CAS are thrilled that Linda Liukas will be one of our keynote speakers at the CAS Conference (Birmingham) on June 17th 2017. Linda won the 2013 Ruby Hero prize and was named the Digital Champion of Finland by the EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda; she is a programmer, storyteller and illustrator. Her children's book, Hello Ruby, is the "world’s most whimsical way to learn about technology, computing and coding". Linda is also one of the founders of Rails Girls, which has organized workshops in over 230 cities, teaching the basics of programming to more than 10,000 women. Linda writes about her philosophy of computing education for CAS...
When I first started writing storybooks about the world of technology, I knew almost nothing about pedagogy. I enjoyed programming but mixed Piaget to Papert and didn’t recognise computational thinking from constructivism. I just had a strong sense of the kind of world I'd like to create. For me, computing was magical, charming and imaginative – but the materials teaching it were often dull and uninspiring.
So, when I was studying in school, instead of learning to use computers, I got excited about creating make-believe worlds, conjugating French irregular verbs, knitting socks and the philosophy of Bertrand Russell. And I started to feel that maybe this world of technology was indeed lonely, boring and mechanical.
No one told me that French irregular verbs teach you pattern-recognition skills, that knitting socks is all about following a sequence of symbolic commands with loops inside them, and that Russell’s quest for an exact language linking English and mathematics found its home inside the computer. I thought like a programmer; I just didn’t know it.
With “Hello Ruby” I wanted to build a new kind of philosophy, of a gentler, more colourful and more whimsical world of technology – the kind I would have enjoyed as a little girl. Luckily on my journey to early childhood education I stumbled upon Montessori and Reggio Emilia. I owe a huge “thank you” to these Italian pedagogical movements. They offered me the frameworks of thinking which I needed to create Ruby’s world.
From Reggio, I learned to love the idea of a hundred languages. The core idea of Reggio is that a child has hundreds of ways of expressing herself: with clay and gestures, paint and rubber stamps. However, in schools we often limit the children only to writing and reading. Reggio educators treat a computer as just one more material to learn alongside paper, ruler, pens and movement; one of the hundred.
“The computer is like a foreigner, and if you want to talk to it, you have to speak its language”. “Yes, but the computer has to understand how we talk, too, and it has to do what we want it to do.” (Children from Diana Preschool, “Hundred Languages of the Child”)
One of the aspects I enjoyed in Reggio Emilia was the open-ended nature of projects that can take all sorts of twists and turns. Many of my own favourite exercises start with kids posing questions that interest them, like “What kind of a computer would a dolphin doctor need?”, “What is the world’s most dangerous animal?” or “What if my paper computer could print candy?”. Throughout the process of exploring and experimenting, they learn about abstraction, collaboration, media literacy and develop a plethora of powerful ideas I could never anticipate. That’s why most of the exercises include discussion points and very few of them have right or wrong answers. I think it’s important to give kids permission to trust themselves, and to allow for many right answers to a question.
Montessori on the other hand has influenced my writing process. I’ve learned to observe children at work and respond to their unique needs. I’ve learned to simplify, creating exercises and materials that have only a single concept to teach.
Much like in Montessori, the “Hello Ruby” book suggests that we shouldn’t use words as shortcuts to knowledge. Computer science is riddled with abstract words like “functions”, “Booleans” and “decomposition”, but how does a loop feel like, and can we find conditionals from Ruby’s clothes closet? Computational-thinking concepts are more fascinating when we understand their presence all around us. Inspired by Montessori, I’ve practised making computer science concrete, specific and understandable to the child. A computer can take a thousand forms.
“The first duty of an education is to stir up life, but leave it free to develop.” (Maria Montessori)
So, why is it that, a hundred years later, the Montessori method still works? And why does Reggio keep inspiring me after its 70 years of existence? I think the answer lies in wonder. Both of these pedagogical movements have helped me rediscover my own wonder around technology – a wonder which allows me to invent new teaching practices that offer unusual and beautiful pathways to computing.