In our current technological age, we are all aware of the broad range of experiences that computers offer children, ranging from arcade-games to educational software packages.
Some computer programs are designed to execute a single task. These programs are known as drill-and-practice. They offer children the experience of automated practice and testing of a particular skill.
In doing so, they can replace this part of the teachers role in the child’s educational experience. Other more open-ended programs allow the user to achieve many uniquely different outcomes, for example, a word processor. But, can computers actually change the way in which children think, or merely enhance the learning process? This essay will seek to evaluate this statement and offer suggestions as how best to use computers in the learning process.Research has found that the impact of drill-and-practice programmes on children is modest (Kullik, Kullik, ; Bangert-Drowns, 1985). Consequently, we need to consider the more open-ended programs to evaluate the impact that computer programming has on children’s thinking. Since the 1960s it has been claimed that the greatest influence on children’s thinking has been computer programming. This hypothesis is strongly supported by Seymour Papert who helped design the program Logo (Littleton, 1995). One of the features of the program is turtle graphics, whereby children can control an electronic turtle by writing a program.
The turtle has an inbuilt pen that can be lowered to record the turtle’s movement on paper. Alternatively, the turtle can be simulated on a computer screen where its movements appear as patterns traced on the screen (Littleton, 1995).Papert strongly believed that the program had the ability to change the way that children think and he cited a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the program provided a way of exploring mathematical shapes and ideas, which provided children with a key to understanding ideas of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. For the child the turtle becomes an object to think with and therefore, allowing an appreciation of more formal abstract mathematics. Subsequently, mathematics learning becomes more relevant because mathematical concepts are explored in a meaningful context.Papert felt that you were giving children a living language with which to talk mathematics to the computer, an idea he coined as Mathland.
Secondly, he saw learning to communicate with the computer as having the potential to change the way in which learning takes place. The act of programming helps to develop skills such as that of breaking down problems into manageable units, and these skills can be applied to other situations. Papert refers to these generalisable problem-solving skills as ‘powerful ideas’ (Littleton, 1995 p. 84). In addition, in order to operate the logo program ones ideas would have to be thought out and then specified in a concrete form. The thinking process therefore becomes open to scrutiny. Consequently, providing children with an opportunity to reflect on their thinking, which Papert argues allows children greater control over their own mental processes.As children progress in the program, they program the computer to make more complex decisions and find themselves engaged in reflecting on more complex aspects of their own thinking (Littleton, 1995).
Piaget’s distinction between concrete and formal thinking strongly influences Papert’s philosophy. Papert regards the computer experience as a way of making concrete and personal the abstract and formal ‘I believe that it can allow us to shift the boundary separating concrete and formal’ (Papert, 1980, p. 21). For Papert, the teacher/adult role was restricted to helping to create a supportive environment in which children are free to explore and discover. Papert sees the individual benefiting from developing, testing, and removing errors from computer programs, and showing this in heightened intellectual reflectiveness (Littleton, 1995). However, one has to ask the question can the points made by Papert be substantiated by research evidence?Martin Hughes (1990) was one of the many researchers who set about testing Paperts’ claims.
He found that experiences of programming in Logo do not in itself result in enhanced problem-solving capabilities (Littleton, 1995). Where gains were observed from encounters with Logo they were the result of carefully structured sessions by the leader (Littleton, 1995). Clements (1986) compared the progress of three groups of 6 to 8 year olds. One group was given a 22-week introduction to Logo, the second experienced a schedule of computer-aided instruction of similar length, and the third (control group) participated in their normal scheduled lessons.
The Logo group encountered a highly structured sequence of activities, with the teacher (who was present throughout) introducing them to increasingly difficult and complex concepts and ideas. Subsequently, tests of higher order thinking revealed that the children in the Logo group demonstrated significant improvements relative to those in the other two groups (Littleton, 1995, p. 86). Thus, clearly negating Papert’s notion of the restrictive role of the teacher.
One would have to argue that rather than changing how children think the experience of working on a computer has a more profound effect on children’s social interaction. This is supported by case studies undertaken by Hoyles and Sutherland (1986, 1989) who claim that children’s social interactive learning can benefit substantially from the experience of Logo programming (Littleton, 1995, p. 87). When children are working on the computer in pairs or groups they talk about the task in hand and are more likely to ask each other (rather than the teacher) when they need help.
One study (detailed in Sheingold, Hawkins, & Char, 1984) compared sessions in which children were learning to program in Logo with ones where they were working without computers. There was much more interaction between children in the Logo sessions, ranging from sustained systematic collaboration and explicit requests for help through to almost casual ‘stopping by’ or ‘dropping in’ at the computer (Littleton, 1995, p. 88).