February 3, 2023

Dumbing Down

Although I’m only 48, I have been working in educational computing for thirty years. When I started, we taught children to program. We also taught tens of thousands of teachers to teach computer science to learners of all ages. In many cases, this experience represented the most complex thinking about thinking that teachers ever experienced and their students gained benefit from observing teachers learning to think symbolically, solve problems and debug. There was once a time in the not so distant path when educators were on the frontiers of scientific reasoning and technological progress. Curriculum was transformed by computing. School computers were used less often to “do school” and more often to do the impossible.

Don’t believe me? My mentor, Dan Watt, sold over 100,000 copies of a book entitled, Learning with Logo in the 1980s when much fewer teachers and children had access to a personal computer.

Things sped downhill when we removed “computing” from our lexicon and replaced it with “technology” (like a Pez dispenser or Thermos). We quickly degraded that meaningless term, technology, further by modifying it with IT and ICT. Once computing was officially erased from the education of young people, teachers could focus on keyboarding, chatting, looking stuff up, labeling the parts of the computer and making PowerPoint presentations about topics you don’t care about for an audience you will never meet. The over-reliance on the Internet and the unreliability of school networks ensures that you can spend half of each class period just logging-in.

Teachers with post-graduate degrees are being compelled to receive iPad training. My 95 year-old grandmother figured it out all by herself. No tax dollars were harmed in the process. Apparently, we also need to provide teachers with interactive white board training so they may hung unused in their classroom, just like all of their peers.

We have National Educational Technology Standards published by the International Society for TECHNOLOGY in Education that are so vague pedestrian that no computing is needed to meet them. In fact, it’s likely one can satisfy the NETs without the actual use of a computer. Despite standards and district tech plans that are a cross between a shopping list and a desperate plea for teachers to consider modernity, most school kids are powerless over the technology so central to their lives. Nobody even bothers to ask the question Seymour Papert first posed 45 years ago, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” This is a tragedy.

What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and inservice of the educational status quo. Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education. Teachers were considered thought leaders and scholars who were required to write peer-reviewed papers in order to present at such events.  Today one merely has to promise 75 quick and easy things to do in 37 minutes with the hottest product being peddled to schools. Another popular topic is incessantly about how your colleagues won’t or can’t use the latest fad.

I am sorry, but social media is not a school subject. There are conference workshops on using Twitter and masters degrees in educational technology that culminate in a rap about hashtags.  If social media is any damned good, it needs to be as complex and reliable as a dial-tone.  PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with. We should not need an National Science Foundation grant to make friends.

I had an educator approach me at a conference recently to volunteer that “Our school is not ready for Google Docs.” Set aside whatever you happen to think about Google Docs; it’s a word processor in a Web browser, right? I told the tech director, “Congratulations, your school district has apparently managed to employ the last breathing mammals in the solar system incapable of using a word processor.” Isn’t it odd that technology directors are not held accountable for such failure over three decades? Could they possibly be enabling co-dependent behavior and helplessness in the teachers they are meant to lead?

If the percentage of teachers using computers remains constant over time, regardless of how we lower expectations, shouldn’t we ask a great deal more of them and set our sights higher?

I’m so old that I knew the guy responsible for “Guide on the side, sage on the stage” (Chris Held) and “Ask three before me,” (Leslie Thyberg) I even knew the gentleman responsible for “computer literacy.” (originally called computing literacy) His name was Arthur Luehrmann. I often find myself mumbling, “I knew Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur Luehrmann was a friend of mine. You sir are no Arhur Luehrmann.”

When Luerhmann coined the term, “computer literacy,” he intended it to mean computer programming the intellectual pursuit of agency over the computer and a means for solving problems.

Don’t believe me? Read this 1980 paper transcribed  from a 1972 talk.

I know what some of you are thinking. Not every kid needs to learn programming. You don’t have to be able to fix a transmission to drive a car, blah blah blah…

First of all, the educational technology community and schools seem to have decided that no kids should learn to program. I’d be happy with the same nine-week programming class I was required to take in 1975.

Second, computer programming is not like fixing a car. It’s much more like designing the car, making sure all of its systems work in an integrated fashion, mitigating the environmental impact of cars and imagining their impact on society. Computer science is a legitimate science that has profound implications for learning all sorts of other powerful ideas, working in diverse fields and making sense of the world. You just would not know this if you go to school.

Why would it even occur to educators to deprive children of such rich learning opportunities?

If you have the audacity to speak of digital literacy or technology literacy and do not teach computer science, then this is the first time in the history of education when the functional definition of “literacy” has been so devalued, diminished and degraded. All other expectations for literacy increase over time.

There you go Stager, you radical crank. How dare you ask teachers to develop new knowledge and empower students? You’re just some stupid utopian who happened to have a great 7th grade computer programming teacher 35 years ago. Well, I’m not alone.

In January, I was in London to keynote at BETT. At the same event, the Secretary of State Michael Gove announced that the UK government was scrapping the “harmful and dull” national ICT curriculum and replacing it with computer science at all grade levels. He called the current curriculum a mess and wondered aloud why schools bother to teach Excel or PowerPoint to bored students? Coincidentally, I wondered in 1996 why we were investing so heavenly in ensuring that we create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills?

When a conservative politician and I agree on education policy, who could possibly be on the other side?

Related reading:

71 thoughts on “Dumbing Down

  1. Fantastic article. This reminds me of the fun I had programming BASIC and Logo back when I was growing up, and how that encouraged the abstract thinking that is still valuable in my present day life.

    I’m going to have to share this one.

  2. As a LOGO grad, I always enjoy Gary’s talks/posts that trumpet the importance of computer programming. I never did a lot of programming after middle school, but I can assure you that the skill set I built up until that point helped me tremendously throughout school, and probably gave me the foundation to pursue my passion of Educational Technology once I began teaching. It’s about far, far more than just learning programming.

  3. Agree that coding, programming is neglected and virtually invisible in schooling. Which may speak to why I don’t know it to teach it. So how do I learn? Take a class? Not. going. to. happen.

    I remember LOGO from when I was a kid. Something about a turtle. Vague. Teach myself. Yeah. Am working on it.

    “PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with.” Agree. You can talk about some really great things with people. Certainly valuable when they are the only people helping you to learn anything remotely close to coding or programming.

    Social approaches to learning may be the only way people can even begin to do this. As I gain experience in the digital world, I see the necessity of learning programming more clearly. Hopefully I will find my way to how to begin!


  4. Gary you always make me smile. If only I could get you into our district for some PD.

    I think there is a place for social networking in schools and resistance is expected much like computer programming met resistance in the 70’s. Is it the end all? Absolutely not.

    I do agree with the teaching of Office products. Most likely the kids could teach the classes by the time they reach 5th grade. I’m working on our School “tech” plan right now and NETS are a joke. The kids could test out of this stuff on their phones.

    Resources, resources, resources. How do we get started pushing higher level computing skills?

  5. Finally, somebody said it. Fantastic post – so many quotable lines!

    I totally agree – the current trend of teaching ICT rather than computing is nothing more than a watered down version of what computing classes could be. I’m glad to see secretary Gowe making this point as well – go Britain!

    I try to point out to skeptics that the skills gained by programming are applicable in pretty much any field – there’s no shortage of demand for analytical and logical thinking skills, not to mention creative problem solving and abstraction which is at the heart of programming.

    I recently gave a presentation at TEDxTokyoTeachers on this exact same topic. Here is a link for those of you who might be interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmGKaYmJHEg

    Again, fantastic post.

  6. You go Gary! The reason I love teaching 6th graders, they still haven’t been told to start focusing on the “so called more important things” that make up an education today and so they are open to, and love, all the programming we do together in school. But I do cringe every time a parent complains to me about my curriculum, “you are teaching them things that they will never be able to use, things that aren’t going to help them get into a good high school, they need classes on PowerPoint, Excel, and keyboarding.”

  7. Great points. At the end of the day, we learn what we use.

    A truly integrated college-prep classroom would require students to blog about their learning (they’d simultaneously learn to set one up). It would require them to develop a PLN on Twitter (teaching them Twitter in the process). They’d also make a collection of articles on Pintarest or Scoop.it.

    It’s not rocket science – especially for Gen Ys.
    Janet | expateducator.com

  8. Hey Gary,

    As always I find your aplomb refreshing. I agree with much of what you have said about the need for more complex, critical thinking and computing, but I am going to push back a bit on your criticism of social media and connected learning.

    There are other people, who are far more intelligent and articulate than me, who can talk about connectivism and networked learning, in much more academic and profound ways, so I will not say much about those things here. You know who they are. I know, because you are connected to them. I have listened in as you talked. (and learned a lot from your exchanges)

    What I do what to argue, in my own simple way, is that perhaps you are being a bit terse when you say “social media is not a school subject.”

    You are right it is not a subject, but it does have the power to harness connected learning and show students as well as teachers how to connect to content creators, knowledge owners, policy makers, and anyone else who might help us learn. I am arguing that social media is more than a school subject, it is a set of skills? ideas? that can help learners move beyond school subjects and focus on what they need to learn and who can help them.

    You say, ” If social media is any damned good, it needs to be as complex and reliable as a dial-tone.”

    Sure. You are right. It is. Not sure why people find it so difficult, but they do. You establish a space online and connect others to it, then connect to their spaces. Dial tone simple. I would say, however, that if it is any good than it can be a rich, complex web of relationships that is unique and useful for each member of a network until it culminates in community creation.

    You say, “PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with. We should not need an National Science Foundation grant to make friends.”

    Sure you may be right. But learning who to talk with, how to talk to them is a valuable skill. I don’t think it is fair to deride social media simply because we are not teaching computing. They both serve a purpose and should both be valued. At the end of the day, you have to agree with me to some extent, because you are using your blog and Twitter to lure people into this conversation.

    Why? For what purpose? There is learning here right? There is new knowledge creation in our connectivity.

    In closing, I understand and appreciate what you are saying about avoiding hot topic fads, but I think you may have been a bit too harsh in regards to the power of connectivity.

  9. Not a completely ignored practice in schools, but needs to be much more wide spread.

    For example, http://www.runrev.com/education/case-studies.html

    How about this too, the amount of data that our “social world” creates is staggering. Most of it is simply gibberish. However amongst all the noise are nuggets of information. IMHO, the only way to extract that useful information is through algorithms developed for specific learner needs. All these services have APIs that can be utilized in algorithms, that can extract just the right data for the right purpose. Why would we not want our students to have this skill? Programming should be a basic skill, like when we used to teach how to use the card catalog in those places where old people store books.

  10. Gary has really expressed my exact feelings (and frustration) on this issue. I had mistakenly thought “computer science” had the traditional definition in our schools– but was saddened to find out that it was a watered-down non-science in which programming Tevo and Tweeting were considered valid academic activity. My company has recently started to developing courses and materials to help teachers teach web development, mobile development and game programming. In preparation to release these materials we have been assessing the market– only to find teachers don’t want to teach Java: “It changes too often!” (No, not really.. not since 1986 anyway) and find them using the absurd NETS to defend their lack of teaching computer science in these classes.

    Gary, you’re my hero. Get in touch!

  11. Jabiz,

    Thanks for reading and responding to this post.

    There are educators whose identity is defined by being a blogger or using social media. This seems an odd thing to be known for. Any actual benefit attributed to social media is based on it not being precious. It is like oxygen or a dial tone. Incidentally, the telephone has had a negligible impact on education over 135 years.

    Requiring social media to make friends or form collegial relationships says more about the user than the technology.

    Much knowledge and some learning is indeed socially constructed. I am skeptical that this changes very much when you scale-up the number of participants. In fact, noise, reinforcing prejudices, affirming your own beliefs with like-minded people, mean-spiritedness, the need for popularity and other factors may actually make learning more difficult at the scale of social media. Popularity is no substitute for expertise or “paying dues.”

    Even if I were to stipulate that social media is the best thing ever, that does not change the thesis of this post. That is, “We have dumbed down the use of computers in school.”

    In far too many cases, chatting, blogging, tweeting and burping into VoiceThread is ALL that is done with computers in school. This is a great waste of potential, anti-intellectual and at best only addresses a narrow sliver of what it means to be educated. Computing needs to be a significant part of the educational experience for every child.

  12. I am so grateful to those of you who said nice things about my post. I appreciate those who took the time to disagree with me too.

    The epiphany that led to the article was the notion that only in the education technology space does literacy get defined downward over time.

  13. Dan Watt – now there’s a name out of the past. Dan (and Molly) introduced me to Logo at a retreat in New Hampshire many years ago. Gary, what are Dan and Molly up to now?

  14. Thought provoking post as usual.

    Gary…could you give us an idea of what you would like students to be doing at grades 3-5? Having a Scratch class?

    Also, what would you want preservice teachers to learn about computers?



  15. I recently took the test that would enable me to be certified as a technology educator in my state. You’d be appalled. No programming knowledge was necessary at all. The same test is given to folks who want to teach auto mechanics, industrial arts, construction, and the like. Tons of questions that have nothing whatsoever to do with computer science. And yet, if I passed it, my state will certify me to teach any and all of the subjects I mentioned. Very sad.

  16. 🙂

    wondering if there would be less dumbing down if we weren’t so concerned with controlling it.. tech/computing/school…?

  17. Luerhman also wrote here (http://www.citejournal.org/vol2/iss3/seminal/article2.cfm): “Seymour Papert and I argued a lot about Basic versus Logo as a suitable language, but we were in firm agreement that learning the syntax of a particular programming language was far less important than being able to express an understanding of a problem or an idea by means of a simple program.” Far less? I’m not sure Seymour would have agreed with that.
    I remember using one of Arthur’s quotes (in the spirit above) in a debate I had with Ursula Wolz during a TC seminar (spring, 1980) “Which is better in schools today: BASIC or Logo? to defend BASIC which is what I was using at Brooklyn Friends at the time. My “seeing the light” transformation was still to come.

  18. I’m gonna respond one more time, because I feel I owe it to stick up for social media one more time because it has helped me so much in my learning, but before I do, let me say that we are essentially arguing the same thing: “Kids should be having more complex expereinces with computers beyond “belching into voice thread.”

    You mentioned educators who are known for blogging and using social media. You are right. We have all been to conferences where we are forced to listen to people who haven’t been in a classroom since the Reagan years, but for every one of them there are many others who are on the front lines everyday doing their best to give kids new expereinces with technology in ways that feel natural for them.

    We may not be programmers or educational technologist, we may not know Java from LEGO from BASIC, but we do know that computers and technology are having humanity changing effects on all of our lives, and we are eager and curious and open to learn how to help kids and ourselves navigate this new world.

    We are using social media to find each other, not to be popular or to get large sums of money to speak at conferences about PLNs. We have realized that we are all we have. We are teaching and learning from each other. Whether you like it or not, you are part of our world. Who else would have told me to read The Children’s Machine (You) or Pedagogy of the Oppressed for that matter? Social media is my Master’s in Education Technology! You are my professor, so please do not devalue the method I am using to educate myself, help me learn. Send me links, articles, people I should meet to learn more about programing, or computing or whatever you are saying is valuable.

    You say, “Computing needs to be a significant part of the educational experience for every child.” Please tell me why? Then show me how to make that happen. And please use Social Media to do it. Blog about it. Share links on Twitter. That is where I learn.

    No one is saying that we want to, “require social media to make friends or form collegial relationships,” but it seems to be working. Not sure what that says about me and the people I interact with, but if you have another way to share ideas, arguments, sites, links and more please share them.

    You are right that when ratcheted up too much, we are left with noise and popularity contests, but as I mentioned before, here in the trenches, we are finding our tribes and doing good work. We are “paying dues” as best we can, everyday in our classrooms. If there is another definition for the term, please let me know.

    In closing, Gary, I respect you and everything you do and stand for immeasurably. I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be, to be in this business for over 20 years and to watch people get excited about the “latest” fad, only to watch what you are passionate about become ignored and irrelevant.
    We also agree that, “We have dumbed down the use of computers in school.” Largely because most teachers do not care or want to learn what a computer can do beyond consume media.

    My response, however, was meant to say–although we are not all programmers and coders, there are many of us out here who are curious and driven and passionate about kids and learning. We are using everything at our disposable to learn and teach each other. We are trying to use computers in as innovative ways as we possible. I find it insensitive to our work when you say that what all we are doing is merely using tools to find people to talk to so we can be popular.

    Having said all that….thanks for doing what you do. I love having you around to challenge my thinking and force me to defend my values. One day, I hope to make it to Constructing Knowledge.

  19. Jabiz said: “We may not be programmers or educational technologist, we may not know Java from LEGO from BASIC, but we do know that computers and technology are having humanity changing effects on all of our lives, and we are eager and curious and open to learn how to help kids and ourselves navigate this new world”

    I think what Jabiz is saying here is a valid– but doesn’t serve to detract from Gary’s main point. While social networking may establish itself as the communication tool of this young century, the people who use it are simply consuming the tolls created by computer scientists. The fact that some teachers do or don’t have the expertise to teach computer science is no more meaningful than saying that some teachers aren’t qualified to teach chemistry. We also don’t confuse taking Tylenol (“the result of the effort of chemists” with formulating Tylenol as a chemist).

    Computer science (real computer science) is a valid and challenging scientific pursuit– and arguably the one that has had the most impact on our society in recent years. We’re not teaching computer science in most schools and that’s what needs to change.

  20. You are right Mark. Sorry Gary, I hope I am not hijacking this thread. I agree that there is value in programming and computer science, I was not trying to devalue that. Just stating my piece on the other stuff.

  21. Great article. But one point I’d be careful about:

    > When a conservative politician and I agree on education policy, who could possibly be on the other side?

    There is no way that the conservative government in the UK has our interests at heart re. computing education, or anywhere. Their open agenda is to massively cut education and other social programs and benefits, to bring their population’s wages/benefits/quality of life down to the level of the US if not lower.

    In the US where I live, these kinds of people have directly caused not just computing education to be practically cut out of schools, but also nearly every other kind of extracurricular activity (shop, music, art, unpopular sports, you name it – my nephews’ schools have NONE of that anymore – and they go to relatively well funded suburban schools!).

    So I really question whether this newfound interest in computer science in schools (in both US & UK, and probably elsewhere) is some kind of opening/perestroika on the part of governments for creative learning in schools. It’s certainly an opening for the computer industry to deal with scarcity in their labor market, while selling all kinds of control technologies (‘learning management systems’, e-textbooks, et al.) to the schools as they’ve been doing for some time now.

    Not that we can’t use the opportunity, but we should be aware of who we are dealing with, and their agendas!

  22. Not arguing with your premise about the dumbing down of computing and the disappearance of a meaningful conversation around literacy in that context. As always, I can’t take issue with the underlying sentiment.

    But I still think you push too hard against the potential value of social media. You seem to suggest that meaningful scholarship can’t take place in these spaces (they can) or that mediated social interactions online can’t lead to important learning and understanding of our world (they can.) Just as there are educators who are defined by books they write based in part or whole on their practice, is it not possible for blogger educators to be defined as authorities in the same way? Is scholarship only scholarship if it is “precious”? Or is socially constructed learning only valuable in limited, physical space places? If so, is it then true that any technology that makes creation or creativity potentially connected and abundant necessarily cheapens that creation?

    I also want to suggest that “paying dues” is indeed possible in social media spaces online. And while I agree that “noise, reinforcing prejudices, affirming your own beliefs with like-minded people, mean-spiritedness, the need for popularity and other factors may actually make learning more difficult at the scale of social media,” so what? We go back and forth on this all the time, Gary, and I’m left to wonder what that alternative is? Pull the plug? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Or try to make sense of it and develop expectations and literacies that help us to make better use of its affordances? (Which is exactly what you are trying to do here.)

    The irony here, of course, is that lots of people just had their thinking provoked and their learning deepened (myself included) by your willingness to participate in the very setting that you rail against. No burping into VoiceThread going on here, I don’t think. Just a bunch of folks who while, I admit, may be like-minded for the most part, are engaged in a process of sharing and examination that I don’t think would be as meaningful without the forum, not to mention the hundreds (if not millions) who read and reflected without chiming in.

    I totally respect your voice in this conversation, Gary. It is thoughtful, intelligent, articulate, funny, caustic and much more. And without this space and others like it, I would most likely never hear it.

  23. Hi Will,

    You can’t put the genie back in the social media bottle. However, we might be able to rein-in the irrational exuberance about its transformational effect on learning and schooling.

    We also should not confuse what we do with social media with the scope of what computers make possible. Too much of the edtech discourse interchanges any use of a computer and creates false equivalencies about their value or power.

    People can undoubtedly pay dues in this or any other medium. That said, popularity is overvalued in this one. Our social discourse is degraded when every Twittering teacher or pop singer gets to weigh-in on important issues, regardless of their expertise, at the expense of those who may actually have something to say. I neither want Jon Legend or certain edbloggers to have disproportionate impact on matters of education policy or keynoting conferences, for example.

    This is ESPECIALLY true since despite the promise of debate, none rarely materializes in the edublogosphere, magazines or conference programs. Everything descends into a flame war and one side is the nice teachers who just want to help while the other team (my side) becomes the mean guys who dare to challenge the BS being propagated by the popular kids.

    I’m hoping the temporary period of social media euphoria may be coming to an end and we can reconsider its value when compared to other experiences. There are few if any instances of any new medium supplanting the previous ones. I’d love to see actual journalism return and become financially viable. I just watched a “debate” on Australian TV between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Sydney. There was ZERO value added by letting folks in the audience, YouTube or Twitter ask questions that could (and I would argue, should) have been asked by the professional journalist moderating the conversation.

  24. Jabiz,

    I can’t do anything about social media. I’m as addicted to it as anyone. Hopefully, I’ll manage to maintain perspective on its relative benefits and costs.

    That however neither makes it a critical part of education requiring more than a few minutes worth of instruction OR the sum total of the value of computers as objects to think with.

    Why can’t we ask teachers to develop new knowledge, skills and fluency?

  25. Ihor,

    Thanks for the fantastic reference. I don’t suspect that Luerhmann or Papert would be very far apart in their world-views today.

  26. I will respond one more time, because you asked a question, but will leave this post alone after this comment. I think this post was meant to be about the value of what computers CAN do, not what social media might do.

    But to answer your questions, “Why can’t we ask teachers to develop new knowledge, skills and fluency?”

    The answer is easy. Of course we can. But this knowledge, these skills and fluency will be different for all of us. Not all of us are experts at this point. We did not all grow up really understanding how computers work. (Yes, I did “program” my Commodore 64 for hours when I was eight, but beyond that computers just worked) We are living in a new context. You are right that technology literacy must move beyond social media, but for many of us, social media is the medium we are using to access this new knowledge, these skills and fluency?It is the gateway to people like you, who can hopefully teach us and share your expertise.

    As an observer, I think I know what you are referring to when you talk about flame wars and popular kids, but I hope that we can move beyond this dichotomy. It may be true that you are frustrated by the lack of the debate and the over exuberance of the edublogospehre, but surely you cannot be so cyclical that you would devalue the thoughts and voices of every “Twittering teacher or pop singer gets to weigh-in on important issues, regardless of their expertise, at the expense of those who may actually have something to say.”

    We may not all be experts, and invited to take sides in the debate between the good guys and bad guys, but our voices are not just noise. We are learning. We are working. We are open to new knowledge, skills and fluency. I will not be silenced and forced to sit out the big debates, because I have not been deemed an expert or spent 30 years in the business. One thing that social media has taught me is that my ideas, however fresh and naive do matter. This chatter, this noise is helping me learn.

    I hope that in 30 years, I can be open-minded enough to listen to the voices who will just be starting their journey.

  27. With apologies to the original content of the author’s post… I can’t help thinking that the positive use of social media in education is equivalent to the number of education magazines in you’d find on the shelf walking into a Barnes & Noble book store.

    My point being that social media COULD have a positive effect on education. However, for now, it’s effect is limited to the type of folks that read these posts, very limited in scope. In my opinion the majority of social network users use the network to access information equivalent to the content found on the magazine shelf at the Barnes & Noble.

    We have a lot of work to do if we want to turn social networking tools into a “standard” universal learning strategy.

  28. I can’t help wondering why this discussion has turned in to a debate on the value of Social Network– while entirely missing the immediate and more important focus of the original post.

    Is it perhaps that we’ve come to accept the dumbing down of computer science education as factual, and acceptable and would rather debate today’s “hot” topics? I think the central point made by the original article is more instructive than a debate about social networking that’s had 10x a day in 10 other venues..

  29. I agree to all the above – I’ve always made it a point to attend your workshops – in the past twenty years, I’ve seen US education go from bad to worse. Now all we do is test, test, test. When I’m retired please point me to a country where children and teachers enjoy learning mathematics.

  30. Maybe I’m missing something here, but aren’t we really comparing apples and oranges?

    Social networking, Twitter, Voicethread, etc. are all tools. They allow you to do something. They are not a subject worth studying.

    Sure, we need to teach students how to write and maintain a blog or tweet or social network or whatever, but that’s just like teaching them how to hold a pencil, number their pages in a paper, etc. By all means, we should have students use social media, but they have to blog/tweet/post about something. The content is the important stuff. The rest is just a means to an end.

    Computer Science, programming, robotics, etc. are areas worthy of study. They have content knowledge. They require a way of thinking. They constitute a subject of their own right. And they’ve become marginalised.

    Isn’t it that we have come to focus too much on the “how” of computers/technology and not the “what?

  31. I don’t really see this as a zero-sum game. Social media and real computer literacy are both important and must play a vital role together. It upsets me too however when schools dismiss programming as a dead language. This attitude will surely doom the West to an unrecoverable illiteracy.

  32. @John Iglar Great post. I agree. I’ve had the same discussion about eLearning as that is more of the industry I work in. And– perhaps its my sardonic thinking– but I have surmised three reasons why that social media gets the elated push while actual programming (which could be useful to eLearning professionals gets put on the back-burner):

    A) The industry (eLearning at least) is vendor driven. Social networking and social networking features leads them to additional sales units.

    B) Often fearful of technology, easy social networking tools gives eLearning practitioners a sense of mastery over technology. Similar to how they feel that a 9 year old who can “program” a Tivo box is a compter prodigy, this gives them a feeling of being “cutting edge” and “with it.” ”

    “See, I understand the latest computer technology too! I am tweeting! Watch!!”

    C) It’s easy. Programming is very, very hard. Why spend a summer learning programming when you can master social networking in an afternoon? Then we can pretend it’s just as valuable.

    I don’t know whether this reflects on a classroom teachers’ view on technology or not… Or may I am just being evil…

  33. What can I say Gary– you have pulled me in. I can’t stop thinking about this post. I feel guilty for being the person who sort of steered the conversation toward social media; let us simply agree to disagree about the value of social media and education for now, and move back toward the main point of this post: The devaluation of programming in the EdTech circles.

    @Mark, let us start with your slightly condescending, yet important idea, ““See, I understand the latest computer technology too! I am tweeting! Watch!!”

    I guess in a way, I am one of this person. I look at my understanding of technology, then think of ways that I can apply what I know to help my students. For me Media in any form makes sense. I like to create it, consume it and analyze it.

    As a middle school English teacher, I try to inspire kids to find a voice. Whether through poetry, art, music, prose….whatever, I spend a lot of time on identity, voice and expression. Add to that the skills that go with this self-creation: writing, critical thinking, active reading etc…and you have a basic picture of my pedagogy.

    The technology that I feel makes the most sense for this type of pedagogy is anything that helps with media creation, finding places to share created content, and the tools necessary to find and analyze information/media from others. Things like film editing, music creation, and public publishing (blogs) make sense to what I do in my class. Where at the moment, I do not understand how programming will fit. I am open minded and willing to learn, hence my returning to this post on a now daily basis.

    Sorry to ramble, but I wanted to put where I am coming from in context. Before I continue, let me highlight the fact that I feel we have been arguing based on an assumption, one which I would like to clarify:

    “Programming is good for kids.”

    I know it is, but I am not sure why, or how that applies to me. Here is what I would appreciate: Can you, Gary or Mark or any other reader, either leave a comment on this post, or write a new post which answers the following questions.

    1. What exactly is programming? What does it look like in 2012? LOGO, HTML, BASIC, MIneCraft?
    2. Why is it important? How does it help kids? Teachers? I want to experience the most complex thinking about thinking.
    3. Why spend a summer learning programming? (Indeed) How can I apply it to a grade 8 English class?

    Looking forward to hearing what you all have to say.

  34. American culture/media negatively stereotypes programmers. The culture of our schools does not have the resources nor allow for the type of creativity and experimentation that must occur for real programming to flourish. As a first year student teacher in a Title I school, the principal handed me the keys to a computer lab with Apple IIe’s and no software – I survived with Logowriter and reading books by Abelson and Harvey. I had a fantastic education. There is no way this sort of environment could exist now. I had a similar experience when I ran a computer lab and downloaded MSWLogo from Berkeley and I had students build a chat room in two hours using some slick code I found on the internet.

    I’m sick of looking at mathematics through the lenses of watered-down textbooks written by hacks, like at Maharishi University or MSU. Why not choose a superior curriculum like Singapore, written especially for Second Language learners by its Ministry of Education. Our textbooks at the elementary and secondary level are chicken feed compared to theirs, so my prediction is the US will only continue spiraling downward. So long, adieu good turtles the US has chosen pork barrel over intelligence…

  35. @Jabiz, you are an English teacher. Your job is to help kids read & write & communicate better. Twitter, blogs, etc. are fantastic tools for you to do that. Go for it! You are using computers and networks as a means to accomplish great learning for your students.

    I don’t think anyone suggests that your English class be transformed into a programming class.

    What’s being suggested is that programming/Computer Science be taught as well as English and Math and Science and Humanities and so forth. Cathy Davidson (among others) talked about “the fourth R: reading, writing, ‘rithmatic and (algo)’rithms.

    As several people have commented, this should not be an “either/or” situation. If English teachers have their kids blogging and connecting and using tech tools, then Computer teachers can do programming and robotics and so forth. Unfortunately, Computing Education has become an “either/or” case – and the tools have won. No longer do students learn how to program and create with computers. They only learn to be users of social networks and office applications and suchlike. (OK, I admit I’m overstating the situation to make a point.)

  36. I’ve been thinking about this post for a while and I felt like I had to jump in….

    I live in Japan and I speak almost no Japanese. It’s pathetic and I am not proud of it. I stumble through everyday transactions and am usually unsure of what to do. But I live a productive,mistake-ridden, fun, exciting, frustrating life. I am the same with computers. I don’t speak the language of programming and probably never will. Again, not proud of it, but I live a productive, mistake-ridden,exciting, frustrating life online too. If your argument is that students should learn basic programming in an ICT class, I’m on board with that. Knowing a language enriches experiences. I would really love more girls to learn programming. However, I do believe it’s important to *teach* communicate with people with different backgrounds (using social media), collaborate and design with other (googledocs), persuade others to your point of view (beautiful powerpoint presentations w/o bullet points), and how to tell their own stories (what ever tool works best). This is hard work, for teachers and students. I can’t teach programming, but I can teach them in my social studies class how to use and evaluate technology/social media for their own benefit. Many of us work really hard to do all of these things in our classes and our students do amazing things. I want my students to change the world and if they know how to harness technology (with AND without programming skills) then they can shape their own future.
    Thanks for starting this conversation. I’ve been enjoying reading the comments almost as much as the actual post.

  37. All,

    First, I think we need to shake the feeling that programming is cold-hard coding. There are many creative ways of programming available. The issue is, in a phrase borrowed from Gary’s 2009 ISTE debate, “the bankruptcy of our imaginations.” Over the past few years, I have witnessed teachers at CMK learn and teach Shakespeare, design and construct eTextile garments, students who are “troubled” become the leaders in a classroom in designing, constructing and programming prototypes for new tools.

    What I haven’t been good at is completely documenting and sharing what I’ve seen these students and teachers doing and learning. This is where my piece on social media comes in… I see value in SM, however, I agree that there is a dominating context about the importance of SM in EdTech community. So, I’ve tried think of my use as not a personal learning network, but my communities of practice. Semantics? Maybe, but I don’t feel that way. I am constantly trying to dive into the communities of practice (connecting with those with like interests/hobbies, etc.) such as the Maker community, those in education with powerful ideas and voices, while avoiding the echo chamber as much as I can. The latter is often hard to do, but keeping it in mind helps as does the diversity of powerful ideas you surround yourself with. I will say that I am more than frustrated with the obscene amount of links being shared without deep consideration or even reading what one is retweeting or reposting. I think debates such as this post, among others, is a great use of social media. I just need to use it more for my own reflection. I will be considering Jabiz’s prompts above for my own posts as I have been reading and working with programming more over the past couple of years.

    On the topic of Dumbing Down, I have to agree. Last week, the entire network at our offices went down. People emerged out of their cubes dumbfounded and confused. They didn’t know what to do next. All work ceased. This is the dependence upon the Internet. There is so much power in a computer without Internet. What would happen if we pulled the plug on the Internet in classrooms and had students use them to learn? What might they do?

  38. Gary-

    First of all, what a great loaded question that it 🙂

    Students should absolutely be exposed to programming. Students who want to explore it more in-depth, should have every opportunity to do so. I think it’s wonderful that kids who are interested in programming are often incredibly self-motivated. I do not think that every student needs to be fluent (is there a such thing as “taxi-programming”…the idea you can get by in short bursts with minimal variety of topics of conversation?). I am also

    And, perhaps where this learning takes place is really the crux of the issue. I don’t think my classroom is the place to learn programming. But I don’t think you are arguing that it should be in my class. I am also really intrigued with the idea that programming isn’t something taught in the ICT department but in the language department. But by suggesting that the work we do in our social studies (or other classes) using technology/social media is easy rubs me the wrong way. Someone else said in the comments that this is not a zero-sum issue. We should be exposing kids to as many tools, languages, and methods (design, storytelling, programming, Arabic, etc.) that help them answer the big questions that they are facing in school and beyond. And then we support them when they find their passion.
    Thanks again.

  39. Rebekah: I think you make a great point. Too often, we separate out programming from other skills in using computer software to get things done in our lives. (I say “we” because I am a programmer and teach programming, though not in the schools.) In my opinion, it should be viewed as a continuum of ‘hacking’ – programming just gives you more leverage than the average user. I think that can be a great motivation for learning programming, for some people: more power over these boxes that run our lives.

    I don’t have much really to contribute to the social media discussion, since I try to avoid it myself — but on this point, my experience with non-tech folks who use FB & Twitter to their advantage is that they see it as a _step forward_ from before, where they didn’t have the ability to publish their thoughts and feelings and circulate non-mainstream news online (unless they got some tech guy to set up a blog for them, teach them a little HTML, etc.) Yes social media is turning against us, commodifying our relationships, addicting us etc. but that’s not what people got into it for and I am confident its time will come and go when people find power elsewhere. In the meantime we are using it to our advantage however we can: hacking.

    Gary: I can’t see how you would get that from what Rebekah said. I respect your deep experience and perspective, but really it seems unrealistic to expect classroom teachers with no experience programming to incorporate the kind of learning you are talking about. Especially when they are under such pressure to churn out test-takers basically. To support computing education in schools why not focus first on campaigning against this and for more freedom for teachers to control the curriculum, more time for them to experiment with things like computing education, etc.?

    This gets back to my earlier comment about so-called extracurricular activities being cut from schools. Why not join forces with those who are opposed to the cuts to shop, music, art? These are all tremendously rich learning experiences too, that our children are being deprived of. When a special case is made for computing education, I think something is out of balance.


  40. Another point, I’m curious what people thought of this from the Chronicle of Higher Ed ed-tech blog:


    I’m particularly interested in the proposals from “juneparsons” in the comments (excerpted below):


    We have to think beyond software skills and we have to look at computer memes that provide the underlying foundation of technology. I might suggest that we consider course objectives such as the following:

    * Students should be able to identify key technological developments of the Information Age and the way these developments affect social interaction, disparities between socio-econonic groups, and lifestyles.*Students should be familiar with technology memes, such as abstraction, algorithms, compression, rasterization, iteration, heuristics, addressing, frames, parallelism, typing, domains, and virtualization.*Students should understand basic technological foundations of computer and telecommunications networks and their geopolitical ramifications.*Students should be familiar with seminal technology theory, such as Turing Machines, Shannon’s Information Theory, and Searle’s Chines Room.*Students should grasp the underlying technology of computer models and be aware of the potential and limitations they present.* Students would develop an understanding of the legal concept “expectation of privacy” and the way this concept evolves as technology provides unprecedented tools that track, trace, and observe.

    I guess what I’m saying is that students DO need to understand underlying technologies in order to grasp the big issues that face us today; privacy, security, economic upheaval, globalization, etc. Here’s an example: We all depend on the Internet. It has been used for political dissent (Egypt,etc). In some cases, repressive governments have “turned off” the Internet. How does that work? How does the Internet work? Could the U.S. president “turn off” the Internet here in the U.S. during a national crisis? Could s/he do it to silence political dissent?

    To me, this example seems illustrative of the kind of topic and approach that would be appropriate for a college-level GenEd required course in technology. There is a substantive motivating issue that requires students to learn about the underlying mechanisms of technology, in this case, the Internet with its DNS, NAPs, etc.

    So I’m suggesting that we think big here and go beyond programming; beyond office applications, and beyond basic literacy.

  41. Just want to thank everyone for this great discussion–one of the best I have had in a long time. I agree with @john, that programming may not need to have a home in every class, it was a bit silly of me to assume that it could. I also agree that, “that programming/Computer Science should be taught as well as English and Math and Science and Humanities and so forth.”

    So my new questions is this: If we are moving toward more integrated tech curricula, one in which we do not have too many ICT classes, or spaces devoted to straight computer science, then where does it fit? How and where do we integrate computing skills?

    Yes, I know I have come full circle. What Gary was saying in his original was that these skills have been lost in the new Social Media dominated standards like NETS. I guess, as a classroom teacher I would like more information about computing/programing and how to incorporate into my learning and eventually my classroom.

    I will do what I do and promote it, because I find value in it. I agree with Rebekah, just because it is not complex using social media in a classroom is not easy, but I would love more computer science.

    Eric says, “it seems unrealistic to expect classroom teachers with no experience programming to incorporate the kind of learning you are talking about. ” Unless we are guided on where to start.

  42. US students are terrible programmers (problem solvers) because our math curriculum is lousy. Standards based is another expensive wrapping authored by textbook vendors to protect their ineffective textbooks. I’m not against technology, but the critical element is time on task and mostly my students are expected to absorb information from textbooks that are written at beyond their comprehension. As teachers we mostly forget children can still think and reason and learn math even while they are learning to read in english. That was the beauty of logo and singapore.yr

  43. I would like to point out what the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT is doing with their visual programming environment, Scratch. In addition to it being a great way to learn programming concepts in its’ own right, the developers also realized from the beginning how crucial the social networking element was for the program’s success. They created a fantastic website for kids to share and collaborate, and its only going to get better with the new version this summer. Their approach is also based on some solid research.
    So while it is troubling that computer science is not part of “technology education” anymore, Scratch points to a future where learning basic programming concepts will be part of a wider curriculum. That is is a hopeful sign.

  44. Peter Ross mentioned SCRATCH, developed by the MIT Lifelong Kindergarden Group. I’m interested in any thoughts about SCRATCH as it is being pitched as the “New And Improved” LOGO. Certainly, it’ll be more collaborative; but is it an improvement?

    It seems to me that the children using SCRATCH will not necessarily be coding; they’ll be able to take code written by some else (out of their “backpack”) and use that to build a programme. If this is the route the children will take, this is not coding; it is the equivalent of “sampling” in music. The end result might be admired, but the musician hasn’t learned how to play the guitar and the child hasn’t learned how to type out the lines.

    Gary’s notion of relating learning to code to the design of a car (or a building or anything else) is, to me, exactly right. There are many factors to consider and the best designers and programmers learn first by reproducing great solutions. Then by sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper and reverse engineering, starting again, fresh, knowing the end result required. Do that for a while and, inevitably, two things happen: first, failure after failure – it doesn’t work. But then: It Works! I’ve found a solution! And, once in while, the path opens: “Maybe I can design/programme something new…”. Magic.

    This magic can’t really happen in my opinion if one doesn’t know the basic, the very basic, tools of the trade, programming from scratch – not SCRATCH but LOGO. Technique and craft lead to skill which leads to mastery which brings you to the magic moment. These things are best learned in childhood.

    Is SCRATCH basic enough?

  45. @Davey
    I’m a fan of Scratch and Logo (NetLogo actually). Absolutely you can code from scratch with Scratch, but as you point out you can also reuse and remix (which is actually a pretty great skill to have as a programmer). I like Logo because it helps introduce concepts like syntax and procedures. Scratch is a much less intimidating platform for student and educator alike. Another great thing about Scratch is that it is also quite robust, if you are not afraid to go there and don’t get too frustrated during the process because as with all programming, it gets more challenging. Bottom line, Scratch and Logo are just a couple of programming platforms out of a myriad of choices. The entry point is easier for them for both students and non-CS educators, but at some point, to attain computer literacy in K-12 education, computer science concepts actually need to be incorporated across the curriculum regardless of programming platform.

    – why is programming important? it can change the world, more @ http://tmblr.co/ZO7aexBlFckB
    – how to apply to 8th grade English? check out this Ignite talk of HS CS teacher incorporating Shakespeare into programming @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTBHYWFm8zw&

  46. I’m going to disagree with you Davey – I don’t see a difference in the thinking required by students to construct programs in Scratch versus a text-based interface. They aren’t “using someone else’s code”, they are using syntax blocks in their code, which is a practice replicated in most reasonably complex IDEs in the form of code completion. If professionals can use code completion (and syntax correction) on their professional projects and be considered to be coding, students should be able to use the graphical equivalent and still be considered to be programming.

  47. This is a fantastic post, Gary (and a very lively and useful discussion here in the comments sections as well)!

    I certainly agree with your statement that

    > What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and in service of the educational status quo.

    Despite rhetoric to the contrary, this is often what I finds justifies the use of such things to many educational policymakers in many of the places where I work. Accompanying ministerial delegations from Africa and Asia as they toured the BETT Show this year, I found (for example) that many were more taken with the fact that interactive whiteboards could be used to embellish a traditional lecture than in the more potentially subversive affordances that present themselves when such things are coupled with, say, interactive voting devices (My point here isn’t to incite a discussion of the pros and cons of whiteboards, or clickers — well trodden territory in the blogosphere — but rather to support your point about supporting the status quo.)

    I do disagree a bit with your next statement, though:

    > Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education.

    This may well be the case when talking about events in the so-called ‘advanced economies’ (I don’t attend conferences in such places very often for this very reason, where the faint echo of that Beatles song licensed to help sell sneakers sometimes plays in my head). In many less ‘developed’ countries, I find that educational computing (or ICT or whatever you want to call it) conferences and workshops are _the_very_places to find some of the more interesting and progressive teachers and educational thinkers. In some cases, what is considered ‘revolutionary’ in such contexts may not appear to be so in places where various conversations about computers and education have been regularly occuring for the past thirty years or so, but I find that, in many places where ‘educational computing’ (variously defined) initiatives are a rather recent phenomenon, such events do still sometimes retain a frisson of excitement and daring.

    This is not to deny your larger points, with which I largely agree. Rather, it is to note that, in places where access to computing resources is still a relative novelty, or scarce, the same level of intellectual torpor and sclerosis that you are criticizing in your post here has not (yet) set in.

    I don’t meant to contend that that the warning signs for what you describe are not apparent — in some ways, massive roll-outs of school computer labs in many developing countries to help promote the acquisition of basic vocational office productivity skills is crowding out both the use of computers to support the development of higher order critical thinking skills and an exposure to the basics of programming that can help awaken in students a desire to, in your words, “do the impossible”.

    That said, I find that the subversive educational potential of computers, especially on the desks and in the laps and in the pockets of young people (students and teachers alike) in many less developed parts of Asia, Africa and South America is still quite latent — perhaps because it is in such places that the desire for change is often the most acute.

  48. Somebody please take the thorn out poor Mr. Stager’s paw so that he can clench it again to shake it at all the wee intellects he sees from the Olympus of his porch. Of course his suggestions are just another example of what James C. Scott called the failure pattern of ‘legibility’. Venkatesh Rao has an eyepopping summary of Scott’s work (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/) which applies to this post.

    Rao states (and please excuse the long quote and please read the whole post):

    Here is the recipe:

    1. Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
    2. Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
    3. Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
    4. Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
    5. Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
    6. Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
    7. Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly

    The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.”

    I have followed Mr Stager’s humorous and curmodgeon-ly remarks for long enough to take them with a grain or two of hyperbolic salt, but I think this time someone needs to say in the nicest way possible to fuck off. So…and I mean this in the nicest way I can manage, “Fuck off.” 😉

  49. @Terry: Do you keep that silly rant on queue and then publish it any time you see something you don’t like. Here’s a question: What specific criticism do you have of Gary’s essay? What do you disagree with? What are your ideas?

    Instead of posting some non-specific philosophical screed, how about adding to the discussion with thoughtful criticism and discussion?

    To be honest, except for some lame excuse for dropping an F-bomb I can’t for the life of me figure out the purpose of your post, or what the hell you’re talking about.

Comments are closed.