Megachanges and programming curricula

Seymour Papert of the MIT Media Lab, whose ideas strongly influenced the maker movement, was among the first to propose that computers could be powerful tools to support learning, allowing kids to express themselves in meaningful ways and to reflect on their own thinking process while creating programs.

In his speech at the the World Conference on Computers in Education, in 1990, Papert reflected on the relationship between political and epistemological aspects of educational paradigms, using a Perestroika metaphor to discuss resistance to change in education. In his talk, Papert poses the distinction between what he called megachanges – real, structural changes -, and incremental evolution. He suggests that, similar to what happened in the early days of Perestroika, educational reformers try to make incremental changes in schools, hoping that they will eventually lead to a new transformed and well functioning educational system. But, in his view, these reforms require a restructuration of the conceptual and administrative organization of education in much deeper and radical ways, which involves rethinking educator’s role, traditional curriculum organization and school’s bureaucracy.

As a strong activist for the transforming potential of computers in the learning process, Papert imagined that technologies could play an important role to drive megachanges in education by providing opportunities for learners to develop knowledge and express themselves by doing.

A while ago, trying to understand the reasons leading some countries to incorporate programming in their schools’ curricula, I was looking at the situation in the United Kingdom and much of what I read  supported teaching programming as a way to ease a shortage of workers in IT areas in the near future [e.g. 1, 2, 3]. So, in the country’s future economy, programming would be a valuable skill and for that reason it should be taught in schools. As in the UK, many countries in the world are making efforts to bring programming to their schools for this same reason. In my own country, Brazil, I’ve been seeing new independent programming schools popping up everywhere, trying to attract students by stating that besides the benefits of formal reasoning developed through programming, acquiring these skills could be a strong professional advantage for the future. In both cases, a lot is said about what should be taught, and very little about how it should be learned.

Although today there are many teachers concerned with new ways to use computers to make structural changes in our systems, it’s evident that marketplace forces still drive (and will keep driving) the future of education. The introduction of computers in schools took place many years ago and, still, nothing has really changed. Can we expect the same with the introduction of programming curricula?

While there is no intention to make any changes in the way we use computers at schools – and intention is the key aspect to megachanges – programming activities only will be a way to achieve technical skills, good examples of incremental evolution. Today, having great programming tools and robotics kits designed to support creative expression and new relationships with the learning process, this discussion should be pushed towards other directions: while achieving important technical skills, kids should have the opportunity to use computers to express their creativity and develop new learning attitudes, in exploration processes driven by personal interests. But who will take up the cause of this megachange?

As Papert states, paradoxically, “technology should be the instrument for the achievement of a less technical form of education”, since “having a strong technical infrastructure allows the system to be less technical in its methodology”. These shifts in the use of technology, however, will only happen if teachers are intentional on their goals and, in this sense, more attention should be put on the approaches to introduce programming for kids – approaches that have the clear intention to change the relationship of learners and learning, and that doesn’t focus only in the achievement of technical skills and in the development of abstract thinking. At this moment, when programming is being introduced in many schools, considering the possibilities brought by the use of computers to create meaningful learning experiences – although an old idea –  is more important than ever before, and should be at the forefront of the educational debate by us, teachers.

One important question to be posed is why, 26 year later, we are still talking about ways to shift this trend. While having much more questions than answers, I would like to emphasize the importance of reflecting on the underlying structures guiding educational decisions, and on our role as teachers to be conscious and critical when confronted with new educational technologies and methodologies.



[1] The Royal Society, Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK Schools, 2012

[2] NESTA, Next Gen., 2011

[3] The Royal Academy of Engineering, ICT for the UK’s Future: the implications of the changing nature of Information and Communications Technology, 2009