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Games That Teach Programming are Just Fine, Thanks

The idea of using simple games and apps to teach programming has come under fire. I come to its defense.

This post is a response to this article here.  You should read it, and then return.  Done?  Good.  Now I'm going to tell you why all of that is hogwash.

Here is the most lucid thing that's said in the article.  It's a quote, so the author can't even take credit:


"As noted by MIT’s Marvin Minsky and Alan Kay, computational innovation and literacy have much in common with music literacy."

Let's explore those similarities.

When you teach music for the first time in a general music class, do you teach every student the alto saxophone?  No, you give them each a recorder.

RecorderThe recorder is simple to use, but still manages to illustrate the principles of music.  Students can start to read musical notation and understand the relationships between the notes of a scale.  The "Coding Apps" the article references are the recorders of programming.

It's as if the author is saying, "Students will never join the symphony orchestra if they only learn the recorder!"  That's true, but it's also ridiculous.

First of all, not everyone needs to join an orchestra, but it benefits everyone to have a basic knowledge of music.  Not everyone is going to become a programmer, but to have a basic knowledge of computer science is very enriching.

Secondly, students who are interested and/or talented with the recorder may move on to another more professional instrument.  Just as no one has suggested that students take up the recorder professionally, no one is suggesting that students stop learning about programming when the Hour of Code is done.  If students love Scratch, they're likely to move on to learning Python, or Javascript, or another "real-world" programming language.  Conversely, if students' first exposure to programming is punishing and intimidating, they may never move on from there.  With a bad first impression, learners will be poisoned against programming for the rest of their lives.

It's perfectly obvious these days that numeracy should be introduced to small children with counters and manipulatives, rather than symbols on paper.  "But they're not learning the important pencil and paper skills they'll need to truly learn mathematics!" one might say.  This is not a threat to mathematics instruction because we know that students will soon move on.  The same is true for coding apps.

If Scratch were the tool of choice for Stanford's Computer Science 201 course, I would be very concerned, but visual programming games and apps are a fantastic way to expose children (and adults) to programming for the first time.

~

Rob Lockhart is the creative director of Important Little Games.  If you're interested in teaching kids to code, check out the game we're working on, called Codemancer.

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