The irony could cause whiplash. Over the past thirty years, the EdTech community expended sufficient energy to colonize Mars fighting the idea of teaching children to program computers. I cannot think of another single example in education where so much effort was invested in arguing against children learning something, especially ways of knowing and thinking so germane to navigating their world. Now, the very same folks responsible for enforced ignorance, disempowerment, and making computing so unattractive to children are now advocating “Computer Science for All.”*

There seems to be little consensus on what CS4All means, few educators prepared to teach it, no space in the schedule for a new course of study, and yet a seemingly unanimous desire to make binary, algorithm, and compression first grade spelling words. The sudden interest in “coding” is as interested in the Logo community’s fifty years of accumulated wisdom as Kylie Jenner is interested in taking Ed Asner to St. Barts.

So, amidst this morass of confusion, turf battles, and political posturing, well intentioned educators resort to puzzles, games, and vocabulary exercises for say, an hour of code.

I wish I had 0101 cents for every educator who has told me that her students “do a little Scratch.” I always want to respond, “Call me when your students have done a lot of Scratch.” Coding isn’t breaking a code like when you drunken insurance salesman go to an Escape Room as a liver bonding exercise. The epistemological benefit of programming computers comes from long intense thinking, communicating your hypotheses to the computer, and then either debugging or embellishment (adding features, seeking greater efficiency, decorating, testing a larger hypothesis).

Fluency should be the goal. Kids should be able to think, write, paint, compose, and dance with code. I recently met a team of sixth grade girls who won a contest for creating the “best app.” It was pretty good. I asked, “What else have you programmed?” and received blank stares. When I asked, “What would you like to program next?” the children all turned to look at the teacher for the correct answer. If the kids were truly learning to program, they would be full of independent ideas for what to do next.

Children have a remarkable capacity for intensity and computer programming is an intellectual and creative outlet for that intensity. When I learned to program in a public middle school in 1975, I felt smart for the first time in my life. I could look at problems from multiple angles. I could test strategies in my head. I could spend days thinking of little more than how to quash a bug in my program. I fell in love with the hard fun of thinking. I developed habits of mind that have served me for more than four decades.

So, for schools without a Mr. Jones to teach a nine-week mandatory daily computer programming class for every seventh grader, I have a modest proposal that satisfies many curricular objectives at once.

Whether your goal is literacy, new literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, coding, or the latest vulgarity, close reading, my bold suggestion offers a little something for everyone on your administrative Xmas list.

Give the kids a book to read!

That’s right. There are two very good books that teach children to program in Scratch using a project-approach. The books are completely accessible for a fifth grader. (or older) Here’s what you do.

  • Buy a copy of one of the recommended books for each student or pair of students.
  • Use the book as a replacement text.
  • Ask the students to work through all of the projects in the book.
  • Encourage kids to support one another; perhaps suggest that they “ask three before me.”
  • Celebrate students who take a project idea and make it their own or spend time “messing about” with a programming concept in a different context.

There is no need for comprehension quizzes, tests, or vocabulary practice since what the students read and understand should be evident in their programming. Kids read a book. Kids create. Kids learn to program.

There is a growing library of Scratch books being published, but these are the two I recommend.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! : Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is a graphic novel filled with Scratch projects.

Scratch For Kids For Dummies by Derek Breen is a terrific project-based approach to learning Scratch.

If per chance, thick books scare you, there are two excerpted versions of Derek Breen’s Scratch for Kids for Dummies book, entitled Designing Digital Games: Create Games with Scratch! (Dummies Junior) and Creating Digital Animations: Animate Stories with Scratch! (Dummies Junior). Either would also do the trick.

Shameless plug

Sylvia Martinez and I wrote a chapter in this new book, Creating the Coding Generation in Primary Schools.

* There are a plethora of reasons why I believe that Computer Science for All is doomed as a systemic innovation, but I will save those for another article.

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

Around 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.


I am often asked about the adoption of Chromebooks and have spent months agonizing how to respond. This article offers food for thought to teachers, administrators, school board members, and policy makers who might find themself swept up in Chromebook mania.

What should a student computer do?

In addition to being portable, reliable, lightweight, affordable, and with a good battery life, a student computer should capable of doing everything our unimaginative adult reptilian brains think a kid should be able to do with a computer and powerful enough to do a great many things we cannot imagine.

The Chromebook might be sufficient if you believe that the primary purpose of school to be taking notes, looking stuff up, completing forms, and communication. I find this to be an impoverished view of both learning and computing. Children need and deserve more. If you find such uses compelling, kids already own cellphones capable of performing such tasks.

Powerful learning is a bargain at any price

Thirty years ago, my friend and mentor Dr. Cynthia Solomon taught me that sound education decisions are never based on price. Providing children with underpowered technology insults kids, treats them like 2nd class citizens, and signals that schools should get scraps. The more schools settle for less, the less the public will provide.

One of the most peculiar terms to enter the education lexicon is “device.” What was the last time you walked into an electronics or computer store and said to a salesperson, “I would like to buy a device please?” This never happens. You buy yourself a computer.

A device is an object you buy on the cheap for other people’s children to create an illusion of modernity. A Chromebook might be swell for a traveling salesman or UPS driver. It is, in my humble opinion, insufficient for school students in 2017.

Providing students with a Chromebook rather than a proper laptop computer is akin to replacing your school orchestra instruments with kazoos. We live in one of the richest nations in all of history. We can afford a cello and multimedia-capable computer for every child.

My best friend’s son attends a middle school where every student was issued a Chromebook. The kids use them primarily to charge their iPhones.

If someday, Chromebooks are sufficiently robust, reliable, and flexible at a good price, I will embrace them with great enthusiasm. That day has yet to arrive.

Chromebooks represent an impoverished view of computing

Read Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer,” (Go ahead. Google it on a Chromebook if you wish) and see how many of things they demonstrated that kids were doing with computers more than 45 years ago are possible on your “device.”

Australian schools in 1989-90 embraced personal laptop computing as a vehicle for programming across the curriculum and created a renaissance of learning with computers that too many educators remain ignorant of or have chosen to forget. Look at the capabilities of the XO computer, aka the $100 laptop, created by the One Laptop Per Child foundation. It was more powerful than today’s Chromebook. We do not to use classroom technology that dooms learners to secretarial roles. They need computers to invent, create, compose, control microcontrollers, program robots, run external machines, build simulations, and write their own software.

Where is S.T.E.M? Or the Arts in the examples of classroom Chromebook use? To those who say that you can compose music, make movies, or edit large audio files on a Chromebook, I suggest, “You first!” The ability to connect things like microcontrollers, robotics, 3D printers, laser cutters may indeed become possible on a Chromebook in the near future, but we already have all sorts of personal computers capable of doing all of those things well today. Why gamble?

When geniuses like Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, and Nicholas Negroponte spoke of “the children’s machine,” they meant a better computer than what their father used at the office. Today, “student devices” take on an air of condescension and paternalism that disempower young people.

Schools continuously invent that which already exists; each time with diminished expectations.

They love them!

The only time you hear teachers or administrators claim that kids love something is when those very same adults are desperate to justify a bad decision. Telling me that teachers are finally “using technology” since you procured Chromebooks is just an example of setting low expectations for the professionals you entrust with educating children. Making it easy to do school in a slightly more efficient manner should not be the goal. Making the impossible possible should be. Celebrating the fact that a teacher can use a Chromebook is an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

How low can you go?

I truly respect and appreciate that public schools are underfunded, but underpowered Chromebooks are not the answer. How cheap is cheap enough for a student “device?”

I recently purchased a 15-inch HP laptop with a touchscreen, extended keyboard, 12 GB of RAM, a 2 TB hard drive, and Windows 10 at Costco for $350. I routinely find real PC laptops capable of meeting the standards I outlined above in the $250 – $350 price range in retail stores. Imagine what the price would be if schools wished to buy millions of them!

If $250 – $350 is too expensive (it’s cheaper than playing soccer for one season), how about $35 for a Raspberry Pi, the powerful computer students can run real software on, including Mathematica, which comes free, on the Pi. A Raspberry Pi 3 computer has greater flexibility, power, and available software than a Chromebook and it costs less than my typical Dominos Pizza order.

If you’re feeling extra flush with cash, add a Raspberry Pi Zero computer to your order for the price of that delicious chocolate chip brownie concoction Dominos offers upon checkout.

The Cloud is not free and it still sucks!

One of the great misconceptions driving the adoption of “devices,” such as the Chromebook, is the promise of cloud computing. Doesn’t that just sound heavenly? The cloud….

How is the Internet access in your school? Painful? Slow? Unreliable? Have hundreds of children do all of their computing in the cloud and you may find the school network completely unusable. The future may indeed be “in the cloud,” but today works really well on personal hard drives.

The cost of upgrading your network infrastructure and then employing a high school dropout named Lenny and all of his mates to maintain the network (ie… lock, block, and tell teachers what they can and cannot do online) is much more expensive than trusting kids to save their files on their own laptop.

The Vision thing

Perhaps I missed something, but I am unaware of the educational vision supporting widespread Chromebook adoption. Google has not even faked an educational philosophy like “Think Different.”

Screwing Microsoft might be fun, even laudable, but it is not a compelling educational vision.

The Google problem

Did you hear that Google has a free salad bar and dry cleaning? How cool is that? I wish our staff room had a barista! The successful penetration of Chromebooks into schools is due in no small part to our culture’s lust for unlimited employer provided vegan smoothies. However, it would be irresponsible for educators to surrender pedagogical practice and the potential of our students to the whims of 23 year-old smartasses at any technology company. Silicon Valley could make its greatest positive impact on education by learning the lessons of history, consulting education experts, and most importantly, paying their fair share of taxes.

There are also legitimate privacy concerns about trusting a benevolent corporation with our intellectual property, correspondence, and student data. Google clearly has a lot to gain from hooking kids and their teachers on “The Google” while turning their customers into product.

The pyramid scheme known as the Google Certified Educator program turns innocent well-meaning teachers into street corner hustlers armed with a participation trophy for heroically mastering “the Google.”

Again, I do not understand why any of this reliance on Google is necessary. The average school could spend well under $100/month on its own email and web servers either on-site or co-located. Best of all, no one is reading your email and you are ultimately responsible for your own files. Let a 5th grader manage the entire operation!

The miracle of Google’s YouTube is that a company makes billions of dollars per year by delivering ad-supported stolen content to users. Any teacher who does not believe that they too are in the intellectual property business should be prepared to be replaced by a YouTube video.

Google envy makes bad education policy.

Unicorn Computing

School decision makers responsible for purchasing Chromebooks have been heard to say the following in justification of their actions.

“I had to get Chromebooks!”

The school up the street got them.

“The latest batch is so much better than the other ones we bought.”         

Why are you investing in unreliable technology and then congratulating yourself for doing it again?

“I know that the Chromebooks don’t do everything we need or want them to do, but they should soon.”

Then why did you buy Chromebooks now?

I call the actions justified by such statements unicorn computing. Peer pressure, hoping, and praying are insufficient justification for saddling teachers and children with underpowered powered unreliable devices – especially when cost-effective options exist.

In Closing…

It doesn’t matter to me if a new kind of computer captures the heart and wallets of consumers. All that matters is that scarce educational resources are used to provide students with maximum potential. If Chromebooks were the first computer ever invented and other options did not exist, I might embrace the Chromebook as a classroom option. If Chromebooks were sufficiently powerful, durable, and reliable, I’d endorse their use. When better computers are available at approximately the same price, disempowering kids and confusing teachers seems an imprudent option.

My life’s work has been dedicated to expanding rich learning opportunities for all students by helping educators embrace the tools of modernity. Much of this work has involved personal computing. From 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first two laptop schools and then countless others inspired by this work. I worked with the father of educational computing, Dr. Seymour Papert, for twenty years and was a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Group. Professionally, I have taught children to program computers across the curriculum since 1982. I learned to program in the mid-1970s, an experience that liberated my creativity and opened a window into a world of powerful ideas ever since.

I view computers as personal intellectual laboratories, ateliers, and vehicles for self-expression. The act of computing gives children agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. When every child owns a personal portable computer, they are able to construct knowledge “anytime anywhere,” learn-by-doing, and share their knowledge with a global audience. Computing bestows agency upon learners and allows them to embrace complexity while exploring domains of knowledge and demonstrating ways of knowing unavailable to adults just a few years ago.

There is no greater advocate for computers and computing in education than me. However, the purchasing decisions made by adults, for students, can either amplify human potential or impede learning.

Smaller cheaper computers are an attractive proposition, especially for cash-strapped schools, but I am alarmed by the widespread and too often thoughtless adoption of Google Chromebooks in education. Simply stated, the Chromebook turns back the clock on what we have learned children can do with computers in search of an immature technology.

With all of the problems in the world, I know what you’ve been thinking. “I sure wish there was a new Gary Stager TED Talk to watch.” Well, your prayers to Judge Roy Moore have been answered.

Last Spring, I was headed to Germany to be in-residence at a school where my great friend, colleague, and former student, Amy Dugré, is part of the leadership team. A few weeks before my residency, I received a lovely email from tenth grade students at the International School of Dusseldorf. The letter acknowledged my forthcoming work at the school and kindly invited me to participate in a TEDx event they were organizing. The theme of the TEDx event was identity under the banner of “Who Am I?”

I told the kids that I despise all things TED and especially loathe delivering TED talks(1), but if they wanted me to participate, I would be happy to stand on the red dot and pretend to be an aspiring viral video star. Given the maturity expressed in the invitation, I hoped that my candor would lead the kids to consider reasons why some might not share their enthusiasm for TED.

In the end, the tenth graders’ charm won me over and I accepted their kind invitation.  When asked for the topic of my performance, my inner smartass kicked into gear and I came up with the title, “Care Less.”

In an attempt to further mock the pomposity of TED, I supplied the following abstract.

Any success I may have experienced is attributable to overcoming obstacles needlessly set by others and learning early on that many of the things other care deeply about, simply do not matter at all. This awesome TED talk will explore my epic quest to triumph in a world of needless prerequisites, arbitrary hierarchies, and hegemonic pathways. Caring less about the sort of compliance and schooling traditions imposed on young people may lead them to focus on finding things that bring them joy, beauty, purpose, and authentic achievement.

It is often the case that the germ of my best ideas are borne of wisecracks and this topic was no exception. Spending time in highly competitive private schools where folks too readily accept bourgeois notions of what educational preparation for the “real world” truly means leaves me convinced that I chose the right topic.

The very nature of this terrific student organized event required the TED Talks to be self-indulgent. That makes sharing my talk slightly uncomfortable. I took seriously the opportunity to speak directly to high school students who I hoped would benefit from an adult offering a different narrative from so many of their teachers and parents. I only wish I had the opportunity to give the talk more than once, but that’s the problem with TED Talks. TED is a TV show without any of the benefits of a television studio or taking the show on the road.

I wrote the talk an hour before showtime and delivered it with no monitor or timer in front of me. I’m sure that the performance suffers, but that the message may manage to be worthwhile nonetheless. I hope you or some teenagers find it interesting.

In the final analysis, I’m enormously proud of what I said. I just can’t bear to watch a second of it.


(1) Remarkably, I have now delivered four completely different TED Talks. I spent months before my first TEDx Talk (Reform™) obsessing over the high-stakes chance to go viral and become famous beyond my wildest dreams. The experience made me ill. I then decided I needed to confront my fears and asked to try it again a year later. That time, I spent virtually no time preparing and convinced myself that I didn’t give a damn (We Know What To Do). The audio at the venue was problematic, but the TED experience was less soul crushing. Just when I thought TED Talks were behind me, I was invited to give a third TEDx talk at the American School of Bombay. I have worked at the school since 2004 and felt obligated to oblige. By then, I had abandoned any hope of being a YouTube sensation or being knighted by the Queen and decided to share the legacy of my friend, mentor, and hero, Seymour Papert. People seem to appreciate that talk, Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*.

 

Look at what preK-6 Mexican teachers did in my recent PBL 360 workshop in Guadalajara. This was their first experience with engineering, physical computing, and programming. They designed, created, and programmed these “birds” in less than two hours with the Hummingbird Robotics Kit and SNAP!

The prompt was simple…

“Make a Bird. Singing and dancing is appreciated.”

There was no instruction. The entire project was completed in under two hours – roughly the equivalent of two class periods.

My work continues to demonstrate the limits of instruction, the power of construction, and the Piagetian notion that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” There is simply no substitute for experience. Constructive technology and computing amplify human potential and expand the range, breadth, and depth of possible projects. This is critical since the project should be the smallest unit of concern for educators.

Look at these short video clips sharing the teachers’ projects and compare what is possible during an educator’s first or second computing experience with the unimaginative and pedestrian “technology” professional development typically offered. We need to raise our standards substantially.

“You cannot behave as if children are competent if you behave as if teachers are incompetent.” – Gary Stager

The following videos are unedited clips of each group sharing their project. Start listing the plethora of curricular standards satisfied by a single project of this kind.

Operatic Diva Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

The Parrott from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Robot Pengin from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Three-Function Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Singing Bird with Creepy Eyes from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

About the author

Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. You may learn more about him and reach out here.


The Hummingbirds Robotics Kit is also available from Amazon.com.

What I Did on My Three Summer VacationsBy Brian Silverman
Illustrated by Peter Reynolds

Previously published in Mathematics and Informatic Quarterly (in Bulgaria) prior to this version appearing in the Fall 1998 issue of Logo Exchange. Volume 17. Number 1.

We finally did it. We made it through the maze in Montreal’s Old Port in eleven minutes. There’s a really good chance that our time is the all-time record!

It all started a few years ago when my daughter, Diana and I were biking and found ourselves in Montreal’s Old Port. There was a new attraction called S.O.S. Labyrinthe, that promised a pirate adventure. It turned out to be a giant indoor maze in an old warehouse building with a handful obstacles with a pirate theme. The “pirates” were kids on roller blades providing help to the desperately lost and confusion to the rest of us.

The maze is a twenty-by-eighty grid of about two metre squares. The walls are made of thick plastic sheets hung between poles that are placed at the grid points. Four small sections of the maze have been built up to resemble a ship’s bridge, an engine room, a cargo hold, and lockers for the crew. These four checkpoints have hidden stampers to stamp a card received when you enter the maze.This card is also time-stamped when you first enter then maze and again when you leave.

When Diana and I first tried we got lost almost immediately. It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to find our way out and get all the stamps we needed. Despite being lost most of the time we enjoyed it so much that we went back the following week. This time we brought my son Eric along because he’d missed the first time through. The second time, to avoid getting lost, we decided to follow a set of simple rules that, as any little robot will tell you, can help to get you out of most mazes.

The rules are:

  1. turn right whenever you can
  2. turn around when you reach a dead end.

That’s all there is to it and it actually works. We followed the rules and managed to make it through the maze in about twenty two minutes. When we finished the pirate behind the desk put our names on the board as the group that had the best time of the day. He mentioned in passing that it was a better time than he sees most days.

The challenge at this point was obvious. Our goal was to get the best time ever. We only had to figure out how. I had a plan that I thought would be pretty simple. However, as is almost always the case, it didn’t turn out to be as simple as I’d initially imagined. The plan was this: Go through the maze twice. The first time through bring along a little computer to record our path. Then go home, draw a map, find the best route and go back the following day and go through running as fast as we can.

There were a couple of immediate problems. The first one was pretty easy to resolve. How could we be sure that the maze didn’t change on us between the first run and the second? (The plastic panels are moved on a regular basis to keep the maze from staying the same.) A couple of phone calls and oblique questions later, we’d found out that the maze is only changed once a week, on Thursday night. The second immediate problem was trickier to resolve. Our plan required little computers to record our path. We didn’t have any little computers. Even if we did we wouldn’t know how to make them record paths.

My friends at MIT had little computers. We’d been working for a few years on making “programmable LEGO bricks”. At that time we were at the point where we’d had a couple of prototypes that had worked for a bit but none of them were reliable enough for the task. However as a result of a sort of spinoff of that project there were some little computer boards around that weren’t much bigger than a deck of cards. I asked my friend Randy Sargent if I could borrow one. He mailed it to me and I had it within a few weeks. Unfortunately by then the season was over and the project would have to wait until the next summer.

During the course of the winter a couple of things happened. One was that I had a lot of fun programming the little computer board I’d received. Over Christmas I played with making a tiny version of Logo. By New Year’s we had Logo programmable LEGO robots that didn’t need to be attached to a big computer. At the same time Randy had been working on perfecting a new programmable brick. By the following summer these came together and we had a programmable brick and a logo program for saving information about where in the maze we’d been.

Little computers are pretty stupid. We would have liked to have been able to just carry one along and have it remember where it had been. But the little computer wasn’t up for the task. What we did instead was attach a couple of pushbuttons to it. One to click the number of “squares” we’d gone forward, the other to click in the amount that we’d turned at each corner.

The summer mostly slid away before we got around to trying a second run. When we did get around to it, it was just Eric and me. Before getting into the maze we’d attached the brick to his belt, run some wires up his shirt and down the sleeves to the pushbuttons in his hands. Unless you were looking hard you wouldn’t have noticed anything suspicious. We scoped out the maze counting out loud on the straightaways and yelling out directions at the corners. People looked at us a bit strangely in general and were particularly confused and curious when we had to bring out the brick for minor adjustments.

We didn’t do too well on that round. The brick started misbehaving about three quarters of the way through. And even if it hadn’t, the recorded data had lots of mistakes in it. With a lot of guessing and processing we were able to construct about a quarter of the map but no more. Since it was late summer we gave up again for the year figuring we’d pick it up again the following year.

The next winter was a good one for programmable bricks. When we did the second run there were only five working bricks in the world and even those five needed a fair amount of babysitting. By the next summer, there had been several new iterations of the design (largely the work of Fred Martin) resulting in dozens of working bricks that were solid enough that we wouldn’t have to worry too much about hardware failures for the next round.

Also, during the winter there was plenty of time to think about what went wrong the previous summer. The main problem was that mistakes in clicking the buttons led to so much distortion in the map that it was completely useless. The maze is so big, (more than a thousand straightaways and turns), that it’s impossible to do the kind of recording that we did without making mistakes. We thought a bit about eliminating mistakes but decided instead to run the experiment with several programmable bricks simultaneously, do the recording several times separately then regroup and compare results.

As it turns out, Randy and another friend, Carl Witty were planning to come to Montreal towards the end of the summer to show off their robots at an artificial intelligence conference. They arrived with a car full of computers, tools, and robot parts. Their robots all come with cameras connected to electronics that can discriminate colors. Their demos included robots chasing balls and each other at high speeds. It seemed only natural to get them involved in the third round.

We had a lot of discussion about whether or not we could use the vision systems they had in their robots for more automatic data gathering. We decided not to because even if we could resolve all the computer issues, we weren’t sure that we had enough batteries for all of the needed electronics for the time it’d take. We did decide, however, that since they had brought along several miniature cameras we’d take a video record of first trip through and use that to help interpret the data we’d get from the computers.

Carrying a camera around a maze really didn’t seem subtle enough. Instead we took the camera and sewed it into a hat with only the lens sticking out the front. The camcorder fit neatly in a backpack. By the time we were ready to go, Carl, Randy and I each had a programmable brick rubber banded to our belts and Eric had a camera in his hat. The data gathering run took about two hours and was pretty boring. The bricks kept disagreeing with each other but we ignored this because we decided to sort it all out later. Eric, originally worried that he’d attract too much attention with the camera ended up not being able to convince anyone that he actually had one.

We brought the electronics home, dumped the data to three separate laptop computers and then spent an evening that didn’t quite turn into an all nighter trying to make some sense of it. For hours there was Randy, Carl, and I each with our own computer bouncing sequence numbers, grid locations, and reports of similarities and differences in data between us. My wife Erlyne and the kids watched for some of this, enjoyed part of the video but abandoned us when it seemed that we’d really fallen off the deep end. We persisted and after spending some time getting a feel for the method to the madness we decided to systemically play through the video noting when everything looked to be working and stopping the tape and fudging when it didn’t. Our stamina ran out before the tape did and we gave up for the night with about three quarters of the map in place.

The next morning, we all felt refreshed and raring to go. In less that two hours the printer was churning out copies of a complete maze map . We were about to set off when Eric asked why each of us had to go to get stamps at each of the places rather than splitting up the job. We realized pretty quickly that he had a point. There was a rule against going through the walls. There wasn’t a rule against the cards with the stamps going through the walls. It took us about a half an hour of staring at the map and thinking to come up with a plan that involved three teams and three relay points to pass the cards along like a baton in a relay race. Eric and I had the first stretch, passed the cards to Randy and then headed off to where Randy would pass them back after having met Carl twice along the way.

It all worked like clockwork. The maps were accurate, the plan workable. Eric and I had the first stamp in less that two minutes and found Randy in another two. When we called him through the plastic wall he didn’t answer but his hand appeared. He said later that a pirate was standing right beside and he was trying to not attract any attention. After the handoff we headed to the final relay point where we met up with Carl and got the cards through the wall from Randy. From there it was just a quick run to the end to get the last time stamp. It had taken eleven minutes, much less time than we had imagined possible.

We went to see the pirate at the desk. The board of daily winners wasn’t around any more. We showed him our card that confirmed that we’d done it in eleven minutes. He said that if we did it that fast we must have cheated. Maybe it’s true. Throwing that much technology at a problem may be cheating. On the other hand, it may just be another way of solving it


About the author

Since the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has been involved in the invention of learning environments for children. His work includes dozens of Logo versions (including LogoWriter & MicroWorlds), Scratch, LEGO robotics, TurtleArt and the PicoCricket. Brian is a Consulting Scientist to the MIT Media Lab, enjoys recreational math, and is a computer scientist and master tinkerer. He once built a tictactoe-playing computer out of TinkerToys. Brian is a longtime faculty member of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

You can also visit Brian’s Wikipedia page here.

About the illustrator

Peter H. Reynolds co-founded FableVision, Inc., in 1996 and serves as its Chairman. Mr. Reynolds produces award-winning children’s broadcast programming, educational videos and multimedia applications at FableVision, Inc. He served as Vice President and Creative Director of Tom Snyder Productions for 13 years.

He is also an accomplished writer, storyteller and illustrator, and gets his enthusiasm and energy to every project he creates. His bestselling books about protecting and nurturing the creative spirit include The Dot, Ish, and So Few of Me (Candlewick Press). His cornerstone work, The North Star (FableVision), The SugarLoaf book series (Simon & Schuster), My Very Big Little World and The Best Kid in the World, are the first of Peter’s many books about an irrepressible little girl who sees the world through creative-colored glasses. He has recently co-authored several popular books with his twin brother, Paul.

The film version of The Dot (Weston Woods) went on to win the American Library Association’ (ALA’s) Carnegie Medal of Excellence for the Best Children’s Video of 2005 and the film version of Ish was announced as one of ALA’s 2006 Notable Children’s Videos. His other series of original, animated film shorts, including The Blue Shoe, Living Forever and He Was Me, have won many awards and honors around the globe.

Peter’s award-winning publishing work also includes illustrating New York Times1 Best Seller children’s book, Someday (Simon & Schuster), written by Alison McGhee – a “storybook for all ages.” He illustrated the New York Times best-selling Judy Moody series (Candlewick) written by Megan McDonald, Eleanor Estes’ The Alley and The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode, Judy Blume’s Fudge series (Dutton), and Ellen Potter’s Olivia Kidney books

Peter Reynolds was a guest speaker at the 1st and 10th annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

Gary Stager is returning to Australia to once again keynote the FutureSchools Conference in his adopted second hometown of Melbourne in March 2018.
He will be leading a masterclass, keynote address, and a presentation on the Expo floor.
Making, Coding, and Engineering Whether You Have a Makerspace or Not (masterclass)
The co-author of “the bible of the maker movement in schools,” 1:1 computing pioneer, and popular speaker, Gary Stager, returns to Australia to lead a masterclass based on thirty-five years of helping teachers realize the power of learning-by-doing in their classrooms. Participants will gain benefit of the expertise Gary has developed leading “making” workshops around the world for the past four years. This work is distilled into a several rich hands-on making, coding, and engineering activities using a variety of affordable technologies that may be successfully implemented in any classroom.
Learn to learn and teach with in the exciting world of Hummingbird robotics, littleBits, Scratch, Snap!, Turtle Art, wearable electronics, microcontrollers, digital paper craft, programmable toys, and other new materials in a project-based context.

You will learn:

  • How new tools and technology can reinvigorate Project-Based Learning
  • Best classroom practices for integrating maker technology
  • How to plan engaging projects based on the TMI design model
  • How to choose the technologies with the maximum learning impact
  • How to make the case for making, tinkering, and engineering across the curriculum
Bring a laptop and your imagination. We’ll supply the rest (craft materials, art supplies, construction elements). This workshop is suitable for all schools, grades, and subject areas.
Beyond Creativity: Educating for an Uncertain World (main presentation)
Join Dr. Gary Stager as he makes the case for embracing modernity as a way of preserving the finest traditions of child development and preparing children to solve problems neither their parents or teachers can imagine. As a father, grandfather, and veteran educator, Gary remains optimistic that each kid can realize their potential if parents and educators are courageous enough to stand on the side of children. During his presentation, Gary will illustrate how learning-by-doing, new technological materials, and timeless craft traditions can supercharge the learning process. He will encourage us to educate for the the future of our kids, rather than our past, and demonstrate how not all screens are created equally. Along the way, he will share evidence of educators more than up to this herculean challenge.
Making the Digital Technologies Curriculum Meaningful (expo talk)
Look hard enough and you should find objectives in the Australian and state Digital Technologies curricula that may be used to support rich, relevant, and authentic project-based learning across the P-12 curriculum. Dr. Stager will help you navigate the mountain of tables, objectives, and contradictory messages so that all educators have the courage to begin realizing the power of digital technologies to learn and do what was perhaps unimaginable just a few years ago with a sense of urgency and confidence. He will define critical terms, dispel myths, and offer an expansive educational vision that builds upon the new curriculum.

I wrote the attached paper for the 2017 Interaction Design and Children Conference at Stanford University. It was accepted, but ultimately not published since I could not justify the thousand bucks or so it would cost to attend the conference and then sign over the copyright of my work in order for it to disappear into an obscure journal.

Participating in such academic conferences have a very low return on investment since I am not a tenure track university professor. Nonetheless, I hope this paper makes some sort of contribution to the discussion.


ABSTRACT

The recent death of Seymour Papert is an occasion for grief, celebration, and planning for building upon his enormous contributions to knowledge. This paper is a plea for the IDC community to help preserve and expand upon the enormity of Papert’s powerful ideas.

Read the complete paper here.

Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

The world lost a remarkable educator on June 22, 2017 when Dr. Robert Tinker passed away at the age of 75.

If your students have ever worked on a collaborative online project, taken a virtual class, used a science probe, played The Zoombinis, or used any terrific materials created by TERC or The Concord Consortium, Bob is the reason why.

A gifted scientist, Bob was brilliant, kind, patient, joyous, and generous. Like our mutual friend, Seymour Papert, Bob spent his life helping others to learn and love science and math just as much as he did. He possessed the rare empathy that allowed him to wonder why others might not learn this or that as naturally or easily as he did. Rather than blame or shame learners, Bob designed tools not to teach, but for learning. At Seymour Papert’s memorial celebration, Tod Machover quoted Papert as saying, “Everyone needs a prosthetic.” Bob Tinker was in the business of creating remarkable prosthetics useful for embracing the wonders of scientific inquiry.

I just learned that Bob fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Alabama, just as Papert did in South Africa. This news came as no surprise.

“My Dad was the probably the smartest man I knew (MIT PhD), and he decided to pass on earning a big salary with a Defense Contractor in order to positively impact change. With my mom at his side, during the civil rights movement they moved to the South to teach at a University that could hardly afford textbooks. They marched in dangerous areas. They worked to expose climate change. They personally funded the arts and those less fortunate. They then built the two largest science/match educational non-profits in the USA. The two NGOs employ hundreds, have trained thousands of teachers, and have educated millions of kids.” (Bob’s daughter, Facebook, June 22)

A life well lived… Online, Bob’s friends remember him as a mensch.

Long before politicians and hucksters began alarming the citizenry about the need to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) subjects as a vulgar ticket to careers, real or imagined, Bob Tinker created tools and technology that not only raised the standards for student participation in those fields, but did so in a progressive constructivist context. Not only didn’t his approach to S.T.E.M. exceed empty rhetoric and vocabulary acquisition, Bob’s work brought a broad spectrum of modern scientific domains to life in classrooms. Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, earth science, electronics, engineering, and computational thinking were all in the mix.

Dr. Tinker delighting in a teacher’s scientific discovery

One could make a compelling argument that Bob Tinker is the father of S.T.E.M. However, I think of him as the Thomas Edison of S.T.E.M. Beyond his remarkable academic preparation, Bob was not resigned to a life of writing pretentious papers to be published in overpriced conference proceedings read by six colleagues. While there was nobody better at writing successful grant proposals, Bob and his colleagues had a stunning track record of “commercializing” their ideas. At both TERC, where he was Director of Educational Technology and The Concord Consortium he founded, Bob Tinker personified Edison’s notion of research AND development. An idea could be tested, refined, manufactured, and distributed in a reasonable timeframe. Unlike so many researchers cloistered in university departments and think tanks, Bob and his colleagues turned ideas into actual products enjoyed by millions of students around the world. Like Edison, Dr. Tinker didn’t work alone. He assembled and led an incredibly competent band of “muckers” who could bring impossible ideas to life.

Those products were sound, timely, reliable, open-ended, fun and teachable without succumbing to “teacher proofing” or dumbing down the science. There was never anything condescending about Dr. Tinker’s prolific work. Bob’s considerable charm and passion undoubtedly played a role in the creation of public/private partnerships, including with The National Geographic and Broderbund, required to successfully distribute his inventions to classrooms and homes everywhere. Bob was also a pioneer in making powerful software tools freely available online. He also preceded the DIY ethos of the maker movement by advocating for the creation of one’s own science probes in 2007!

In Bob’s world, there was no reason to add an A for Arts to S.T.E.M., since the doing of science and mathematics was itself, beautiful, wondrous, playful, creative, and relevant. Papert and Tinker shared a desire for children to be mathematicians and scientists, rather than being taught math or science. They both worked to make complexity possible by making the frontiers of mathematics and science accessible and usable by children. Bob went a step further and created programs where students could collaborate with scientists online as colleagues back in 1989, two years before the World Wide Web was released to the public. My fourth grade class participated in the National Geographic Kids Network Acid Rain project back in 1990.

In an interview Bob said:

“I became inspired to teach by tutoring two kids for two years in a black college in the South. It was the best education (for me!) anyone could design because it showed me exactly how science education could reach far more learners. I’ve dedicated my life to realizing that dream and it’s been wonderful working with smart people who share that dedication. There’s always been a sense of mission. We make important advances that will affect kids all over the world and—this was my initial motivation—bring cutting-edge educational resources to under-resourced kids.”

On a personal note

I do not remember exactly when I first met Bob Tinker, but it was at a conference approximately thirty years ago. Back then, the smartest people in the world spoke at educational computing conferences. I was familiar with his work prior to meeting him. In fact, I was a big fan of The Science Toolkit, distributed by home recreational software publisher, Broderbund. The Science Toolkit was a low-cost ($79 master module with two probes and $39 add-on sets) software package with external sensors that plugged into the joystick port of a microcomputer to allow children to conduct, measure, and record science experiments at home. This was an example of what Bob pioneered and called Micro-Based Labs (MBL).

Check out the video clip from the Christmas 1983 episode of the PBS show Computer Chronicles. Note how clean and simple the software it is and compare it some of the probeware software sold to schools today.

Prior to meeting Bob, I owned my own Science Toolkit. I was especially pleased with myself for figuring out how to program LogoWriter to read data from the kit’s probes without using the accompanying software. I could now write my own programs for collecting data, graphing it, and controlling my own experiments. I nailed using the light sensor, but my temperature data I received wasn’t particularly accurate. I eventually rationalized this as being the fault of the sensor or based on the limitations of the Science Toolkit, despite the fact that the probe worked just fine with the software provided. 

Not much time passed before I ran into Bob Tinker in one of those “V.I.P.” receptions, in the crummy “suite” of the conference chair in the forgettable hotel where the conference was being held. As I told Bob about my struggles with temperature data, he grabbed a napkin and wrote calculus formulas across all of the quadrants of the unfolded napkin. Bob mentioned that reading the temperature data was non-linear, a concept this C- science student could vaguely comprehend. While I never figured out how to translate the napkin math to a working LogoWriter program, Bob’s good cheer, gentle mentoring, and generosity reminded meow something I wrote in an essay a couple of years ago, “Math teachers often made me feel stupid; mathematicians never did.”

Maria Knee & Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

When I started the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute for educators ten years ago, Bob was the first speaker I secured. He had agreed  to return in a few weeks to help us celebrate our 10th anniversary this July.

I will never forget the joy he brought to kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, Maria Knee, who was euphoric while manipulating molecules in software Bob created (The Molecular Workbench). He and his colleagues made the impossible accessible to generations of teachers and children.

I am gutted by Bob’s passing. Losing Bob, Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, and Edith Ackermann within an 18-month period is almost too painful to bear. They were fountains of powerful ideas extinguished in anti-intellectual age hostile to science, even wonder. The education community does not enjoy a proud record of honoring the contributions of its pioneers or standing on their shoulders. Instead we continuously rediscover that which already exists, without attribution and with diminished expectations.

More than twenty-five years ago, Seymour Papert and Bob Tinker led a crazy or courageous session at the National Educational Computing Conference in Boston. If memory serves me, the presentation had a title along the lines of “Enemies of Constructionism.” I remember them taking turns placing acetates on the overhead projector proclaiming the name and photo of one of their enemies, including their NSF project manager who happened to be in the audience. This session had to be Seymour’s idea because Bob was too nice, but I suspect that Bob wrote the proposal.

I considered Bob a friend and dear colleague, even though we never really hung out or worked together formally. We often discussed collaborating on an elementary school project of some sort even though Bob modestly claimed not to know anything about little kids. Less than a year ago, Bob introduced me to a colleague and recommended that I be an advisor for an NSF proposal. I was honored to be asked and the grant* has been funded. While searching my email database, I found another proposal Bob himself included me in eleven years ago. I am humbled by his faith in me and respect for my work.

I wonder if ISTE will honor Bob in any way or if they even know who he is? I still await even a tweet about the passing of Dr. Papert. Like Papert, Bob Tinker was never invited to be a keynote speaker at ISTE or its predecessor, NECC.

Rest-in-power Bob. We will miss you forever and the struggle against ignorance continues!


Seminal articles by Robert Tinker, Ph.D.

Read more by searching for Tinker.

The Concord Consortium is assembling a collection of tributes to Bob Tinker here.

Read Bob Tinker’s Wikipedia page.

Notes

* Read the text of the funded NSF proposal, Science and Engineering Education for Infrastructure Transformation.

 

Note from Gary Stager…

In 1989, a great friend, colleague and pioneer in educational computing, Steve Shuller, authored the following literature review. Steve was Director of Outreach at Bank Street College during its microcomputer heyday, co-created New Jersey’s Network for Action in Microcomputer Education (N.A.M.E., now NJECC) and was a Director of the IBM Model Schools Project. Shortly before his untimely death Steve prepared this literature review for the Scarsdale, NY Public Schools, hoping that it would contribute to the end of tiresome discussions regarding keyboarding instruction.

Steve would be horrified that this trivial issue lives on in a field that has matured little in the past quarter century. I share his work with you as a public service and in loving memory of a great educator.

Keyboarding in Elementary Schools
Curricular Issues

Stephen M. Shuller
Computer Coordinator
Scarsdale, NY Public Schools

August 1989

Introduction

We are currently in the midst of a world-wide revolution, moving from the Industrial Age to an era in which information is the primary product (Toffler 1984). As information processing tools, computers are central to this revolution. The ability to interact with computers is an essential skill for the Information Age, one which our schools will need to address to prepare our students to meet the challenges of this fundamentally changed world.

The educational reform movement of the 1980’s has recognized the importance of computers in education. For example, A Nation at Risk (1983) calls for the high school students to:

(a) understand the computer as an information, computation, and communication device;

(b) use the computer in the study of the other Basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and

(c) understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies. (A Nation at Risk 1983, 26)

Virtually every other reform proposal has included similar recommendations. The educational community has responded to the futurists’ visions of the Information Age and the reformers proposals by working to integrate computers into the curriculum at all levels.

At present, people interact with computers by typing words on typewriter-like keyboards. Even though computers may someday be able to understand handwriting and human speech, in the currently foreseeable future-which in the Information Age may be only a dozen years or so at best-keyboarding skills are necessary to make computers do our bidding. Thus, keyboarding is an essential enabling skill for using computers in schools and in society, and must be included in Information Age curricula (Gibbon 1987).

Even though there is virtual unanimity that students should learn to keyboard, there is considerably less agreement on how, how much, when, and by whom. This paper will consider the teaching of keyboarding in elementary schools, examining these questions as a guide for curriculum development.

Keyboarding and Typing: Historical Context

Computer keyboards are similar to typewriters, Industrial Age tools invented by Christopher Sholes in 1868 and first marketed by Remington in 1873 (Yamada 1983). By the end of the 19th Century, typewriters were considered reliable writing tools, and started becoming widely used in offices (Pea and Kurland 1987). The first typing instruction was provided by typewriter manufacturers in about 1880 (Yamada 1983). It took public schools until 1915 to begin teaching typing as a high school occupational skill (West 1983).

By the 1920’s, educators began to experiment with using the new technology-typewriters–to help children learn to write (Pea and Kurland 1987). These experiments were quite successful. In the largest-scale controlled study, Wood and Freeman (1932) followed 2383 students as they learned to write on portable typewriters over a two year period. They found that the students who used typewriters wrote with more expression, showed higher reading scores, became better spellers, and enjoyed writing more than students learning to write using conventional methods. Similarly, Merrick (1941) found that typewriters helped the English development of high school students. Even so, typewriters did not catch on in education.

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, there was another smattering of interest in using computers in language arts (Balajthy 1988). Edward Fry, a noted reading specialist at Rutgers University, published a book on using typewriters in language arts which was not widely used. Perhaps seeing a new window of opportunity, Fry (1984) revised his text and reissued it as an approach to keyboarding in language arts.

Since we have known for more than half a century that keyboarding can help elementary school children learn language skills, why have typewriters only rarely found their way into elementary school classrooms, in sharp contrast to the current push to put computers into schools? One answer is that schools by and large reflect the perceived needs of society. Industrial Age schools resembled factories, and funds for typewriters were only available to prepare the relatively few students who would become clerks and typists. Information Age schools must prepare the vast majority of students to use computers because they are information management tools.

But why start elementary school students on computers? Here there is less direct pressure from society and more interest from educators who see the potential to enhance education. The two main factors spurring this interest are the transformation of professional writing through word processing (Zinsser 1983) and the transformation of writing instruction through the process approach (Graves 1983). Computers can greatly facilitate implementation of a process approach to teaching writing (Green 1984; Daiute 1985), so many educators are interested. In the current social milieu, the taxpayers are often willing to supply the necessary equipment.

Keyboarding in Elementary Schools: Curricular Issues

Given that we would like to use microcomputer based word processing as a tool to teach writing, what sort of keyboarding skills will elementary school students need? There seem to be three main alternatives. If they have no familiarization with the computer keyboard, they will have to “hunt and peck.” If they know where the keys are but not how to touch type, they can “peck” without much “hunting,” preferably using both hands. Finally, they can learn to touch type.

Everyone seems to agree that keyboard familiarization is in order, but whether to stop there or to teach touch typing to elementary school students is controversial. Advocates of the keyboard familiarization approach argue that students can type quickly enough to facilitate their writing without touch typing, that touch typing demands too much from limited time and computer resources, and that touch typing skills are quickly forgotten unless the students continue to practice regularly. Advocates of touch typing counter that students who develop the “bad habit” of keyboarding with two fingers find it very difficult to learn correct touch typing skills later and that such skills will ultimately be very important because of increased speed and efficiency.

There is widespread agreement that elementary students need to be able to type at least as fast as they can write by hand to avoid interfering with their writing process. A number of investigators have determined elementary school student handwriting rates. Graham and Miller (1980) found that students in grades 4 through 6 can copy text at a rate of 7 to 10 words per minute (wpm). Graves (1983) found a range of 8 to 19 wpm for 9 and 10 year olds when composing. Freyd and Kahn (1989) found an average rate of 11.44 wpm among 6th graders. With no keyboarding instruction (familiarization or touch typing), students of these ages can generally type 3 to 5 wpm (Wetzel 1985, 1987; Stoecker 1988). Different testing procedures probably accounts for most of the variation in these results. Wetzel (1987) reports that 10 wpm is generally accepted as a benchmark writing rate for students in grades 4 through 6.

Can students learn to type as fast as they can write with a keyboard familiarization program and word processing practice alone? The results are mixed. Freyd and Kahn (1989) report two studies in which students were able to type at writing speed with just keyboard familiarization and practice. one group of 6th graders started with an average rate of 6.62 wpm in October. With one hour of word processing per week, they had increased their average speed to 10.12 wpm in May. On the other hand, Daiute (1985) found that 11 and 12 year olds could write more words by hand in 15 minutes than they could type on the computer even after six months of word processing experience. Dalton, Morocco, and Neale (1988) found that 4th graders were initially comfortable word processing without touch typing instruction, but became frustrated later in the year as they needed to enter longer texts into the computer. In this study, however, students began using the word processor with no previous keyboard familiarization, so the results are not surprising.

Advocates of touch typing frequently claim that teaching touch typing to students who first learned to type without proper fingering techniques is very difficult or impossible (Kisner 1984; Stewart and Jones 1985; National Business Educators Association 1987; Abrams 1988; Balajthy 1988). No empirical evidence is presented to substantiate this claim, however. Wetzel (1987) interviewed several typing teachers, some of whom were concerned about the “hunt and peck unlearning” problem, but others were not concerned, based on their own teaching experiences. West (1983) reports successfully teaching “hunt and peck” typists to use correct touch typing finger positions with about 10 hours of instruction.

By grade 3, children are developmentally able to touch type on electric keyboards. Advocates of touch typing generally agree that students should receive instruction just prior to the time they will need to use touch typing skills for word processing. If studen ts do not regularly practice typing, their skills can deteriorate in as little as six weeks (Warwood 1985). Wetzel (1987) found that students regress in their skills if they do not practice regularly after 20 hours of initial instruction. He cites business education research that students tend to retain their skills once they reach a plateau of 20 wpm. Gerlach (1987) ,found that with continued practice, students continue to improve their speed. In her study, 6th grade students who averaged 9.71 wpm after a 6 to 8 hour keyboarding course improved to 12.27 wpm four months later with continuing word processing practice.

Business educators have proposed a number of touch typing programs for elementary school students, some based on a recommended amount of instruction, others based on a performance criterion. Kisner (1984) recommended touch typing instruction in 20 to 30 minute periods, to a criterion of 20 wpm in Grade 3 or 25 wpm in grades 4 through 6. These recommendations seem to come from the experience of business education teachers with high school students rather than from keyboarding experience with elementary school children.

Jackson and Berg (1986) recommend 30 hours of instruction spread over two or three years, with weekly 30 minute review sessions. Instruction should take place in 20 to 30 minute periods, using a combination of software and a textbook. The recommended course sequence follows the traditional typing course, starting with the home row and introducing two new keys per session, with appropriate drills. Teachers should monitor the students continuously to make sure they are using proper form. Instruction should emphasize speed, not accuracy.

In 1987, the National Business Education Association (NBEA) proposed standards for keyboarding instruction in elementary schools. The NBEA recommended that elementary school students learn touch typing to a criterion of 15 wpm, and middle school students further develop their skill to a criterion of 25 wpm. Not surprisingly, the NBEA recommended that business education teachers, rather than elementary school classroom teachers, provide the instruction.

Wetzel (1985) surveyed the literature on touch typing programs for elementary school students, finding that fifth graders could be taught to touch type 22 wpm with a nine-weeks of daily instruction for 45 minutes, and fifth and sixth graders could achieve 40 wpm by spending one hour daily for a full year.

Alternatively, a more limited keyboarding instruction program consisting of instruction in correct fingering techniques and practice with a computer typing tutorial could lead to an average typing rate of 10 wpm in four weeks of 35 minute sessions or 15 wpm in nine weeks of such sessions. He also observed third, fourth, and fifth graders using word processors without touch typing instruction, finding that those who could type from 7 to 10 wpm were able to make adequate use of the computer for word processing. Given the heavy demands on teaching time in elementary schools, the relatively low level of typing skill needed to facilitate word processing and other computer activity, and the students’ ability to increase typing proficiency through continued computer use, Wetzel recommended a limited keyboarding program to accomplish a typing speed of 10 wpm in a relatively short period of time.

In a later paper, Wetzel (1987) modified these recommendations to take into account differing amounts of computer usage. If students regularly use computers at least two hours per week, Wetzel feels that they will get enough practice to sustain typing skills, justifying a 20 to 30 hour period of initial instruction in touch typing. If students characteristically use computers one hour per week or less, only a much more limited program of keyboard familiarization is recommended.

Stoecker (1988) developed a touch typing program of instruction designed for use by elementary school teachers. After a four week course, 20 sessions of 30 minutes each, fifth and sixth graders achieved typing rates of about 12 wpm. Stoecker’s program consists of student and teacher materials for use with any word processor. He has found that elementary school classroom teachers can learn to use this approach through a one day long training workshop.

Balajthy (1988) emphasizes the importance of integrating keyboarding instruction into the language arts curriculum. He cites recent studies showing that keyboarding can improve language arts skills, results which are consistent with the typewriter-based studies of the 1930’s and 19401s. Balajthy, like Wetzel, finds that students can achieve adequate typing skills with a limited period of keyboarding instruction-about 8 to 10 hours-followed by regular practice with computer activities. Like Stoecker, Balajthy recommends teacher- keyboarding instruction using a word processor rather than use of a software-based tutorial. Balajthy (1987) cautions that unless students have significant amounts of ongoing typing or word processing activity, touch typing instruction is a waste of time because skills will deteriorate rapidly.

One reason why Stoecker and Balajthy recommend keyboarding instruction on word processors with teacher supervision is because computer tutorials cannot monitor correct fingering and other aspects of proper touch typing. Stoecker (1988) reportsthat non-typists tend to use two fingers unless a teacherobserves. In contrast, Mikkelson and Gerlach (1988) performed acontrolled study in which third to sixth graders worked with a computer typing tutorial. Half of the students were supervised and encouraged to use proper touch typing form; the other half were observed but not supervised. The results were surprising–both groups made similar progress in typing skill, and there was no difference between groups in propensity to use correct touch typing techniques.

If Mikkelson and Gerlach’s results are generalizable, it would be possible for elementary school teachers to obtain satisfactory results by teaching touch typing through limited individual work with a computer typing tutorial. Such instruction could take place on classroom computers while other activities were taking place. If students need to be supervised to insure proper fingering techniques, then either elementary classroom teachers will need to be trained to teach touch typing or business education teachers will be needed.

Keyboarding and the Future 

In their Database of Competencies for Business Curriculum Development, the NBEA defined keyboarding as follows:

Keyboarding is defined as the act of placing information into various types of equipment through the use of a typewriter-like keyboard. Typewriting and keyboarding are not synonymous. The focus of a keyboarding course is on input rather than output. (NBEA 1987, A-19)

Keyboarding is seen as a way to input information into a computer so that it can be manipulated. Thus, initial accuracy is less important than speed, ability to manipulate text is more important than formatting skills for specific types of documents, and composing is more important than transcribing (so it does not matter so much if the typist looks at the keys).

These distinctions recognize important changes in the purposes for which people type on Industrial Age typewriters and on Information Age computer keyboards. Yet, if we look closely at the keyboarding programs proposed by business educators, we find a methodology geared to the Industrial Age purpose of transcribing rather than the Information Age purpose of composing (Freyd and Kahn 1989).

This discrepancy is not surprising. As Naisbitt (1982) observed, people tend first to use a new technology in the same ways they have used older technologies which seem similar. only after a (sometimes lengthy) period of incubation do we see new directions or uses that grow out of the technology itself. So, at this point it is useful to take a step back and consider whether we might be looking at the keyboarding issue all wrong.

Graves (1983) has determined that five and six year old beginning writers compose at a painstakingly slow pace of 1.5 words per minute. At that rate, writing down a six word sentence can take up to nine minutes. Even five and six year olds who are unfamiliar with keyboards can compose more quickly and easily on computers than by hand (Wetzel, 1985). Graves has remarked that “one can imagine starting kids off writing on keyboards and save handwriting until motor skills are more highly refined.” (Green 1984).

Fry (1987) has proposed that schools eliminate the teaching of cursive writing and substitute keyboarding. He points out that cursive writing is not taught in European schools; students learn manuscript, and then develop their own handwriting style through shortcuts. By teaching cursive writing instead of keyboarding, Fry says, “we are training for the last century instead of for the next century.”

The issue of touch typing versus two-finger typing may be similar. Gertner and Norman (1984) have observed that the main advantage of touch typing is in copying. Copying is important for Industrial Age clerks and typists to transcribe business documents, but it is irrelevant to writers using word processing to compose and edit. By insisting on touch typing, are we training for the last century instead of for the next?

The New York State Keyboarding Curriculum

The New York State Board of Regents Action Plan to Improve Elementary and Secondary Education Results in New York calls for instruction in keyboarding to be “included in the State-developed English Language Arts Syllabus.” A state education department curriculum guide entitled Developing Keyboarding Skills to Support the Elementary Language Arts Program further stipulates that “approximately 18 to 20 hours of instruction should be devoted to keyboarding instruction within the framework of the Language Arts Program in the elementary grades.” (New York State Education Department 1986, 23).

The state keyboarding curriculum closely parallels material published by the National Business Education Association and by-state and local business education personnel. As described above, this means that the general thrust of the guide recognizes different needs and objectives between traditional typing instruction and keyboarding instruction, the recommended teaching strategies follow a more or less traditional touch typing approach. The influence of the business education community is apparent from the Suggested Readings offered in Appendix B. Of the 25 references listed on pages 29 and 30, 15 are to business education sources, and only 4 are to computer education and 3 more to general education sources.

The state curriculum clearly reflects the relative strength of business educators compared with computer coordinators in New York. For example, under “General Guidelines for Achieving Outcomes,” the guide suggests that:

business education teachers should be called upon to assist in the development of keyboarding curricula, in-service training, and selection of materials and methodology. (5)

Under “Planning for Teacher Awareness and Training:

… the business education teacher … can be very helpful in developing the plan and for training other teachers in appropriate keyboarding techniques. Business education teachers can also serve as a resource once a program is in place to conduct follow- activities as needed. (6)

Under delivery of instruction, the curriculum calls for students to learn touch typing, including correct fingering, posture, and eye contact (away from the keyboard, that is). The guide stops short of requiring business education teachers to teach the keyboarding courses, but states:

Teachers who have been trained in keyboarding methodology are of considerable importance in achieving these goals. (7)

In contrast, computer coordinators are mentioned only once in thecurriculum guide. The guide clearly views computer coordinators as technicians rather than instructional leaders, suggesting that they can be helpful in scheduling labs, repairing equipment, finding software and the like. The next sentence reminds the reader that knowledgeable high school students can also provide “considerable assistance.” (7)

To its credit, the state keyboarding guide does focus on integrating keyboarding into the language arts curriculum, as suggested by Balajthy (1988) and others. But it leans so heavily for its methodology on the perspective of the past that it is” suspect as a guide to the future.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There is widespread agreement that elementary school students need keyboarding skills. Whether keyboard familiarization is sufficient or whether students need touch typing skills depends on the nature of the school’s language arts and computer education curricula.

Touch typing courses are only effective if students receive a substantial period of initial instruction followed by regular practice throughout the school year. Touch typing courses can be recommended when computers are fully integrated into the language arts curriculum and when students regularly have at least two hours of individual computer time per week. In this type of environment, the initial touch typing instruction should occur at the time when students will first become involved with computers on a regular basis. The initial instruction should be provided either by specialists or by classroom teachers who have been given training in how to teach touch typing.

In situations where students make more limited use of computers, the evidence at hand suggests that a program of keyboard familiarization is sufficient to provide adequate keyboarding skills to support word processing and other uses of computers in elementary schools. Keyboard familiarization can be taught by classroom teachers assisted by appropriate computer software.

As we move further into the Information Age, fundamental changes in our school curricula will follow, paralleling the changing needs of society. Envisioning these changes, we can imagine a time when keyboarding will replace cursive writing as an essential skill for elementary school children, complementing a language arts curriculum using computers extensively for such activities as writing with word processors. Developing an Information Age language arts curriculum with keyboarding as a fundamental skill should be a central focus of our long-range curriculum planning.

References

Abrams, Jeri. “Keys to Keyboarding.” Boston Computer Society Education Special Interest Group News 4 (November/December 1988): 6-12.

Balajthy, Ernest. “Keyboarding and the Language Arts.” The Reading Teacher 41 (October 1987): 86-87.

Balajthy, Ernest. “Keyboarding, Language Arts, and the Elementary School Child.” The Computing Teacher 15 (February 1988): 40-43.

Daiute, Colette. Writing and Computers. Reading, MA: AddisonWesley, 1985.

Dalton, Bridget M., Catherine Cobb Morocco, and Amy E. Neale.

“I’ve Lost My Story!” Mastering The Machine Skills for Word Processing. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 1988.

Freyd, Pamela and Jessica Kahn. “Touch Typing in Elementary Schools-Why Bother?” In William C. Ryan, Ed. Proceedings of the National Educational Computing Conference 1989. Eugene, OR: International Council on Computers for Education, 1989.

Fry, Edward. Computer Keyboarding for Children. NY: Teachers College Press, 1984.

Fry, Edward. Quoted in “Keyboarding replacing writing: Penmanship should be out and typing in, professor says.” The Associated Press, 2 February, 1987.

Gentner, Donald and Donald Norman. “The Typist’s Touch.” Psychology Today 18 (March 1984): 67-72.

Gerlach, Gail J. The Effect of Typing Skill on Using a Word Processor-for Composition. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, DC, 1987.

Gibbon, Samuel Y., Jr. “Learning and Instruction in the Information Age.” In Mary Alice White, Ed. What Curriculum for the Information Age? Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1987.

Graham, Steve and Lamoine Miller. “Handwriting Research and Practice: A Unified Approach.” focus on Exceptional Children 13 (1980): 1-16.

Graves, Donald H. Writing: Teachers-and Children at Work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann, 1983.

Green, John 0. “Computers and Writing: An Interview with Donald Graves.” Classroom Computer Learning 4 (March 1984): 21-23, 28.

Jackson, Truman H. and Diane Berg. “Elementary Keyboarding-Is it important?” The Computing Teacher 13 (March 1986): 8-11.

Kisner, Evelyn. “Keyboarding-A Must in Tomorrow’s World.” The Computing Teacher 11 (February 1984): 21-22.

Koenke, Karl. “ERIC/RCS Report: Keyboarding: Prelude to Composing at the Computer-” English Education 19 (December 1987): 244-249.

McCrohan, Jane. Teaching Keyboarding: The first step in making the computer an effective writing tool. Paper presented at the New Jersey Educational Computing Conference, 1989.

McLean, Gary N. “Criteria for Selecting Computer Software for Keyboarding Instruction.” Business Education Forum 41 (May 1987): 10, 12.

Merrick, Nellie L. “Typewriting in the University High School.” School Review 49 (April 1941): 284-296.

Mikkelsen, Vincent P. and Gail Gerlach. Teaching Keyboarding Skills to Elementary School Students in Supervised and Unsupervised-Environments. ERIC Document Number ED301152, 1988.

Naisbitt, J. Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming our Lives. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

National Business Education Association. Database of Competencies for Business curriculum Development, K-14. ERIC Document Number ED 294064, 1987.

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office [1983]).

Pea, Roy D. and D. Midian Kurland. “Cognitive Technologies for Writing.” In Ernst Z. Rothkopf, Ed. Review of Educational Research, Volume 14. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 1987.

Stewart, Jane and Buford Jones. “Keyboarding Instruction: Elementary School Options.” Business Education Forum 37 (1983): 11-12.

Stoecker, John W. Teacher Training for Keyboarding Instruction– 4-8: A Researched and Field Tested Inservice Model. ERIC Document Number ED290451, 1988.

Warwood, B., V. Hartman, J. Hauwiller, and S. Taylor. A Research Study to Determine the Effects of Early Keyboard Use upon Student Development in Occupational Keyboarding. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University, 1985. ERIC Document Number ED 265367.

West, L. The Acquisition of Typewriting Skills. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1983.

Wetzel, Keith. “Keyboarding Skills: Elementary, My Dear.” The Computing Teacher 12 (June 1985): 15-19.

Wetzel, Keith. “Keyboarding-An Interview with Keith Wetzel.”

Making the Literature, Writing, Word Processing Connection. The Writing Notebook, 1987.

Wood, Ben D. and Frank N. Freeman. An Experimental Study of the Educational Influences of the Typewriter in the Elementary School Classroom. NY: MacMillan, 1932.

Yamada, Hisao. “A Historical Study of Typewriters and Typing Methods: from the Position of Planning Japanese Parallels.” In Dudley Gibson., Ed. Wordprocessing and the Electronic office. LondonCouncil for Educational Technology, 1983.

Zinsser, W. Writing with a Word Processor. NY: Harper and Row, 1983.