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Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Small children: what does code have to do with it? Sarah Pila's guest blog

October 28, 2019 admin 0 Comments
The following is written by Sarah Pila

With the increasing number of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the United States is more focused on STEM education than ever before. This attention is not exclusive to higher education and secondary school, but rather it came to the very first students, focusing on data showing that entry into the STEM pipeline should start as early as kindergarten. Numerous scholars have argued that teaching technology - the "T" in STEM - for young children is vital for keeping up with 21st century occupational patterns. This is why coding, the process of assigning a series of symbols that can be interpreted by a computer or software, is seen as the new modern literacy for today's children. Indeed, a series of digital applications (apps) designed to teach children programming skills in a fun and game-like way have become popular in recent years. There are Minecraft, Tynker and ScratchJr, just to name a few. Heck, even Elsa and Anna from Disney's Frozen had a lot of fun writing! The Hour of Code project on code.org allows users to join Anna and Elsa while helping to create a winter wonderland by creating snowflakes and more through the code. Long before these Frozen characters appeared on code.org and other coding game apps were designed, Dr. Seymour Papert imagined that children learned the fundamental skills of computer programming and programming. Many laughed at the idea, but Dr. Papert was inspired by the work of the esteemed developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and developed the computer-based Logo programming language taking these theories into account. Since the introduction of the logo to elementary school children in the 1980s, researchers have discovered that asylum and first grade achieved significantly better results in managerial and rule-based tasks (two elements incorporated into the logo language) than to control groups that were not exposed to the game. More recently, evaluative research on teaching code to preschool children has shown that four-year-olds can learn to properly sequence a robot to perform a specific task and most are able to engage in proper computer programming development through gaming activities (eg Kazakoff & Bers, 2014; Kazakoff, Sullivan, & Bers, 2012; Strawhacker & Bers, 2018). And digital apps? Can tablet-based apps designed to teach preschool programming actually demonstrate similar results? Fortunately, my colleagues and I were able to explore these questions when we were given the opportunity to observe a week-long summer camp for preschoolers in Chicago. Story Code Alpha, a summer program by Leapfrog, managed by the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University as part of their programming for preschool and kindergarteners of academic talent and focused on learning introductory programming and coding concepts such as block, symbol and sequence [using] touch screen and educational apps. "We were lucky to see about 30 children attending the program and watching as instructors mainly used Daisy the Dinosaur and Kodable to practice programming concepts during the week. The research team and I had a lot of fun conducting interviews and administering coding assessments with the children on the first and last day of the program. We also took notes on what we saw on intermediate days. We found that at the end of the camp, the children significantly improved their knowledge of game-specific skills; which means they could better explain the different command buttons of Daisy the Dinosaur and progress further in Kodable's gameplay. We interpret these results as evidence that they were able to learn basic coding skills through this structured app game. However, when asked what the coding was, the participants did not improve the way they explained what coding was to our researchers. We argue that this discovery was not surprising since young children may not yet have the necessary vocabulary to explain such a complex set of skills even if they understand and can demonstrate the acquisition of skills. We also noticed that the kids who liked the game the most seemed to learn more from it. Not surprisingly, engaging apps seem to facilitate greater learning.

Our findings echo previous work which found that preschool and elementary school age children are able to learn basic coding skills during different training sessions and add to our knowledge of two apps in particular. So far, we can say that coding apps should be interesting, based on skills and used intentionally to see the advantages. But what other features are needed? And what about independent use? Would children learn so much outside of a summer camp-like environment without such direct instruction? Going forward, it would be useful for future research to investigate these questions and if children could transfer these skills into a new programming language or other related context. Meanwhile, given our discoveries and the drive for greater knowledge of technology in the younger years, we doubt anyone is laughing at Seymour Papert now! Sarah is a PhD student in the Media, Technology and Society program working at the Center on Media and Human Development with Ellen Wartella at Northwestern University. Prior to starting at Northwestern, Sarah spent two years (and two very snowy winters) in Somerville, MA, earning a Master of Arts in Child Study and Human Development at Eliot-Pearson's Child Study and Human Development Department at Tufts University. Before that, he completed his psychology degree with minors in family, youth and community sciences and mass communication at the University of Florida. His research interests focus on the advantages of prosocial and educational media for young children, particularly in early childhood education. References Pila, S., Aladé, F., Sheehan, K. J., Lauricella, A. R., and Wartella, E. A. (2019). Learning to program using tablet applications: an assessment of Daisy the Dinosaur and Kodable as learning tools for young children. Computer and education, 128, 52-62. Kazakoff, E. R., & Bers, M. U. (2014). Put your robot in, put your robot out: sequence through programming robots in early childhood. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 50 (4), 553-573. Kazakoff, E. R., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M. U. (2013). The effect of an intensive robotics laboratory and classroom-based programming on the ability to sequencing in early childhood. Journal of Early Childhood Education, 41 (4), 245-255. Strawhacker, A., & Bers, M. U. (2018). Promote positive technological development in a nursery school space: a case of qualitative study. European Journal of STEM Education, 3 (3), 9.

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