Teaching kids programming via fairytales

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June 16, 2015

in Classical Education, computing, Early Learning, Fairytales, preschool education

I covered apps, websites, tools and programs you can use for teaching young kids how to code recently, but today I want to tell you more about preparing children’s minds for the concept of programming. My worry with some child-friendly coding technology, such a SCRATCH developed by MIT, is that they are so child-friendly and graphic that they don’t actually prepare children for advanced programming. They are fun games, for sure, but just dragging blocks or pressing buttons is exactly not what programming really entails later on.

Programming languages are languages you need to learn, that’s true, but the key to understanding coding is to see the big difference between programming languages and human language. Human languages are complex and flexible. Humans are intelligent. We can say the same thing in ten different ways and most people will understand what we mean. We can change the order of words, use irony and jokes and we understand each other. Computers are stupid. There is one particular way to talk to them, and if you change the rules of the game, they don’t understand you. Learning programming┬áteaches us how to talk to a computer so it understands us. Since we are the intelligent and flexible entity, we need to adapt to the way a computer understands languages. We need to follow the grammar, punctuation and┬ávocabulary 100% for the computer to understand us. When we just drag a block to the left or press “yellow”, we can learn how you get a computer to change graphics, but we still haven’t actually learnt how to programme a computer, how to adapt to the way a computer understands.

If you want to make kids understand how computers work and what happens if we diverge from the rules of a programming languages, you can use three classic fairytales that illustrate the disastrous results of not knowing how to code. One famous story is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves of the Arabian Nights. Ali Baba encounters a cave where robbers store their golds and jewels. He hears how they open the cave with the command “Open Sesame!”, uses the same to enter, take some of their gold, and flee. His brother Cassim finds out and wants to take more of the treasures. He gets to the cave, says “Open Sesame”, enters, but then he hears the thieves approaching and needs to flee. In his panic, he forgets the command for opening the cave. He remembers the command involves a grain and tries “Open wheat!” and “Open corn!”, but it doesn’t work. The thieves return to the cave, find him and cut him into four pieces. This is a perfect illustration of programming. We can use a command that is very similar and almost right, but if it is not 100% exact, it doesn’t work.

The next fairytale you can use to understand programming is The Magic Cooking Pot. A girl from a poor family obtains a magic cooking pot. When you say “Boil, little pot”, it starts making delicious soup, and when you say “Stop, little pot!”, it stops. One day, the girl leaves the house and her mother is hungry, so she orders the pot to make soup with the command “Boil, little pot!” Alas, when she has had enough, she forgets the command to stop the pot from boiling more soup. “That’s enough, thank you!” she shouts, but the pot doesn’t understand. It makes more and more soup until the whole town is inundated with soup. Only when the girl returns home and shouts “Stop, Little Pot!”, the town is rescued. It is the same idea. We can say “Please stop” or “I’ve had enough”, but the pot won’t understand anything except “Stop, Little Pot!”.

The story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (see picture above) is very similar.┬áThe old story of the powerful magician and the awkward apprentice who messes with the magic when his master is out and can’t command the broom to stop fetching more water until the master returns shows us again how important it is to get your commands right. And once you are looking at the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of course you could even cite Harry Potter and his spells as examples of how computer programming works!


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