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goes back to school
Learning programming introduces students to solving problems, designing applications, and making connections online.
By Yasmin B. Kafai & Quinn Burke
e are witnessing a remarkable comeback of computer programming
in schools. In the 1980s, many schools featured Basic, Logo, or Pas-
cal programming computer labs that students typically visited once
a week as an introduction to the discipline. But, by the mid-1990s,
schools had largely turned away from programming. In large part, R&D
appears in each issue of Kappan
such decline stemmed from a lack of subject-matter integration and with the assistance of the Deans'
a dearth of qualifi ed instructors. Yet there was also the question of purpose. With the rise Alliance
, which is composed of the
of preassembled multimedia packages via glossy CD-ROMs over the 1990s, who wanted deans of the education schools/
to toil over syntax typos and debugging problems by creating these applications oneself? colleges at the following universities:
This question alone seemingly negated the need to learn programming in school, com-
Harvard University, Michigan State
pounded by the excitement generated by the Internet. Schools started teaching students University, Northwestern University,
how to best surf the web rather than how to delve into it and understand how it actually Stanford University, Teachers College
Columbia University, University of
YASMIN B. KAFAI
edu) is a professor of learning sciences at the Graduate School of Edu-
California, Berkeley, University of
cation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Penn., with a secondary appointment in the Department
of Computer and Information Science. QUINN BURKE
) is an assistant professor of
California, Los Angeles, University of
education technology at the College of Charleston and a former high school teacher. Kafai and Burke are
Michigan, University of Pennsylvania,
authors of the forthcoming book Connected Code
(MIT Press, 2014).
and University of Wisconsin.
V95 N1 kappanmagazine.org 61
works. Schools largely forgot about programming,
some deeming it entirely unnecessary and others la-
An example of Scratch coding
beling it too difficult to teach and learn.
But this is changing. In the past five years, we've
seen a newfound interest in bringing back learning
and teaching programming on all K-12 levels. But
it's digitally based youth cultures, not schools, lead-
ing this revival (Kafai & Peppler, 2011). Computers
seem to be accessible everywhere, particularly out-
side school, where children and youth are innovat-
ing with technology — often with hand-held devices
— to create their own video games, interactive art
projects, and even their own programmable clothes
through electronic textiles. What's more, the same
computers on which they create these items connect
them to wider networks of other young users who
share common interests and a similar commitment
to connecting through making.
Schools may very well take a page from these
informal communities of creative production and
Scratch is developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. See http://scratch.mit.edu
networked participation. After all, despite this
surge of interconnected youth communities, very
few youth are using their smart devices — laptop,
iPad, iPhone, or Droid — for something other than other and the greater whole, and then devise algo-
the mass consumption of commercial media. These rithms to arrive at an automated solution. Computa-
digital natives may be able to technically manipu- tional thinking isn't limited to mathematics and the
late the latest devices, but their capacity to wield sciences but also applies to the humanities in fields
such devices critically, creatively, and selectively is such as journalism and literature.
decidedly less potent.
Thinking like a computer scientist has the poten-
What then is the role of programming in facilitat- tial to better articulate and advance other academic
ing more productive use of technology? And what is disciplines. But how is computational thinking
the role of schools in introducing programming to a present and relevant in everyday life? Wing pro-
wider array of youth, particularly given schools' own vides several examples. Consider cleaning up and
aborted attempts to teach coding in the past? How sorting Lego brick pieces. If a child sorts the pieces
will schools address challenges of diversity and eq- as "all rectangular thick blocks in one bin," "all thin
uity so prevalent in computing culture? Given these ones in another," and so on, computer scientists
questions facing education as well as the economic would call this hashing. Of course, most children
viability of this country, we must first understand (and adults) clean up heaps of Legos simply by just
what computational thinking is, how we can teach dumping them in one big bucket. But imagine if the
it, and why the computational participation of online child wanted to build a bigger project with Legos
communities and traditional schools together offers and needed to construct the project by selecting
new opportunities to engage students.
particular pieces in a set sequence. Looking through
a large pile of Lego bricks each and every time
What is computational thinking?
would take far longer than looking through bricks
In 2006, Carnegie Mellon professor Jeannette organized by size, shape, and even color. Establish-
Wing defined computational thinking as all "aspects ing these categories would reduce search time and
of designing systems, solving problems, and under- let the builder concentrate on what he or she wanted
standing human behaviors" (2006, p. 6). Wing ar- to do in the first place: build, not search. That would
gued that understanding the world computationally be especially helpful when building more ambitious
gives a particular lens to understanding problems and precise structures.
and contributing to their solutions. Computational
Wing's definition of computational thinking pro-
thinking — while often strictly associated with com- voked a wide-ranging response among computer sci-
puter science — actually is better understood as ex- entists and educators concerning what qualifies as
tending computer science principles to other disci- digital literacy. What does computational thinking
plines in order to help break down the elements of contribute to reasoning and communicating in an
any problem, determine their relationship to each ever-increasingly digital world? To what extent do
62 Kappan September 2013
Like PDK at www.
schools encourage systematic problem solving across #1. A shift from code to applications.
disciplines, breaking down problems and processes Rather than coding exercises for learning about
to determine relationships before reassembling? algorithms and data structures, children now learn
These aren't necessarily new questions for schools programming to create specifi c applications, be
(Grover & Pea, 2013). Although computers have they video games or interactive stories. They are
been in schools for 30 years, computational thinking engaged by the potential to create something real
hasn't become part of the curriculum. Teaching word and tangible that can be shared with others, con-
processing and how to create PowerPoint presenta- verting the learning of programming — at least ini-
tions don't engage students in the deeper analysis tially — from the study of an abstract discipline to
needed to think more creatively and critically (Col- a way of making and being in the world digitally.
lins & Halverson, 2009). Most youth have no or very
little conception of computer science as a discipline
or how it could apply to their daily lives. In short, stu- #2. A shift from tools to communities.
dents need to know not only more about computer Happily, the past decade has seen the develop-
science but what it ultimately means to think more ment of many admirable introductory program-
systematically in order to more effi ciently solve all ming languages that have made coding a more in-
types of problems.
tuitive, personal process. Scratch (http://scratch.
Teaching computational thinking
mit.edu) and Alice (http://alice.org) are two pri-
So what could computational thinking look like mary examples. But developers are realizing that
in schools? How could we teach it? The defi nition of tools alone are not enough. Every tool needs an
computational thinking as designing systems, solv- audience and the opportunity to bring like-minded
ing problems, and understanding human behaviors creators together via the Internet. Accordingly,
admittedly provides quite a broad berth here. Sev- tools like Scratch and Alice now have extensive
eral professional groups like the Computer Science online communities of millions of young users. The
Teachers Association and nonprofi ts like Shodor latest version of Scratch — version 2.0 released
have developed academic standards and instructional this past spring — actually now exists entirely
activities to make computational thinking more ac- online so children can program and share from a
cessible for K-12 education. Programming has in- single web site, tacitly highlighting the fact that the
variably played a role in all proposed curricula. Yet community of practice effectively has become the
while programming fi gures prominently, no single key tool for learning to code.
programming language is deemed best by all pro-
ponents. Whether the language is Java/Java Script,
Python, C/ C++, HTML or introductory languages #3. A shift from creating "from scratch" to
like Scratch and Alice, teaching the underlying con- creating via "remix."
cepts conveyed by the language — not the language
itself — is what's relevant.
Programming is no longer an individual activity in
So who is to say that teaching programming in which source code is hidden and closely guarded.
these languages will have any greater success than In the spirit of the open-source movement, there
what we witnessed in the 1980s with Logo's and Pas- is an increasing push to share one's underlying
cal's relatively brief foray into schools?
code and encourage participants to sample oth-
The answer, we argue, is that children have al- ers' creations for the sake of adjusting and add-
ready been using code to create and share. Over ing to them. With the idea that such openness
the past decade, a plethora of youth-generated web heightens the potential for innovation, young us-
sites have emerged committed to making and shar- ers embrace sampling and sharing more freely,
ing programmable media online, be it video games, challenging the traditional top-down paradigm
interactive art projects, or digital stories. Inher- characteristic of computer science and of schools
ently do-it-yourself (DIY) in nature, web sites such in general.
as Newgrounds, Planet Kodu, Scratch Online, and
Looking Glass (to name a few) encourage youth pro-
Broadly speaking, we view the three aforemen-
gramming not so much as a learned discipline but tioned shifts as a social turn, moving from a pre-
as opportunities to create and share online. Within dominantly individualistic view of technology to one
this DIY ethos of individual endeavor mixed with that includes a greater focus on the underlying socio-
group feedback and collaboration, we see three key logical and cultural dimensions in learning program-
shifts in how youth are now learning computer pro- ming and reconceptualizing computational thinking
as computational participation.
V95 N1 kappanmagazine.org 63
Getting to computational participation
test takers, yet only 21% of those who took the
AP computer science exam in 2011 were female,
Who is actually participating computationally is and only 29 of the test takers nationwide that year
a whole other story. The three shifts above are hap- were black — less than 1% of the total.
pening largely outside K-12 schools. Within schools,
In the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, these
computer science education remains resolutely top longstanding inequities were widely attributed to
down, focusing on instilling abstract principles be- the digital divide. Much energy in the 1990s focused
fore any direct application occurs. Within upper- on providing access to computers, not curricula or
level high school courses, such as Computer Science pedagogy, with initiatives such as Net Day dedi-
Principles, leading with abstraction is understand- cated entirely to bringing computers into schools
able given the breadth of topics to be covered. But the and connecting them to the Internet. Although such
near total lack of computational participation in any initiatives did some good addressing the access issue,
earlier, introductory technology-based coursework there remained what media scholar Henry Jenkins
means few students are even considering computer (2006) called the "participation gap" when it came
science principles, much less encountering com- to children's usage of digital media in creative and
puter science in their K-12 education.
Debunking the notion that access alone would
address the equity issue, technology educator Mark
Warschauer and Tina Matuchniak (2010) compared
two schools with the same number of computers but
in starkly different neighborhoods in terms of so-
cioeconomics. While students had equal access to
GENDER AND RACIAL DISPARITY IN COMPUTER SCIENCE REPRESENTS A
Learning with technology has moved
beyond the question of access to a
question of what one is making and
SIGNIFICANT HURDLE. LESS THAN 1% OF AP COMPUTER SCIENCE EXAM TEST
what one is sharing with computers.
computers in both schools, what was taught and what
students learned in school differed greatly. Students
TAKERS IN 2011 WERE BLACK AND ONLY 21% WERE FEMALE.
in the upper socioeconomic neighborhood learned
to work creatively and collaboratively with comput-
ers, at times even programming, while students in
the low-income community were groomed for word
processing and simply learning how to technically
operate the machinery.
Participation in computing is not only about hav-
The numbers support this. Only 2,100 of some ing access but also having quality curricula and peda-
42,000 high schools in the U.S. offer an AP com- gogy. Such quality can occur when computer pro-
puter science course (College Board, 2012). The gramming allows children to produce, collaborate,
number of introductory computer science courses and repurpose content that is personally meaningful.
has decreased by 17% since 2005. Such a drop Focusing on computational thinking would remedy
is quite literally inexcusable given the Bureau of the lack of engaging curricula in K-12 technology
Labor Statistics' (2012) consistent listing of com- courses and teach children the concepts and skills
puter science-related jobs among the fastest grow- to solve problems algorithmically. Computational
ing professions in the country with over 4 million participation meanwhile focuses on the pedagogical
new positions expected by 2020. Gender and racial practices and perspectives needed to meaningfully
disparity in computer science represents another contribute in wider social networks, including but
significant hurdle. Women make up 56% of all AP not limited to schooling. It is here, within the wider
64 Kappan September 2013
outweighs group dynamic and collaborative effort
in terms of academic achievement. Web 2.0 has
taught us the importance of collaboration in facili-
All students need to know not only
tating more creative and cost-effective solutions to
about programming but what it means
problems. Access to participation and collaboration
to think more systematically in order
in communities of programming is key to learning
fundamental concepts and practices. Learning to
to more efﬁ ciently solve all types of
program is also about learning to participate in the
many digital publics and vice versa.
While only a few of us will become computer sci-
entists who will write the code and design the systems
that undergird much of our daily life, learning, and
leisure, many will encounter the need for some form
of programming at some point in our lives. All of us
are and will remain users of digital technologies and
thus will need at times to be able to critically and
constructively examine designs and decisions that
went into making them. In terms of the magnitude
of what any literacy affords the individual, Paulo
Freire estimated that "reading the word is reading
the world." We see reading code very much about
reading today's world in terms of understanding and
having the opportunity to remake it. Schools, their
leaders, teachers, and students play a critical role in
realizing this opportunity. K
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). Employment projections 2010-20. www.bls.gov/emp/
College Board. (2012). AP course audit. https://apcourseaudit.
Collins, A. & Halverson, R. (2009). Rethinking education in the age of technology
. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Grover, S. & Pea, R. (2013). Computational thinking in K-12: A review of the state of the fi eld. Educational Researcher, 42
Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A.J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century.
network of creative and critical thinkers, that educa- MacArthur Foundation.
tors can set new academic and social norms for what
it means to meaningfully use technology.
Kafai, Y.B. & Peppler, K.A. (2011). Youth, technology, and DIY: Developing participatory competencies in creative media
production. Review of Research in Education, 35
Learning with technology has moved beyond the
question of access to a question of what one is mak- Warschauer, M. & Matuchniak, T. (2010). New technology
ing and what one is sharing with computers. Mov- and digital worlds: Analyzing evidence of the equity in access,
ing from the digital divide to the participation gap use and outcomes. Review of Research in Education, 34
has become the driving force toward what we call 179-225.
computational participation. Of course, incorpo-
Wing, J.M. (2006). Computational thinking. Communications
rating computational participation will be no small
of the ACM
step for schools, where individual achievement far
V95 N1 kappanmagazine.org 65
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