The Past and Future of Learning to Program

For over 30 years, the gold standard for teaching programming was Logo, the programming language developed by Seymour Papert in the 1960s and described in his 1981 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas.

Logo’s concept of programming a turtle using structured programming has fascinated educators and inventors for decades. It is the direct inspiration for Lego Mindstorms, the Alice Project from Carnegie Mellon University, the code blocks of Scratch, and most tutorials for the Hour of Code.

It is also a tragic failure.

Not according to us, but Seymour Papert himself.  In the preface to the 1993 edition of Mindstorms, he laments how most readers only followed the early chapters about structured programming. His real goal, which he regrets not explaining until chapter 8, was to teach constructivism. The goal is to empower children understand the world by enabling them to make things. He readily admits that structured programming was not adequate to achieve that goal. It was simply the best tool they had at the time.

His hope was that people would build on his idea to find more effective ways of teaching — not just programming — but a whole constructivist approach to learning. Sadly, nobody seems to have taken him up on it. We have much more powerful computers and beautiful interfaces, but they still use the same primitive methodology Seymour struggled with in the 1960s. And while many students are inspired by those tutorials to pursue careers in technology, it is still far short of the revolution he originally dreamed.

On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, The Swan Factory is going to revive Seymour Papert’s dream.

Stay tuned…

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