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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Program or Be Programmed

Mary Beth Hertz

K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Just recently I was lucky enough to attend a Hackjam session at the wonderful Educon conference here in Philadelphia. After we hacked Monopoly by reinventing the game, we were introduced to the tool Hackasaurus, which allows students to not only see, but manipulate the code on a website.

Some people may question the ethics behind teaching kids about "hacking" websites, but in this context, the idea is not for students to take down websites à la Anonymous, but rather to see that web pages are not magic. As computers, phones, tablets and web tools become more and more user-friendly, it becomes easier to forget that there is a human being behind all of the software, games, apps and websites that we use. Hackasaurus shows students the code behind websites, and how you can alter the site by altering the code.

With many schools dropping computer science programs, and with fewer and fewer students leaving school with these skills, there are fewer participants in creating software, games, apps and the like, and more people who are simply consumers of these products. With fewer participants comes less innovation. With less innovation, the consumers become trapped in whatever they are being sold. In addition, with less innovation comes less scientific progress. Without innovation and programming skills, devices like robotic arms on the Mars rovers or realistic limbs for soldiers returning from war would not exist.

Programming the Future

We need to support and maintain programming and coding in all our schools -- not just our technical high schools or institutions of higher education. And we need to teach computer literacy for more reasons than innovation and consumerism. Programming requires critical thinking, math skills, communication skills, problem solving, creativity and perseverance. These are all the things that companies can't get enough of these days when looking for new talent.

As an example, my third-to-seventh graders are learning Scratch, free programming software from MIT, to create games and animated scenes involving characters or objects called sprites. During the process, they have been forced to think logically ("If I want my sprite to... then I need to tell it to do this first, then this..."), they need to understand math ("How many degrees do I want my sprite to rotate? Which x, y coordinates do I want my sprite to glide to?"), they need to sweat a little ("Why isn't it working? What do I need to change?"), and they need to be resourceful ("Is there anyone else who has been successful with what I'm working on?"). Most students start off frustrated and end up completely engaged. They also end with a better understanding of how their favorite games work. And they experience the important lessons of learning from failure and learning to think like a programmer when they consume media in their lives.

Author Douglas Rushkoff has written numerous books on the intersection of technology and humanity, including Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Below is a video of Rushkoff speaking at the South by Southwest 2010 conference in Austin, TX.



Do you have other resources you use? Please share them here.




Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nadja Young's picture
Nadja Young
Former HS CTE NBCT

Great article- as a former CTE teacher, I think it is so crucial to provide relevant curriculum where students leave with real world skills (and certifications) to use in the workplace. I now work for SAS, which offers free teacher training and curriculum for SAS Programming high school courses. Thus far, this curriculum has reached NC and SC schools. Please check out my blog to get more info on this philanthropic (free!) offering. http://blogs.sas.com/content/statelocalgov/2011/09/15/part-2-of-the-3-r%...

Paul Oh's picture
Paul Oh
Senior Program Associate, National Writing Project
Blogger 2014

Great post, Mary Beth. I'm glad you attended the Hack Jam at Educon. Just wanted to mention that my org, the National Writing Project (www.nwp.org), is working with the folks at Mozilla's Hackasaurus to sponsor Hack Jams like the one we put on at Educon. Wish I could've been there.

In case your readers are interested, we have a bunch of resources about Hackasaurus at our Digital Is (digitalis.nwp.org) website. A great one, for instance, is this piece: My First HackJam: Five Lessons on Powerful Learning (http://digitalis.nwp.org/site-blog/my-first-hackjam-5-lessons-powerful-l...)

A number of teachers have also written at Digital Is about Scratch and other programming environments like GameStar Mechanic. One person in particular who's got a lot of great resources up at the site is Kevin Hodgson (@dogtrax). Here's a link to his resource collection: http://digitalis.nwp.org/community/resource/19

Again, thanks, Mary Beth, for pushing us towards thinking about student agency through coding. I would argue that coding not only promotes development of traditional literacies (game narrative is one avenue, for example), but that coding itself is a powerful literacy practice.

Lynn Langit's picture
Lynn Langit
co-founder Teaching Kids Programming

We have been teaching for 5 years around the US and internationally and have recently joined the US non-profit (MONA Foundation) as a new project. We write courseware which you can use, and share our teaching methods (via written info and YouTube videos) at www.TeachingKidsProgramming.org. Our courseware is targeted for middle-school aged kids (10+). Enjoy! - Also to see the 'face of programming' check out my Pinterest board with pictures from our events world-wide - http://pinterest.com/lynnlangit/teaching-kids-programming/

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
Blogger 2014

Great resources. I definitely see the power of tying writing skills to programming. One of the requirements of my final assessment of students' Scratch projects is that they describe what's going on in the project. This requires them to write logically and descriptively for a real purpose.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
Blogger 2014

I can't wait to check out the Pinterest board and the website!

Jodi Lemaster's picture
Jodi Lemaster
Fifth grade teacher from Columbus, Ohio

Your blog brought up some points I had not thought of before. If schools continue to drop computer science programs, the interest and knowledge needed for future programmers will be lacking. I have never used any programming tools myself with my students, but I downloaded and worked with Scratch. I thought the math components and programming language would be well received by my students. Has anyone had success working with introductory programming in late elementary school grades? If so, suggestions of how to implement a program would be appreciated.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
Blogger 2014

Jodi,

I teach Scratch to 3rd-7th graders using the Scratch Cards and a bit of direct instruction followed by free time to explore and build their own project according to criteria I set forth (your project has to have a moving sprite, more than one sprite, a background and a story or theme). I also have the students do a written description of their program (this forces them to think about how it works). Check out the Scratch Curriculum, too.

http://scratched.media.mit.edu/resources/scratch-curriculum-guide-draft

Jodi Lemaster's picture
Jodi Lemaster
Fifth grade teacher from Columbus, Ohio

Thank you for the suggestions. I am going to explore this program more and plan to share it with my team. I feel strongly that schools should be doing more to further student interest in technology-especially in the area of programming.

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