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..