Thursday, August 30, 2012

Do Smart Classes Make Our Children Smart?

In the past few years there has been a huge amount of attention from  governments and schools on the concept of smart classrooms. The heady mix of media rich content and  computing poweris supposed to make our children able to learn better. Many schools  have spent humongous amounts of money  in buying sophisticated hardware and software to make our classes smarter. The moot question is if this is really making our children smarter?

Seymour Papert, the father of Artificial Programming and an undisputed thought leader in the domain of education, psychology and computing,  has made some interesting observations  on this topic. In typical situations of IT usage in classrooms we let computers to put our children through various exercises at different difficulty levels. Computers are also programmed to dispense of a lot of information from a vast database.  In a certain way,  computers are programming the child's learning. Papert believes that the real learning from technology comes when the child programs the computer and not the other way around.

When a child learns to control a computer, the child is actually teaching the computer to think. And in the attempt to do so, the child explores about how he thinks, and essentially starts to learn to think about thinking. This process  (also called epistemology) is actually a very sophisticated evolution of the child's ability to acquire knowledge and build new mental models and structures for creating new learning. Evidently this process can be enabled at an early age with children with the help of technology.

A simple way to do this is by exposing children to early age programming. Nowadays there are many free software which can be installed and explored by parents and teachers who have no formal knowledge of programming at all. One of the ways working with computers enables intellectual development,  is by advancing the progression from concrete thinking, which begins at age 6,  to formal thinking processes which develops at age 12. In schools where visual programming is introduced by age 7 or 8, we often observe children  manipulating repetitive commands while trying to make a simple game involving shapes and colour combinations. Thus, combinatorial thinking (nested loops in programming parlance), which is a formal process of thinking can be advanced much earlier than otherwise possible. This can have a significant effect on the trajectory of intellectual development of the child.

Some of the simple benefits of exploring computer programming is on mathematical concepts. The concretization of  numbers concepts, understanding of  negative number spaces,  two dimension and three dimensional algebra,  geometrical shapes, distances and angles etc all become less abstract when evolved through a exciting problem solving approach by a child.

The computer culture has already given us very useful vocabulary like input, output and feedback.  For example, the concept of the 'bug' allows the child to understand that 'debugging' is a simple repeated process of error rectification, something natural and free of guilt or shame. Thus culture contributes in helping the children move to a higher level of thinking and understanding, even at an emotional level.

Parents and teachers today must try and expose their children to early experiences in programming. This will require us to break traditional curriculum and explore the usage of new age visual programming techniques such as Scratch (developed in MIT) and also fabulous products like LOGO (also MIT) which actually got the entire revolution  started in the eighties.  Technology and curriculum  choice of schools can surely make a substantial difference in the way children reflect and analyze, which is the real path to smartness, and the not the dumb consumption of multimedia entertainment in the garb of technology..


Anonymous said...

Hi Sujit,

Congratulations and thanks on kicking this blog off. The first posts are much needed writing on the chosen subject and fills a void. Thought provoking and unbiased, as one has come to expect from you. Will be following your future posts with great interest.


SB said...

THanks, Naren.

Nice surprise to see you here !

Pran Kurup said...

Interesting piece. Are you suggesting that all kids should be exposed to programming early in life?
The reason I ask is that there are kids who take to programming naturally, while other kids don't.

SB said...


I will refer to a paper published on the Scratch web site (see the research section)
Maloney, J., Resnick, M., Rusk, N., Silverman, B., Eastmond, E. (2010). The Scratch Programming Language and Environment. ACM Transactions on Computing Education, November 2010.

"I don’t think there’s a sweet spot for programming concepts in general.It’s a bit like learning natural languages: the earlier the better. But I think there are boundaries in cognitive development for specific concepts and

Another one:

"In developing Scratch, we wanted to “lower the floor” for programming, so that children could get started earlier. In our view, learning to program is somewhat like learning to write. In both cases, children should start
as soon as they are interested. It makes sense for children to start with simple forms of expression, and gradually learn more subtle and sophisticated ways of
expressing themselves over time."

There's tons of research out there, and our own experiences in Indus to suggest that kids when exposed to programming using age-appropriate techniques can help them get interested early and evolve their thinking models thus improving their chances of becoming adept at notion of programming and more importantly in learning to think about thinking, which is a discipline in itself.

As in the cases of learning math or languages and writing, if left for discovering it too late, perhaps only those kids who take to it naturally will evolve!

Think about it ...In IIT all of us were exposed to programming at the age of 18. Only few really took to it. Many got pushed back by the sheer tedium of dealing with abstract syntax and complex rituals of compiling and debugging. With new technologies like Scratch and Alice the entry barrier is completely demolished.

Pran Kurup said...

Kids are exposed to programming early in most schools these days. On the one hand we pitch for a greater right brained focus, on the other we rush to introduce things like programming sooner! (I am not against it, though I am not entirely convinced!).

Btw, check out this article about a school that avoids tech.

Ramashree said...

Interesting interaction SB and PK!

Lemme share an incident kinda relevant to the potential of learning programming towards generating an epistemological awareness: This child (aged 7), who had been taught the basics of LOGO, was trying to write a Tamil letter. (Tamil letters are notoriously intricate, jyi)After rubbing out her second attempt, she paused for a moment and said aloud the instructions she would have given in LOGO to form the letter - she was actually 'programming' her hand!
Doesn't seem too much of a leap of faith to think that a child who can stand apart from her hand and direct it, can also stand apart from her mind, and direct it, does it?

SB said...

Super, Ramashree...nice to hear this. Tamil scripting in logo style !