It’s not every day that a book focused on preschool and kindergarten children dives into ways to teach them to be producers rather than mere consumers of technology. But Marina Umaschi Bers, Ph.D., advocates for teaching even the earliest learners to use technology to create.
Her 2018 book, Coding as a Playground, focuses on how children under 7 can engage in computational thinking and become computer programmers, increasing their cognitive and social-emotional skills.
“Researchers and practitioners have long relied on Bers’ deep understanding of early childhood computer science education and turned to her vision for the future of the field for inspiration and guidance. Her ideas have influenced my own philosophy of education, including the work at Code.org,” its chief academic officer, Pat Yongpradit, said in a review of the book.
Her advice stems directly from her experience. Bers is a professor and chair in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University. She heads the Developmental Technologies Research Group where she studies innovative ways to promote positive childhood development through new learning technologies. Bers co-developed the free ScratchJr programming language used by over 13 million children worldwide with Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab.
Co-founder and chief scientist at KinderLab Robotics Inc., she’s the creator of KIBO, a robotics platform for children 4 to 7 (without screens or keyboards) that can be programmed using wooden blocks. With KIBO, young builders learn programming and engineering while integrating arts and crafts. Her KIBO robot was a Tech & Learning Best of Show winner at ISTE19.
But introducing children to the building blocks of technology isn’t a lab research project or a written assignment for Bers. She knows firsthand from her own three children, two sons and a daughter, how important play is to overall development. “I joke with students in Child Development 101 that a lot of the things we teach in that class can be learned at the playground,” she says.
It’s no wonder her educational technologies range from robotics to virtual worlds, and her work has earned recognition like the 2005 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), a National Science Foundation Career Award and the American Educational Research Association’s Jan Hawkins Award.
A native of Argentina, Bers did her undergraduate work at Buenos Aires University, and in 1994 moved to the United States where she earned a master’s degree from Boston University and a Master of Science and Ph.D. from the MIT Media Laboratory. She counts Seymour Papert, world-renowned pioneer in developing the first programming language for children, LOGO, among her mentors.
Bers makes sure to embrace playfulness in her own life as well. She speaks four languages, dances tango and has followed her passion all over the world. ISTE sat down with her to learn more about her expertise and thinking around early learners and technology.
WHAT HAS YOUR INTERNATIONAL BACKGROUND AND PERSPECTIVE BROUGHT TO YOUR WORK?
I have an international background personally, but I also work all over the world. I did my undergrad studies in Argentina and there was a lot of focus on critical thinking. That provided me with a basis for when I went to the MIT Media Laboratory to work with Seymour Papert. In his research group, we understood that the power of learning to code was about learning how to think in new ways.
When I travel and I speak at conferences, I can see that the idea of coding as a new way of thinking resonates. I have noticed that in the U.S., there has been a push for coding to be associated with STEM disciplines, but that’s not the case in most countries where coding is associated with thinking and critical abilities that touch upon every single academic subject.
SOME SAY THE U.S. IS OBSESSED WITH PUMPING OUT PROGRAMMERS AND SOFTWARE DEVELOPERS. ARE WE HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION? WHERE CAN THINGS GO WRONG IN COMPUTER SCIENCE (CS) EDUCATION?
I think we can go very wrong if we think about CS education as creating programmers. It happens that in today’s economy we’re realizing we’re going to need people who know how to code, but that’s short-sighted, because what we really need is people who know how to think in new ways, people who know how to problem-solve, people who know how to collaborate with others and people who understand the power of using languages (all kinds of languages, natural and artificial) to express themselves.
That’s why in my work I talk about coding as another language – that’s our philosophy in the Devtech Research Group at Tufts. We teach coding as if we’re teaching how to learn a new language and to express ourselves within that language.
Programming, first and foremost, is about learning how to use a language to create projects. To think about a particular problem using a constraint syntax and grammar, and to problem-solve to express a solution. From my perspective, the goal of teaching how to program in schools should be to develop an educated citizenry made up of people who know how to think. Learning how to code is another tool to teach children how to think in new ways.
Languages have the power to change the world and what we need is people who can change the world, not just people who can get a new job in the automated economy. In 30 years, we don’t know what those new jobs are going to be – we’re assuming they may need coding, but for sure they’re going to require problem-solving and collaboration.
In early childhood, the notion that we’re just teaching coding to prepare children for future jobs can be very damaging. It can hide the really important idea that I discuss in my book, that coding can become a playground for personal and social development. Children need to learn how to think, how to express themselves, how to play by themselves and with others, and how to use language to communicate.
Take literacy as an example. We don’t teach young children how to read and write because we’re preparing them for the jobs of the future. We assume all the jobs of the future will require a form of literacy, but that’s not why we teach literacy. We teach literacy to empower people, to allow them to become part of society. And having a job is only one aspect of that. Being able to have a voice as a citizen is also very important.
I appreciate the efforts of all of the organizations that talk about the importance of coding to prepare the workforce of the future, it definitely helps with publicity
to spread the word about coding. But as teachers, we need to be a little bit more thoughtful because we can’t just go with what matches the economy at the time.
We’re educating citizens, not just workers.
HOW CAN WE HELP TEACHERS GET OVER THE FEAR OR THAT VISCERAL RESPONSE WHEN THEY HEAR ABOUT TRYING TO TEACH COMPUTATIONAL THINKING (CT) OR CS IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION?
I agree with teachers who have that reaction. If I’m an early childhood teacher who’s told I need to teach computer science, I would be groaning. I would be asking, “What, one more thing?” I think our message is wrong. That’s why I talk about coding as another language and as a way of thinking.
If we tell them, “Hey, here we have another tool among the other hundreds in your toolbox, but this one, coding, will help children think systematically, learn how to problem-solve and how to create and express themselves through integrated projects they care about” then I know teachers will be very responsive and will listen.
It’s really important to understand that we’re not saying let’s bring computer science to kindergarten. We want CS or coding completely integrated with the arts, physical education, science, literacy – every single subject.
Early childhood is a time for learning through playing and therefore we need a pedagogical approach to coding that welcomes play. Our early childhood classrooms that include coding might look like a dance class or an art class. In my experience with working this way, teachers welcome it and see it as very refreshing, and they see another opportunity to bring back play into their classrooms, which they sometimes feel has been taken away from them.
IN YOUR BOOK CODING AS A PLAYGROUND, YOU SAY THAT THE PROCESS OF LEARNING TO PROGRAM CAN INCREASE SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL SKILLS IN CHILDREN. CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW THE PROCESS IMPROVES THOSE SKILLS?
If we bring a playground-based, as opposed to a playpen-based, approach to coding – open-ended with lots of opportunities for free expression and creativity and collaboration – what’s going to happen is that children will be allowed to create a project they really care about and, along the way, they’ll run into conflicts and problems. This is a wonderful opportunity to help them learn how to solve those, which is something that a young child needs to learn.
A 5-year-old who encounters a problem might cry and put it aside because it can be very upsetting when things don’t work. However, if we help them stay with the problem, look at it from a different perspective, try to engage in the art of debugging and trying to fix things, we’re also helping them to work with their own emotions and how to manage frustration.
In our society and in schools, there’s not always a second chance. In coding, there is a second chance, and kids can learn how to manage the emotions they’re feeling and, instead of quitting, keep working at the problem and ask for help when needed. They learn how to not give up. There are always multiple paths for different solutions, it might just take longer than anticipated.
Again, coding by itself won’t do it. What will do it is a teacher who understands that coding can be used to support social-emotional growth and, therefore, when a child is struggling with a problem, the teacher will not come and say, “Oh, do it this way and then let’s move on.”
MANY TEACHERS IN THE U.S. MIGHT SAY THEY HAVE NO TIME IN THE SCHOOL DAY TO TEACH CODING AND COMPUTATIONAL THINKING
BECAUSE THE DAY IS ALREADY PACKED TEACHING REQUIRED SKILLS AND CONTENT. HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND TO THOSE EDUCATORS?
It depends on the grade level, but teachers should push for integration because there are lots of wonderful examples and there’s a movement in the U.S. toward integration. Let’s look at literacy as an example. You don’t just use written language in your English class. You use written language in math, science, biology – any class. And that’s the model teachers should be pushing for when thinking about coding.
I would say to them, talk to the administration, help them understand. Maybe try an integrated project first and see how to goes.
DOES EVERY CHILD REALLY NEED TO LEARN TO CODE? IF THEY WERE MORE INTERESTED IN MEDIA PRODUCTION OR VIRTUAL COLLABORATION, WOULD YOU STILL ENCOURAGE THEM TO LEARN CODING SKILLS?
Yes, I think so. Every child learns to read and write, not just to get a job but because it involves a new way of thinking; it’s a way of changing the world. It’s a part of being a contributor to civil society. Learning to code is also a new way of thinking. Not everyone needs to take AP computer science, that’s not what I mean. But when children are young, in the same way they’re exposed to natural languages, they should be exposed to artificial languages – the languages that are “spoken” by computers and smart objects. Not everyone will choose to become proficient at that, but everyone needs to understand how it works.
If by coding we mean learning to create a sequence of steps that will allow me to make something happen, then coding is everywhere. Programming your TV now requires coding. Coding is not only C++, ScratchJr or Python, it’s about thinking step by step and being able to problem-solve. And that’s something you need in everything you’re doing.
HOW CAN WE ENSURE THAT CHILDREN ARE CARED FOR IN DIGITAL ENVIRONMENTS; THAT THE HUMAN TOUCH ISN’T LOST AS WE SPEND MORE TIME CONNECTING WITH EACH OTHER ONLINE?
That’s a big problem and it’s something I worry about every day. That’s why I like the metaphor of coding as a playground. We spend time on the playground, but we don’t spend our whole lives there. Children need exposure to different environments. The online world is an environment, but no one should spend all their time in one environment. Children go to the playground, they go to school, they go home. They spend time having dinner with family and visiting museums and libraries. It’s common sense; people need to be exposed to all kinds of environments.
I like to give the example of books. We encourage kids to read, however if the child is reading at the dinner table, that’s wrong and the parent would take the book away immediately. And it’s the same when you go to a restaurant and children are given devices. It’s terrible because that’s a time when you build social skills and emotional skills and if we’re going to replace face-to-face conversations with a device, even if it involves coding, that’s a problem.
It’s an issue that schools need to address, and I’m starting to see more and more schools having screen-free time. And, to be honest, this needs to be addressed by not blaming only the technology.
For example, lunch time at school is a time for socialization and social skill building. In the U.S., it’s just incredible how little time children have for lunch and for recess. Kids are losing the ability to interact with each other and those kids are going to grow into adults, and then what kind of society are we going to have? Maybe the growing use of technological devices and their associated negative consequences might help schools understand there needs to be a fundamental shift in how school is organized, not only in terms of academic subjects, but also in terms of socialization time and opportunities.
WHAT SHOULD WE KEEP OUR EYE ON REGARDING AI-ENABLED TOYS AND TOOLS FOR CHILDREN?
We shouldn’t fall into the trap that the newest is the best just because it says AI. AI means a lot of things and it means nothing. A complex search engine might be called AI. We shouldn’t focus on the new types of high-tech toys and apps – the question should always be: What is the child able to do with this toy or this technology?
Not, what is this technology doing for the child? We need to turn it around and if we follow that, we’ll be able to discern what things are worth investing more time and money to look into.
HOW CAN EDUCATORS MAKE THE CASE TO PARENTS AND LEADERS THAT CODING AND DIGITAL CREATION SKILLS ARE AS IMPORTANT AS MATH, SCIENCE, LANGUAGE ARTS, ETC.?
In my lab, we did a lot of work with family coding events with both ScratchJr and the KIBO robot because, particularly in early childhood, it’s very hard for a parent who might not have any tech experience to imagine how their child can learn to program when they don’t yet know how to read or write.
We strongly believe children learn best by doing, it’s the same with adults – with parents. For example, parent conferences are a wonderful opportunity to invite parents to come an hour earlier and engage with their children in expressing and creating a project with technology.
And that ties back to literacy. Today, in most countries, and in the past in a different century, we had to convince parents that learning how to read and write was more important than working in the fields. There were all these family literacy movements that really changed the world. Schools didn’t just say, “Give me your child and I will teach them how to read and write.” They would work with the family.
I would encourage schools and teachers to really understand what has happened successfully in the history of how literacy became so important in education all over the world. There are very important lessons for us to learn from that literacy movement. After all, at one point, it was very hard to convince parents that literacy was important. But now, who would disagree? It might be the same with coding.