Froebel and the pedagogy of computing

Sep 12, 2013

Miles Berry

Now that we’ve got the programme of study for computing sorted, and thus have at least a framework for thinking about what we teach, I think it’s time to turn our attention to the question of how we teach computing. A fresh curriculum gives us a chance to think about a fresh pedagogy. However, I don’t think there’s any need to start from, er, scratch here, as looking back into the history of primary education can give some powerful insights into how we might best move forward.

One source that’s particularly worth investigating is the work of the 19th century German educationalist Friedrich Froebel. Froebel is best known for his pioneering work in early childhood education, specifically the invention of the kindergarten, literally, ‘children’s garden’. It’s absolutely no coincidence that the semi-ubiquitous primary programming toolkit, Scratch, owes its origins to Mitch Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT. As Resnick puts it:

We are inspired by the ways children learn in kindergarten: when they create pictures with finger paint, they learn how colors mix together; when they create castles with wooden blocks, they learn about structures and stability. We want to extend this kindergarten style of learning, so that learners of all ages continue to learn through a process of designing, creating, experimenting, and exploring.

I’d like to pick out just a few aspects of Froebel’s vision for the Kindergarten and think about how we can apply those to teaching computing, particularly, but not only, using Scratch.

The garden One of the things which set Froebel’s kindergartens apart from other schools of his day was the emphasis on providing children with an incredibly rich environment in which to learn, not so much through being taught as through purposeful exploration and discovery. We’ve the chance to do the same in the virtual realm too: providing a diverse collection of devices, software and curated sites might well be sufficient for much meaningful learning to take place, especially if we are on hand to provide the motivation and challenge to boost our pupil’s natural curiosity. The benefits of a rich virtual environment are so evident on the Scratch website itself. Whilst many might argue for the superiority of BYOB/Snap!, Logo or even Python, the opportunities for peer to peer learning are so great, and so readily available with the Scratch community, that they make it really easy for children to pursue their own individual and shared interests, learning from and building on others’ algorithms and code.

It should be admitted that the natural world is central to Froebel’s philosophy, and this might seem at odds with a subject that seems so focussed on man-made technology. I’m not sure that this distinction is helpful, as I think there’s a strong case for CS as the ‘zeroth’ science, acknowledging that there’s something absolutely fundamental about the difference between what is and what is not computable, the notion of information as an emergent property of organised matter, and the idea of CS as a lens through which to understand natural systems, as the programme of study acknowledges.

Building blocks Froebel came up with a sequence of gifts: carefully crafted and carefully sequenced collections of objects, from brightly coloured yarn balls through to complex construction sets. Probably best known of the gifts are the sets of geometric building blocks, 19th century pre-cursors to Meccano, Lego and Stickle Bricks. Through playing with these, children discover some of the properties of shape, space and matter: they learn how structures work, they express themselves creatively, they develop fine motor skills, they work collaboratively. Translating this to the online world, in Scratch (and other block based programming languages) children can learn through play and experiment about how programs work; better still, they get to fit the pieces together to make their own programs, and have the crucial experience of fixing these when they don’t work. It grieves me to see classes copying down Scratch programs from a worksheet or the IWB, when there’s so much more that can be learnt from structured and scaffolded creative play with these virtual building blocks. Imagine a reception class where all the children have to copy the teacher’s building block creation: is that really any different from a ‘copy my example’ approach to Scratch coding?

I don’t think any of us would think that we give young children building blocks to play with so that they become architects or construction workers in later life, although interestingly Froebel himself briefly studied architecture and American architect Frank Lloyd-Wright attended a Froebel kindergarten. Similarly, whilst there will be those we teach who go on to become software developers and computer scientists, this isn’t sufficient reason for teaching computing in primary schools; it’s more about computing, like music and poetry, being part of a modern liberal education, and about the way the subject contributes to an all-round understanding of the world.

Occupations Alongside the gifts, Froebel identified a number of occupations or activities as part of kindergarten education: these were creative things such as painting, drawing, origami and embroidery. These, of course, still have a part to play in primary education, but for a generation of ‘digital natives’, the distinction between creative work in a digital, virtual domain and in the analogue, real world is perhaps not as stark as it is for us, their ‘digital immigrant’ teachers. Is finger painting with Brushes on the iPad that different from poster paint on sugar paper? In the days of the old ICT curriculum, we built up a tradition of creative work across a range of digital media in primary education, from 100 Word Challenge blogging through stop motion animation to original compositions in Garage Band. I see no reason to abandon these activities as we move from ICT to Computing. Indeed there’s some fertile territory to explore at the digital media edge of Scratch et al, for example turtle graphics, music composition, scripted animation and, of course, game design.

Play Froebel recognised the seriousness of children’s play, seeing it as their work. In early years education, practitioners and theorists still see play as fundamental to the learning process; for example EYFS guidance back in ’08 included statements such as:

Play allows children to test their ideas

Play lets children learn from mistakes

Play fosters imagination and flexibility of mind

It occurs to me that we could do a search and replace for ‘Play’ with ‘Programming’ above, and have statements which remain true. Whilst perhaps the work of jobbing programmers in big waterfall projects might seem somewhat removed, craft coders, agile hackers and hobbyist makers seem to be engaged in activities which look, to my naïve eyes, an awful lot like utterly absorbing play.

There’s a difference between play and playing games. There’s more freedom in the former, there are rules and objectives in the latter. The latter also translates quite well into school terms, where agreed rules and objectives are not unheard of, hence, I think, memes such as game based learning and gamification. Rules and objectives fit well, too, with programming, and ideas such as interactivity, feedback, challenge, resilience, progression and flow, which its advocated claim for game based learning, seem to apply just as well to programming: coding is the new gaming? Perhaps. But even if not, I know many of us have found that computer games offer a very motivating context for teaching programming, as well as developing pupils’ criticality in this medium.

There are, I’m sure, many other insights to be gained into a pedagogy of primary computing from Froebel’s pioneering work, as well as the ideas of other educationalists including Maria Montessori (both of Google’s founders attended Montessori schools, incidentally), John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Loris Malaguzzi and Seymour Papert. Just as agile methods place individuals and interactions at the heart of the development process, so a personalised approach to education should place the child, and the child’s own enthusiasms, talents and character at the centre.

Originally published as ‘Computing: it’s not just what we teach but how we teach it’ in Switched On, the Computing at School newsletter, Autumn 2013.