I know that in many schools, there are events related to pi (3.14) or pie (with yummy crust) today, but the Pi that is on my mind today is Raspberry Pi. To whit, the $35 computer that is taking geek world by storm. I placed my order on Monday, and demand is so high that delivery isn’t expected until July 31!
The Raspberry Pi Foundation of the UK sought to make a super low-cost but high-performing (e.g., HD-quality video) machine. You provide the plugs, keyboard, mouse, and monitor, but for just over $100, you have a fully-functioning machine.
The exposed components have many people thinking that we may be on the brink of affordable D-I-Y assembly and programming for K-12 schools. Cathy Davidson, a digital humanities scholar, calls it the “4th R,” writing:
[O]ur world changed in April 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was released to the general public. We need new forms of education. We need to reform our learning institutions, concepts, and modes of assessment for our age. Now, anyone with access to the World Wide Web can go far beyond the passive consumer model to contribute content on the Web. We can customize and remix, alone or in collaboration with others, located anywhere on the Web. That Do-It-Yourself potential for connected, participatory, improvisational learning requires new skills, what many are calling new “literacies.”
I have a basic literacy to add to the last century’s 3 R’s of “reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic.” Let’s add a 4th R: “algoRithm.” (Yes, I know that’s a fudge, but writing and arithmetic aren’t perfect either.)
The Case for Learning to Code
Let’s start emphasizing our 4th R in kindergarten, even preschool, since, like the other literacies, algorithmic thinking is foundational. Wikipedia defines “algorithm” as “a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.” It is a step-by-step approach to calculation. You use algorithms to program a computer or for Webcraft. It is almost the opposite of bubble-thinking. It provides an alternative to fact-based mastery and proposes, instead, iterative, process-oriented, constructive, innovative thinking.
In the most general sense, algorithms can be child’s play: a five-year-old customizing his Pokemon characters and game is already engaged in algorithmic thinking. Free, open-source programming languages like Scratch, developed by the MIT Media Lab, allow kids to learn introductory computational skills that lead to interactive animations, narratives, games, music, and art that they can post to the Web. They develop both design and problem-solving skills, alone or within a world-wide community. Hackasaurus, developed by Mozilla, allows youth to remix their favorite Web pages, and simultaneously develops “skills, attitudes, and ethics that help youth thrive in a remixable digital world.” Again, this is almost opposite of the educational values standardized by bubble testing.
What is marvelous about algorithmic thinking and Webmaking is that you can actually see abstract thinking transformed into your own customized multimedia stories on the Web, offered to a community, and therefore contributing to the Web. Algorithmic thinking is less about “learning code” than “learning to code.” Code is never finished, it is always in process, something you build on and, in many situations, that you build together with others. Answers aren’t simply “right” guesses among pre-determined choices, but puzzles to be worked over, improved, and adapted for the next situation, the next iteration. You look at examples, you try your own, you run the program, you see if it works. If it doesn’t, you see where you started to go wrong, return to that place, and try something else. The better you become, the more possibilities open for you. Your motivation for learning isn’t to score in the 99th percentile on your end-of-grade exam but to have more complex, surprising, or beautiful results that you can work on and share with your friends. Isn’t that what all learning should be?
Here at SI, a bunch of us are giddily awaiting our serving of Pi (yes, we know it is almost 5 months away!). In the meantime, we’re reading a lot and envisioning what we might do if we had a room of kids and a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment. I’m keeping a set of bookmarks here, storing them up like squirrels do acorns for winter.
Are you Pi-crazy?