Hate to be a killjoy, but I just looked at one of the Code.org activities for programming turtle graphics in App Lab.

As someone who has taught various dialects of Logo to kids and teachers for 34+ years, I was horrified by the missed learning opportunities and design of the activity. My concerns are in lesson/interface design and lost learning opportunities.

https://studio.code.org/s/cspunit3/stage/2/puzzle/1

First of all, you connect any blocks and then hit Next. It doesn’t matter if you solve the actual problem posed or not.

Second and MUCH more importantly, ALL of the power and intellectual nutritional value of turtle geometry is sacrificed in order to teach a much simpler lesson in snapping blocks together in service of “efficiency.”

The power of turtle geometry is well – geometry, also measurement, and number. There are no numerical inputs to the turtle geometry blocks and all of the turns are in 90 degree increments.

The use of Javascript (presumably the blocks were added to the environment for this exercise and are not actual primitives) adds needless and confusing punctuation to the command structure WITHOUT the benefit of allowing users to change the input to FD or LT. Therefore, any opportunity to explore powerful mathematical ideas

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Logo and are celebrating the 35th anniversary of the publication of Mindstorms – Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, it sure would be nice if Code.org would learn some fundamental lessons of children, computers, and powerful ideas instead of depriving kids of an opportunity to learn mathematics while learning computer science.

Discussion:

Since posting the above statement to a CS discussion forum on Facebook, Hadi Partook – founder of Code.org responded as follows.

Gary, the goal of this course isn’t to teach turtle programming. Most of the students in our course sequence would have done that years earlier. This is a high school course to introduce students to JavaScript (including the syntax) and making apps. It begins with a few turtle stages because turtle programming would be familiar to these students as a concept fully explored in our CS Fundamentals courses – including all the geometric glory you mention, and problems that tell you whether you solved them or not. In our high school course the theme isn’t “solving puzzles” because it’s about “making apps,” with just a few turtle examples to carry forward from something students already know.

Hadi, I wish I shared your optimism that kids in your high school courses had experience with turtle geometry. I found the design of this unit clickable with very little nutritional value, especially since its web-based design implies little teacher interaction or scaffolding. If the turtle “blocks” used in the example are merely an exercise in sequencing, then they need no punctuation on them whatsoever. If I desired to change the angle or linear units, there was no way to do so (at least no way obvious to me).
Therefore, from a design perspective, there are several problems with the lesson. They include:
  • Low engagement
  • Limits on student creativity, exploration, and tinkering
  • A missed opportunity for students to learn/use mathematical ideas while learning Javascript
I am NOT asking that the lessons yell at kids for being wrong or test them along the way. That would make things worse.

I’ve been teaching boys and girls to program computers professionally since 1982 when I created one of the world’s first summer camp computing programs. I led professional development at Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne, Australia for a few years beginning in 1990. Girls at MLC used their personal laptops to program in LogoWriter across the curriculum. (read about the history of 1:1 computing and programming here). That work led to perhaps as many as 100,000 Australian boys and girls learning to program computers in the early 1990s.

I taught incarcerated kids in a teen prison to program as part of my doctoral research and currently teach programming to PK-8 girls and boys at The Willows Community School

Along the way, I’ve found it easy to engage girls and their teachers in computer programming. Ample access to computers. high expectations, and a competent teacher are the necessary conditions for girls to view themselves as competent programmers. Such confidence and competence unlocks the world of computer science and gaining agency over the machine for learners.

That said, there is plenty of evidence that girls view computer science like kryptonite. Mark Guzdial, Barbara Ericson, and others have done a yeoman job of documenting the dismal rates of female participation in school or higher-ed computer science. This reality is only aggravated by the sexism and misogyny commonplace in high-tech firms and online.

Programming is fun. It’s cool. It’s creative. It may not only lead to a career, but more importantly grants agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. Being able to program allows you to solve problems and answer Seymour Papert’s 47 year-old  question, “Does the computer program the child or the child program the computer?”

Add the ubiquity of microcomputers to accessibility of programming languages like Turtle Art, MicroWorlds, Scratch, or Snap! and there is no excuse for every kid to make things “out of code.”

All of that aside, girls in the main just don’t find computer science welcoming, relevant, or personally empowering. Entire conferences, government commissions, volumes of scholarship, and media decry the crisis in girls and S.T.E.M. Inspiring girls to embrace computer science remains the holy grail. But…

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 5.19.20 PM

The Rolling Spider Minidrone

I found the key!

Drones

Girls love to program drones to fly!

Seriously. Drones.

There is a big in this simple Tickle program intended to fly away and back to its operator. Can you find it? This is an opportunity to reinforce geometric concepts.

There are 2 bugs in this simple Tickle program intended to fly away and back to its operator. Can you find them?
This is an opportunity to reinforce geometric concepts.

I recently purchased an inexpensive small drone, The Parrot Rolling Spider Mini Drone. ($80 US) If flying drones is cool. Programming them to fly is even cooler.

Thanks to a lovely dialect of Scratch called Tickle, you can use an iPad to program a flying machine! Most drones have virtual joystick software for flying the plane in real-time, but programming a flight requires more thought, planning, and inevitable debugging. Programmer error, typos, a breeze, or physical obstacles often result in hilarity.

Earlier this week, I brought my drone and iPad to a workshop Super-Awesome Sylvia and I were leading. Primary and secondary school students from a variety of schools assembled to explore learning-by-making.

Late in the workshop, I unleashed the drone.

Kids were immediately captivated by the drone and wanted to try their hand at programming a flight – especially the girls!

I truly love how such natural play defies so many gender stereotypes. Programming to produce a result, especially control is super cool for kids of all ages. (It’s also worth mentioning that this one of the few “apps” for the iPad that permits actual programming, not just “learning about coding.”)

Primary students program the drone while a boy patiently awaits his turn.

Primary students program the drone intensely while a boy patiently awaits his turn.

look up drone

Secondary school girls track the drone

Can you read this program and predict the drone's behavior?

Can you read this program and predict the drone’s behavior?

Check out some of the programmable toys and other devices you can control with Tickle!

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In addition to being a veteran teacher educator, popular speaker, journalist, author, and publisher, Gary is co-author of the bestselling book called the “bible of the maker movement in schools”, Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. He also leads the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute and is Publisher at CMK Press.

Did you hear the news? President Obama wrote his first line of code yesterday to bring attention to Computer Science Week and Code.org’s Marie Antoinette-style Hour of Code. (a “global movement” bankrolled by billionaires and major corporations) I suppose fracking is a global movement too, but I digress.

I can get past the President of the United States pretending that he’s some dumb guy capable of performing a trivial task on a computer. Huh huh, look at me. Duh, “You gotta slow down, ’cause I’m an old man…

I’m OK with tech corporations successfully engineering a publicity stunt with cute kids and the President even if their real objectives are easing restrictions on H1-B visas enabling tech companies to hire programmers from other countries (likely cheaper than hiring Americans). All of that is just business, lobbying, and public relations. I salute the propagandists who made it all happen! Lobbying and selling stuff is the American way. (cue: start humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic)

None of the stagecraft I just described is evil.

What I will not abide is using Newark, NJ middle school students as human shields as part of a larger agenda to destroy the public schools in their already exploited and disadvantaged community. (I’ve yet to determine if they are charter school students)

History does not begin with Code.org and the Silicon Valley smartypants who fund it. EVERY Newark public elementary and middle school taught Logo programming for more than a decade to every student. I know. I used to teach the incredibly passionate, dedicated, and competent Newark teachers. Announcing that the seven largest cities in the USA will now commit to offer a middle or high school computer science class does nothing to explain why computer science, art, music and other rich subjects have become extinct in urban school districts. In fact, it is the very heavy-handed Gates-funded and Zuckerberg-approved education policies that the Obama Administration has inflicted on districts, such as Newark, that has made an hour of looking up from anything but a multiple-choice worksheet for an hour cause for a White House celebration.

Code.org, the organization behind Hour of Code is heavily financed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In 2010, Zuckerberg gave a $100 million dollar “donation” to the Newark Public Schools as long as they would bust teacher unions, focus on endless test prep, and replace public schools with charters. The legality of the “donation” is still in question. What is not in dispute, is the fact that Zuckerberg got almost nothing for his investment/purchase/donation.

President Obama rarely, if ever visits a public school. He likes charters. Gates likes charters. Zuckerberg likes charter schools. They all hate teacher unions. I documented the President’s antipathy towards organized teachers back in 2008 in the Huffington Post’s First We Kill the Teacher Unions.  In that article, written before President Obama’s election, I detailed how the wunderkind Newark Mayor, now Senator, needed help in busting teacher unions and privatizing the public schools in his community. Bill Gates’ hostility towards organized labor of any kind is well documented in the countless labor violations Microsoft was adjudicated guilty of during his leadership of the company.

President Obama also likes “workforce” development gimmicks in education. One of his favorite “public/private” (corporate) projects is P-Tech High School in Brooklyn, NY (another city decimated by education policies enacted by unqualified ideologues). The “miracle” of that school’s success has even been called into question.

In my March 2014 article, Newark, NJ: Larger Class Sizes and Unqualified Teachers – Perfect Together, I discuss the chaos being caused by the “One Newark” being advanced by the state-appointed, locally unaccountable, and Teach-for-America trained superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, Cami Anderson. “One Newark” seeks to fire up to 1,000 teachers and privatize more public schools as charters. Two decades after suspending democracy in Newark, disbanding the local school board, and taking control over the local district, the State of New Jersey is never to be blamed for the real or perceived failure of the Newark schools. Teacher blaming, name-calling, and community antagonism has become a substitute for education policy. The local unpopularity of One Newark inspired a high school teacher and former teachers union President to be elected Mayor of Newark and the superintendent no longer feels safe attending public meetings in her own school district. The Mayor of Newark has detailed what he believes to be the legal violations behind One Newark in a four-page letter to President Obama.

Let’s review. President Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg are all fans of charter schools. None of them, or their friend Cory Booker,  care much for the sorts of pesky teacher unions fighting for jobs and democracy in Newark. Zuckerberg is a major force behind Code.org and spent $100,000,000 in Newark. Each of these men is a proponent of the get-fought, back-to-basics, test constantly model of “reform.” Is it a coincidence that Newark students were chosen to be props during the President’s celebration of Hour of Code?

Addendum: While I have specific pedagogical issues with Hour-of-Code, this post is a plea to pause before we celebrate a singular hour of good in a school district savaged by the very same patrons.


I will share my issues with the implementation of Hour of Code in a future post.