Should Children Be Taught to Think Like Computers?

Some schools are teaching kids as young as 3 to code and reason

28 July 2017

In a kindergarten classroom at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, in Medford, Mass., pupils arrange wooden blocks imprinted with bar codes into a sequence that instructs a robot to spin, shake, or perform another action. The sequence must start with a green “begin” block and finish with a red one for “end.” The blocks snap together to complete a sequence for the child to scan and the robot to act out.

The children are engaging in more than the basic principles of programming. They are being taught to think like a computer, according to an article in The New York Times. Marina Umaschi Bers, a professor at the Tufts University department of child study and human development and an adjunct professor at its computer science department, created the Kibo robot kit, above. She conducted peer-reviewed studies that show when children take part such activities, they are better at sequencing an activity in general, such as organizing picture stories in chronological order. She also found the kids provide more in-depth details about a topic. For example, prior to the block exercise, when asked to list how many steps it takes to brush one’s teeth, they list a few. But after being exposed to sequencing, they come up with nearly 20, Bers says.

The school isn’t the only institution to teach children how to think like computers. The PBS station in Boston, WGBH-TV, is producing “Monkeying Around,” a series for kids ages 3 to 5 in which cartoon monkeys apply computational thinking to solve problems. Learning computational skills can help kids better recognize patterns and sequences and understand problems that might otherwise be too complex.

And then there’s the Foos, a mobile game from codeWord that teaches coding basics for children as young as 5. The game has been downloaded more than 4 million times and in 200 countries. Grant Hosford, a codeWord founder, told NPR that introducing children to coding at a young age gives them almost two decades to reach mastery before they enter the workplace.

In the Times article, IEEE Fellow Jeannette Wing, who is in charge of basic research at Microsoft and a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, adds that computational thinking can be applicable to our daily lives. She wrote an opinion piece arguing it should be taught in schools. Computational thinking can help break tough problems into smaller ones that are more solvable, and can spot inefficiencies and improve them, she says. Kids who learn computational thinking at a young age are likely to retain those skills as they get older.

Back at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, many or all of the pupils don’t realize that they are working on a form of programming, the Times article says. “This next generation may be effortlessly absorbing computational thinking skills,” it says, “refining what we mean by digital native.”

Do you think it’s important for children to learn how to think like computers? Might there be unintended consequences?

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