Programming – Promise, Possibility and Papert

There is widespread concern about low pass rates in computer programming modules at higher education. There is plenty of evidence about teacher experience and students performance in this domain that suggests that computer programming is a difficult skill to teach and a difficult skill to learn.

This post will briefly introduce the work of Seymour Papert with regard to introducing children to computer programming and the resulting development which occurs. Paperts’ work is influential in how technology and computer programming can provide new ways to learn and enhance creativity (Papert 1980, Papert 2002).


Papert introduced the “idea of programming” as an illustrative example of how the computer can enable children to change their relationship with knowledge (Papert 2002). He asserted that a child who is able to program a computer would be able to carry out “amazing projects” that without such a skill would be impossible. Papert talked about how the “powerful idea” of probability has been disempowered in school and reduced to the activity of calculating ratios because of the paper-and-pencil approach. In comparison, he argued that a child who can program a computer would be able to gain an actionable understanding of probabilistic behaviour and through such activity come to be connected with empowering knowledge about the way things work. According to Papert, programming is a way to connect children with cognitive science, in that programming enables children to articulate their ideas explicitly and formally and to see whether they work or not. Paperts propositions suggest that we can use computer programming to bring new forms of content into the educational system and go beyond just thinking about how we can do the old stuff better.

Papert encouraged the reader to “look at programming as a source of descriptive devices” (Papert 1980). Papert predicted that

in a computer-rich world, computer languages that simultaneously provide a means of control over the computer and offer new and powerful descriptive languages for thinking will … have a particular effect on our language for describing ourselves and our learning (1980, p.98)

It was Papert’s goal to introduce children and their teachers to the experience of programming the computer. His research agenda with computers and education focused on creating “environments in which children can learn to communicate with computers” and was motivated to show “that children can learn to use computers in a masterful way, and that learning to use computers can change the way they learn everything else” (Papert 1980). Masterful assumes that the student is aware of complexities in the domain of expertise, adapt problem solving approaches and patterns, and understand the rules of engagement.

The motivation to learn and perform better in computing is affected by the learning procedure, instructional materials and technology used, along with metacognitive factors such as attitude and anxiety. Astin emphasised that well designed lessons with interesting activities become meaningful only when they affect the students in the process (Astin 1993). Innovations in the methods of teaching and the use of teaching aids may improve students’ feeling of success and may help them develop confidence (Stuart 2000), which correlates with the practices and theories of Piaget and Vygotsky and the adoption of constructivism in teaching.


Astin, W.A. (1993) ‘College Retention Rates are Often Misleading.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (2002) Learners, Laptops, and Powerful Ideas. The First Maine International Conference on Learning with Technology, University of Maine at Orono.

Stuart, V.B. (2000) ‘Math Course or Math Anxiety?’ National Council of Teaching Mathematics, 6(5), 330.




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