories, composition, techniques, and improvisations. As noted more than half a century ago by MIT’s Marvin Minsky and Alan Kay, computational literacy have much in common with music literacy. (I highly recommend re-reading Marvin Minsky’s paper Music Mind and Meaning from 1980, and Margaret Minsky’s elaboration in 2013: The Musical Mind of Marvin Minsky; Alan Kay’s Dynabook, and A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages in 1972; and Seymour Papert’s Critique on Technocentrism from 1990, and Teaching Children Thinkingfrom 1971.)

Would-be musicians become proficient by a lot of listening, but also by a lot of improvising and composing, and not just by playing parts of other people’s compositions. In the same way, would-be computer programmers become proficient computational thinkers and computer scientists by designing prototypes and models that work for solving real big problems—none of which can be accomplished in one or even ten hours of coding.

Daniella’s playing Guitar Hero may help her master a few music skills, BUT she wouldn’t be considered a musician. Similarly, Daniella playing with coding apps isn’t exactly making her a computer scientist, not even a coder.

Daniella’s familiarity with pop music and video game Guitar Hero may help her master a few music skills, but she wouldn’t be considered a musician.

Daniella’s familiarity with pop music and video game Guitar Hero may help her master a few music skills, but she wouldn’t be considered a musician.

Think about it: If Daniella becomes an expert Guitar Hero player, will you add her to your band? Or your local orchestra? Or accept her to Julliard? Or hire her into your new music-tech startup? Is Guitar Hero her gateway to discovery of music and falling in love with playing music, as well as making and composing music?

I don’t think so… 

5. Beyond Pop Computing: The 3Rs vs. The 3Xs

Let’s game it up a level, and think deeper about the differences between Daniella playing with guitar hero video game or coding entertainment apps for an hour, as compared to Daniella learning how to invent and design an app using code.

Imagining, designing and building an application or a simulation takes time, and requires many hours of serious system thinking, breaking problems in to parts, multi-dimensional learning and knowledge representing. One thing is for sure, it can’t be done in an hour or two, with a few simple drags, drops, and clicks.

So, what can we do to transport Daniella beyond Pop Computing? I argued earlier that the typical coding entertainment apps underestimate her capabilities, keep her mindless at the surface, teaching her some puzzles, what is comfortable and catchy, not immersing her within a new computational literacy.

Computer programming and computational thinking are the new foundation for Daniella’s literacy in her ever-increasing technological society that calls for innovation, creative expression, entrepreneurship, teamwork, and system thinking. We have the responsibility and can make clear choices of the learning environments we select to implement for Daniella and her peers in our school systems.

Computer programming and computational thinking are the new foundation for Daniella’s literacy in her ever-increasing technological society that calls for innovation, creative expression, entrepreneurship, teamwork, and system thinking. We have the responsibility and can make clear choices of the learning environments we select to implement for Daniella and her peers in our school systems.

There are other learning methods that we can introduce to Daniella. Most of my friends in the CSForAll movement agree: The 3Rs, Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, aren’t enough for Daniella to succeed in today’s global innovation economy. Computer science is redefining what it means for Daniella and her friends to be literate global citizens in the 21st century. They now must master not just the 3Rs, but also master how to do the 3Xs – how to eXplore digital spaces, how to eXpress themselves creatively with digital tools, and eXchange their ideas and creations over various digital networks, large and small, local and global.

By promoting the Pop Computing style of thinking in schools, we aren’t doing the hard thinking that defines what the subject of computing is today, and most importantly, what it can be in the future. A new approach, that takes us all beyond Pop Computing is needed to get Daniella and 55 million students like Daniella, in all the nation’s 132,000 public schools, learn how to master many computer languages and become fluent with many computing tools for developing in her innovation practices of the future, based on fluency with BOTH the 3Rs and the 3Xs.

Our research over the past 20 years show that youth can easily master various industry-standard programming languages, delve into complex computer science topics, and build by themselves applications for physics, mathematics, or climate change. We therefore reached a conclusion that we are doing a disservice to Daniella and her friends by keeping her at the Guitar Hero video game world, assuming that she can’t grasp the real cognitive science of computer science. By limiting this generation of learners, we undermine their capabilities and stifle their creative and inventive potential for years to come.

Finally, I hope you agree with me that learning computing should become mandatory in all schools, and should be viewed in the same level of importance and context as reading and writing. We must move beyond pop computing in schools starting tomorrow.

Where will Daniella land? Will she land doing repetitive, techno-centric robotic code (which ultimately machines will learn to do), or will she bring her creative, innovative, human values to the world through code? Will she use code for exercises and tutorials, or transform her community with technology she designs? How do we teach Daniella CS is a much bigger project than giving her little apps on an iPad with some bits of code to move around the screen?

Ideally, Daniella must be challenged and encouraged to think differently in all grade levels, subjects and topics, learn to read and write and talk about her various computing projects every day in her academic life, much like her fluency with reading and writing. With this mindset and approach, we’ll help this generation of students fall in love with learning, get engaged with computer science, data science, and creative design thinking, and — also fill those one million exciting new jobs, all of which require so much more than dragging and clicking.


– This Future20 talk was delivered at SxSWedu on March 8, 2017, as a tribute to Dr. Harel’s teachers and colleagues, Seymour Papert (February 29, 1928 – July 31, 2016) and Marvin Minsky (August 9, 1927 – January 24, 2016), who were the founders of MIT AI Lab and MIT Media Lab, inventors, learning theorists and visionaries on the role of programmable computational devices and computer programming in children’s learning, thinking and cognitive development. 
 
– This Future20 talk honors the 2017 International Women’s Day in celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, with the goal of accelerating gender parity in tech education and tech industry. 
 
– Another article by the author about this topic was published in Quartz Magazine in May 25, 2016, entitled, American Schools are Teaching Kids How to Code All Wrong.
Twitter: @idit and @globaloria

Illustrations by Rich Goehl for Globaloria © 2017

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