by Daniel Näslund

Why should children program - a review of Seymor Paperts Mindstorms

27 Aug 2016

I have done some programming exercises from code.org together with my six year old daughter. Why? I have mixed feelings about putting a child in front of a computer: On one hand I’m worried about the attention addiction that I see in her peers, they spend way too much time in front of their tablets and tv:s. Do I really want my daughter to start using the computer at this early age. I hear some parents argue that learning to use a computer is a valuable skill, but what does that mean? Understanding the machine? Understanding common UI idioms? Understanding how to access games?

I guess, I’m hoping for her to get a head start, I want her to be able to build things on her own, not just consume what others have created. But what exactly is it that I want her to build? I see her and her younger brother spending a lot of time with their Lego bricks, creating houses, boats, cars and fantasy castles. What is it beyond that, that I’m hoping for her to learn by using a computer?

I’ve viewed computer programming as a rational, logical endeavour that requires precision and a lot of upfront planning. That doesn’t sound like an activity for a child. Sounds more like a sure way of killing someones imagination and turning them into the very machines they’re intended to program.

And when I watch her friends using the tablet in kindergarten, I see educational apps that introduces numbers, letters and simple logic. But couldn’t those subjects have been taught just as well without a computer? I see them stare at the screen, hypnotized, following the instructions of the program. When they play with their Lego bricks, everyone is physically active, participating by improving the design. But at the tablet, there’s only one passive user and a couple even more passive observers. What are they learning in front of that screen? Who is in charge; they or the machine?

With those questions in mind, I started reading Mindstorms.

Papert says in the foreword that the book intends to use math and the logo turtle as examples of how to create a learning environment that encourages self-learning. He mentions how living in France is more effective for learning French, then taking French classes. In the same way, living in “Mathland” would be more effective than just learning math through the regular route. Through Logo and the Turtle, the child can create his/her own micro world

  • a “Mathland” - where it’s easy to experiment with geometry, calculus etcetera. And the computer could be just as useful for creating micro worlds for other subjects.

One thing that really resonated with me was when Papert discusses how the machine can help with heuristic thinking. I’ve looked upon computer interactions as consisting of two opposite perspectives; one is the deeply logical step-by-step interaction with the terminal and the other is the whimsical point and click, where the user is easily distracted by whatever shows up in his web browser his screen. He navigates by loose associations, following the very first impulse that arrives. In my mind I’ve labelled the terminal interaction as good, the user makes up a plan in his head an executes it on the machine. But Papert instead emphasizes the heuristic thinking part; we don’t know upfront which way will lead to the correct answer (or if there is a correct answer), we just want to somehow get a feel for the problem. The sort of user interfaces I’ve been preferring does not provide any slack in that regard. You’re either right or wrong. After reading Mindstorms I’m beginning to see how even for mathematics nothing is really cut in stone.

The book describes how kids can learn math better by having an object-to-think-with, a connection between the abstract and the concrete. When I look at people using the computer, I see them adjusting themselves to the limitations of the computer and it’s peripherals; they’re touch typing instead of scribbling; following UI instructions instead of experimenting; searching instead of thinking. When I’ve watched my daughter using the Squeak-like environment of code.org, I notice that printing something on the screen does not have the same effect on her, as creating something with her hands. I can see the usefulness of creating the micro worlds, but for a truly engaging environment there should be some interaction with the outside.

One central theme of the book is the notion that what one can learn is limited by the models one has available; learning names of cities on a map is an easier thing to do, then accepting that a paper can be used to represent the geography of the physical world. I wonder how many such models there are in my heads? Paperts says that children are small theory builders, they have lots of models in their heads for how the the world fit together. He mentions that many children when asked “who creates the wind?” says “the trees”. That absolutely makes sense, they can wave their arms and feel the wind, why wouldn’t the wind be created by the trees? I asked my three year old son that question and sure enough; the answer was the wind. When I asked him: where to the seeds come from that turns into plants, he answered: “the earthworms put them there, they have a large supply and they transport them through small ducts”. It makes me wonder: what’s more important, to be correct or to be able to create many theories?

Papert asks the same question? Do we always have to be right or wrong? Aren’t we always partly right and partly wrong? A learning environment should encourage stepwise refinements; come up with an initial suggestion for a solution and iterate on that.

So what have I learned? I’ve widened my views about the pros and cons of computer interaction for children, things aren’t all black. And I’m beginning to think that the question should not be “how make a programmer out of a kid?”, but instead “how make the kid a maker?”. Yes, the graphical programming environments of squeak and a like will help a children develop a procedural thinking, and probably makes the step to regular textbased programming easier, but is that the end goal? Learning that it’s ok to learn on your own and that it’s ok to draw your own conclusions looks like a better ambition. After reading Mindstorms, the lectures and labs on code.org looks a bit to rigid and teacher-led.