Coding – Learning a New Language

Recently Nicholas Negropointe spoke at the 2015 ASCD Conference about the importance of coding.  Years ago I discovered Mr. Negroponte after I engaged in teaching Logo, the computer language for kids developed at the MIT Media Lab by Seymour Papert and his team. For me coding was a problem-solving tool. I never thought about the fact that coding could be something more. Negroponte in his talk at the ASCD Conference shared how coding is a life-long learning tool. According to Sarah McGibben in the Conference Daily:

“…throughout his career, Negroponte’s work has been underpinned by a nagging curiosity about the way we learn. In the 1960s, his colleague Seymour Papert discovered that the process of writing computer programs (or coding), is the “closest approximation that [children] can get to learning about learning.” When you write a program, explained Negroponte, you “create an algorithm and reduce it to a set of instructions.” Such programs rarely work on the first attempt, however. If 5-year-olds are trying to generate a circle on a screen and are unsuccessful, they have to “observe the behavior of the computer” then “go back into the lines of code, find the bug, change it, and execute it again.” 

“This creates a sort of fascination with errors. When observing students in Harlem, Negroponte and Papert noticed that the children who wrote computer programs were better spellers. Why? “When you write a computer program, the fun part is the debugging,” marveled Negroponte. This desire for investigation prompted students to “joke with each other about the words they [misspelled],” and they weren’t ashamed to call out their mistakes. They were “enjoying the errors” as part of the learning process. “ (http://annualconference.ascd.org/attendee/conference-daily/2015/fried-eggs.aspx)

Now I work with schools, like the South Fayette School District, where coding is a key element in computational thinking. For South Fayette computational thinking is the 21st century literacy. What Papert and Negroponte discovered in the 1980s rings true today. Learners need to have a safe environment to take risks and make mistakes. Coding provides this type of true learning environment. More importantly, learners need to have motivation to try again, to become persistent in their attempts to have success. Coding by its nature provides for iteration, the repeating of a series of steps.

Today, more than ever, we need to provide tools and strategies for all students to find value in the learning process. Coding does this across the spectrum of genders and social-economic barriers. I’ve witnessed young girls, African-American students, and challenged learners have great success working on Scratch projects. Each student discovers what Papert and Negroponte observed – a learner aware and reflecting on his/her own learning.

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