Is Computer Coding the Legos of the Future?

How toys and technology can help cultivate a new generation of creative thinkers.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
May 22, 2014, 7:51 a.m.

The ex­per­i­ment was de­cept­ively simple. In 1999, re­search­er Sug­ata Mitra placed a com­puter in the side of a build­ing in a Del­hi-area slum in In­dia.  Very few of the chil­dren there at­ten­ded school. It’s doubt­ful any of them had used a com­puter be­fore, let alone nav­ig­ated the In­ter­net.

“What pro­gram­ming is about is a new form of cre­ation.”

Mitra turned on the com­puter without warn­ing. There were no in­struc­tions. The sud­den ap­pear­ance of a new toy was ir­res­ist­ible — kids quickly swarmed to in­vest­ig­ate it. With­in a few hours, they had grasped the idea of a curs­or and click­ing. “Most of the slum chil­dren were able to use the com­puter to browse, play games, cre­ate doc­u­ments, and paint pic­tures with­in a few days,” Mitra and his coau­thors later wrote in a pa­per de­scrib­ing his the­ory of min­im­ally in­vas­ive edu­ca­tion. “Even in the ab­sence of any dir­ect in­put, mere curi­os­ity led groups of chil­dren to ex­plore, which res­ul­ted in learn­ing.”

Un­like the Del­hi slum chil­dren, most kids in the United States have some fa­mili­ar­ity with com­puters. Eighty per­cent of U.S. house­holds have ac­cess to the In­ter­net, and vir­tu­ally all schools do (al­though WiFi con­nectiv­ity can be lack­ing). And yet the abil­ity to ad­apt — like the In­di­an chil­dren cre­at­ing new know­ledge in the face of an open-ended chal­lenge — is per­haps the most es­sen­tial skill today’s stu­dents need to mas­ter for the 21st-cen­tury eco­nomy.

Tech­no­logy has been used to aid classroom learn­ing for dec­ades. But new ven­tures at the in­ter­sec­tion of toys, edu­ca­tion, and tech­no­logy are em­bra­cing the min­im­al­ist ap­proach. They em­phas­ize self-learn­ing and open-ended ex­plor­ing. In the Ore­gon Trail com­puter game of the 1980s and ‘90s, stu­dents could be cre­at­ive in how they stocked their cara­vans — but no mat­ter their choices, the des­tin­a­tion was al­ways the same. Now, kids are mak­ing their own games, with their own rules. The goal is not to de­vel­op spe­cif­ic skills but im­prove the abil­ity to think cre­at­ively.


“We’re mo­tiv­ated by the fact that the world is chan­ging more quickly than ever be­fore,” says Mitchel Res­nick (no re­la­tion to me), head of the Lifelong Kinder­garten re­search group at MIT. “So our core ques­tion is: How can we help young people grow up as cre­at­ive thinkers?”

One part of that an­swer is Scratch, a pro­gram­ing lan­guage that Res­nick and his col­leagues de­veloped for ele­ment­ary-school chil­dren that now has 3.3 mil­lion users. In Scratch, stu­dents have an ar­ray of ba­sic com­puter cod­ing com­mands at their dis­pos­al — such as “when the space bar is pressed, a ob­ject will move three steps to the right.”

The Scratch in­ter­face. (Via MIT)

These simple com­mands can be com­bined in com­plex ways to cre­ate games or sim­u­la­tions. Scratch is also a so­cial net­work in which kids can post their pro­jects (an­onym­ously — they aren’t al­lowed to use their real names), ex­plore their peers’ cre­ations, and ad­apt them — like an open-source code com­munity would. On the com­ment thread of a Lord of the Rings-in­spired Ex­plore the Shire game, one user sug­gest that the game maker have Frodo dance. The game-maker, though first con­fused at how to do so, then coded a dan­cing Frodo in­to the game. Scratch is de­signed for ages 8 to 16, but any­one can sign up to use it.

There’s a lot to be said about re­pla­cing more-tra­di­tion­al classroom skills (such as writ­ing curs­ive) with cod­ing les­sons. Res­nick says think­ing of Scratch as just a means to get kids in com­puter sci­ence jobs later on is miss­ing the lar­ger point.

“The people who can bend the rules, or com­bine the rules, com­bine the ele­ments in new and un­ex­pec­ted ways, they are the ones that tend to win.”

“Scratch is part of a broad­er move­ment, help­ing kids learn to code,” he says. “But I’d make an im­port­ant dis­tinc­tion. For me what pro­gram­ming is about is a new form of cre­ation. It’s like writ­ing. Why is it im­port­ant to write? It’s not be­cause lots of people grow up to be­come pro­fes­sion­al writers. It’s be­cause when you learn to write, it helps you or­gan­ize your think­ing.”

Fos­ter­ing cre­ativ­ity in chil­dren in school is noth­ing new — but per­haps toys like fin­ger paints and Le­g­os are stuck in the ana­log age. Kano is a Lego set for the com­puter age.

Like Scratch, Kano al­lows kids to code games, but it also in­teg­rates a hard­ware com­pon­ent. Chil­dren as­semble the com­pon­ents of the com­puter them­selves — in­stall the pro­cessor in a case, add a key­board, build a speak­er. Once con­nec­ted, it’s as much of a game as it is a les­son in com­puters: play­ers “level up” by com­plet­ing more and more com­plic­ated com­puter op­er­a­tions, even­tu­ally rising to code games like Pong and Snake.

Alex Klein, a former Daily Beast re­port­er, cofoun­ded Kano and launched a Kick­starter cam­paign in 2013 with the goal of rais­ing $100,000. After get­ting high-pro­file back­ing from Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, the com­pany raised $1.5 mil­lion. “It ac­cel­er­ated things,” Klein says of the sud­den cash flow. “We went from a team of sev­en to 17.”

Now, the Lon­don-based com­pany is pre­par­ing to ship an ini­tial run of 18,000 kits to more than 86 coun­tries in Ju­ly. The ma­jor­ity of those will go to private buy­ers, and around 500 will have been pur­chased for edu­ca­tion. But Klein sees Kano as something big­ger than edu­ca­tion. He sees it as a way to serve a toy to the type of kid who to likes to take a ham­mer to old tech­no­logy just to see what’s go­ing on in­side.

“We are not an edu­ca­tion com­pany,” Klein ex­plains. “We make a simple, fun com­puter that you build your­self, and if you want to use it in a school, great. Ul­ti­mately we care about the ex­per­i­ence of the young per­son, the be­gin­ner, who has al­ways used com­puters, con­sumed them, but nev­er had the chance to cre­ate them for them­selves.” Once a user as­sembles and ac­tiv­ates their Kano, which takes takes a few minutes, they can start play­ing around in “kano blocks,” which are cod­ing chal­lenges — from mak­ing videos to mak­ing modi­fic­a­tions to games like pong (for in­stance in­creas­ing the speed of the ball; watch the video be­low for a demon­stra­tion).

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Kano comes at a time when tech­no­logy from ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ers has be­come harder to modi­fy for oth­er uses — think of the iPhone, with its seam­less case. A curi­ous kid who might want to see how Apple in­teg­rates all of its hard­ware com­pon­ents in such a tight space is out of luck. This ap­proach to con­sumer tech — to make it un­hack­able — is really thwart­ing fu­ture in­nov­a­tion.

“For the past three dec­ades we’ve been es­tranged from our devices,” says Klein. “What we’ve now giv­en every­one, hope­fully, is the abil­ity to dive be­low the sur­face of the Angry Birds, and ma­nip­u­late what goes on be­neath.” The side ef­fect of that ma­nip­u­la­tion be­ing a fun­da­ment­al un­der­stand­ing of com­puter sci­ence.

“To know is to modi­fy, to trans­form the ob­ject.”

Per­haps the game that best ex­em­pli­fies that ideal of ex­plor­a­tion and ma­nip­u­la­tion is Mine­craft, which could be de­scribed as a gi­ant di­git­al sand­box. It’s enorm­ously pop­u­lar, with 100 mil­lion re­gistered users world­wide. In Mine­craft, play­ers can make worlds out of blocks they mine from the en­vir­on­ment. The game also has a rudi­ment­ary law of phys­ics — wa­ter flows, ob­jects fall to the ground. Mine­craft is one of the games offered on the Kano set.

“What Mine­craft man­aged to crack was just make it so simple and stand­ing out of the way, with a simple world and a simple story, and put­ting people in­to it to dis­cov­er new things,” Klein says. “People have made com­puters in Mine­craft, work­ing cal­cu­lat­ors…. It’s a beau­ti­ful thing.”

Joel Lev­in was a second-grade teach­er when he real­ized the edu­ca­tion­al be­ne­fits of Mine­craft. He in­tro­duced the game in­to his classroom after see­ing his 5-year-old daugh­ter play around in the vir­tu­al world. “She was es­tim­at­ing how many trees she would have to chop down in or­der to get how many wooden planks in or­der to build her house,” Lev­in says. Without much in­ter­ven­tion, his daugh­ter was un­der­stand­ing math con­cepts. When Lev­in brought the game in­to his classroom, it was a rev­el­a­tion, he says.

With Mine­craft, he could aug­ment a les­son on how the Ro­mans built aque­ducts with a chal­lenge for kids to build such aque­ducts in the game. “I was blown away,” he says. “I have nev­er seen the kids so ex­cited to be in my classroom.” He would give them build­ing chal­lenges, or ar­ti­fi­cially lim­it the re­sources in the game, to make the stu­dents have to co­ordin­ate and col­lab­or­ate. His two-week les­son ex­per­i­ment turned in­to two months.

Lev­in now runs Mine­craf­tEDU, a com­pany that sells ver­sions of the game spe­cific­ally ad­ap­ted for classroom les­sons. Their pro­grams have been sold to 2,400 schools, 70 per­cent of which are in the U.S.

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These games con­tin­ue in the spir­it of build­ing blocks, Le­g­os, and fin­ger paints — toys that en­cour­age cre­ation. But aside from provid­ing amuse­ment, they do provide an edu­ca­tion. Chil­dren learn by build­ing.

The in­flu­en­tial Swiss psy­cho­lo­gist Jean Pia­get the­or­ized that chil­dren learn by act­ively con­struct­ing know­ledge. “To know an ob­ject, to know an event, is not simply to look at it and make a men­tal copy or im­age of it,” Pia­get wrote. Rather, “to know is to modi­fy, to trans­form the ob­ject, and to un­der­stand the pro­cess of this trans­form­a­tion, and as a con­sequence to un­der­stand the way the ob­ject is re­con­struc­ted.”

In oth­er words, to know something is to know how to ma­nip­u­late it. And it is through ma­nip­u­la­tion (i.e. play or ex­plor­a­tion) that know­ledge is con­struc­ted. In play­ing with blocks, kids come to an im­pli­cit un­der­stand­ing of phys­ics and grav­ity. By toy­ing around with a com­puter in an In­di­an slum, chil­dren de­veloped the know­ledge of how to use a com­puter. In play­ing with code, kids build up a lo­gic sys­tem, in which verbal com­mands and math­em­at­ics mesh to cre­ate de­sired out­comes.

“When I cre­ate a com­puter pro­gram, the pro­gram is a rep­res­ent­a­tion of my pro­cess,” Res­nick says. “It shows how the thing works. And by see­ing this rep­res­ent­a­tion of how it works, I can make changes to it. I can un­der­stand pro­cess.”

And when you un­der­stand how com­plex sys­tems work, you can com­mand them. “The people who can bend the rules, or com­bine the rules, com­bine the ele­ments in new and un­ex­pec­ted ways, they are the ones that tend to win,” Klein says.

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