One of the annoying characteristics of curmudgeons is they supposedly react to new ideas by claiming “we tried that before and it did not work”. I am having this reaction to the “makers” and “tinkerers” movement and I am attempting to carefully analyze this feeling to determine if I could possibly be wrong. One of the realities of being more mature (older) is that you have had more experiences than those taken in by a new idea.
I have programmed as part of my professional life since the mid-80s and I claim to be “pretty good for a psychologist”. Perhaps these experiences encouraged a receptive attitude to folks such as Papert who promoted programming as an empowering skill and a way to make available a “computational” way of understanding content areas such as mathematics. We still have unassembled robot kits in the garage. This attitude on my part resulted in some experiences with logo and middle school students and the promotion of programming in early editions of our textbook. In fact, I was able to locate content we prepared to describe programming to learn experiences on a server I operate. If you have recently become interested, I think this material is useful because it provides a simple description of how programming is to benefit students, examples, and a research review
Since so many are now discovering programming and the “maker movement”, it may be helpful to consider what happened to the initial efforts to bring such experiences to the K-12 setting. I believe the original activities lost popularity before we entered the era of high stages testing and the narrowing of the curriculum. What then killed Logo? I would propose that general integration lost popularity because a) there was a reaction against computer literacy and b) there was not an obvious benefit to the use of class time for limited programming activities.
Early use of technology in classrooms was often described in terms of the tool, tutor, and tutee model. The tutor role proposed the use of the computer in an instructional capacity. The tool role emphasized the value of technology as a way to accomplish existing learning tasks more efficiently and more effectively. The tutee role proposed that teaching the computer (programming) encouraged careful thinking, logic, and other benefits that seem similar to those proposed by the “makers”. However, at some point in time, it became fashionable to utter the mantra “it is not about the technology, it is about the learning” and computer literacy was devalued. Of course, learning to program is learning and learning how to make use of a spreadsheet is learning, but these types of learning were considered specific and not part of the core mission of schools.
To me, the more damaging argument resulted from efforts to evaluate whether experiences with a programming language resulted in broader benefits (as seemingly were proposed by Papert). A good deal of work was published and summarized. One of the more persuasive reviews (my opinion) was provided by Salomon & Perkins (1989) concluding that young programmers neither became very good a programming nor showed much transfer from their programming experiences to other areas (my interpretation – reference provided at end).
So much for my historical analysis. Anyway, there is clearly a present interest in programming, robotics, and “making” (e.g., Watters review of 2013 trends). I would provide links here, but most who read my comments probably already have heard of the Hour of Code (sounds like some Sunday morning television evangelist program), raspberry PI, Scratch, etc. (see the Watters piece for all the detail you might desire).
I would really like to be excited about this – it strikes close to my personal interests and is consistent with my personal skills. However, before I invest time in promoting something I find useful on a personal level, I would like to be convinced that this is not another educational fad and that the barriers I perceived to exist 15-20 years ago never did exist or somehow are now longer important. Someone be honest about the history of this content and acknowledge that we have tried this before and it will be different this time. What general benefits can be demonstrated beyond the skill set that some of us need for the work that we do?
Salomon, G. & Perkins, D. (1989). Rocky road to transfer: Rethinking mechanisms of a neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24(2), 113-142.