The classic "3 R's" of learning are, of course, Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic. For the 21st century, we need to add a fourth R--and it will help inspire the other three: Algorithm. I know, it isn't a very graceful "R"--but 'riting and 'ritmetic are fudges too. And the beauty of teaching even the youngest kids algorithms and algorithmic or procedural thinking is that it gives them the same tool of agency and production that writing and even reading gave to industrial age learners who, for the first time in history, had access to cheap books and other forms of print.
Here's a definition of Algorthm adapted from the Wikipedia dictionary. "Algorithm: A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, esp. by a computer." Algorithms are the basis for computational thinking, programming, writing code, and webcraft. Just as the last century saw a major educational initiative aimed at basic literacy and numeracy for the masses, the 21st century should be pushing for basic computational literacy for everyone, starting with kids and, of course, with adult and lifelong learning possibilities for all of us.
In previous centuries, universal literacy and numeracy were not considered important because the division of those who ruled and those who were ruled was skewed radically, so a very small aristocracy controlled the majority of people. With the rise of the middle class in industrialism came compulsory schooling and a push towards universal literacy. Access to print doesn't mean much unless you can read and write. You can't be middle-class without some control over your own budgets, income, earnings, spending, savings, investments so elementary numeracy is crucial.
Now in the 21st century, we need a similar expanded push towards the literacy that defines our era, computational literacy. Algorithms are as basic to the way the 21st century digital age works as reading, writing, and arithmetic were to the late 18th century Industrial era.
Here's some of what the fourth "R" of "algorithms" adds to the standard syllabus of 21st century learning. I'm sure others can add more:
- Algorithms and algorithmic thinking give kids of the 21st century the ability to write software and change programs to suit themselves, their own creativity, and their desire to self-publish their own multimedia work. Wonderful open source, nonprofit (free!) multimedia programs like Scratch inspire kids to learn and do, think and create, in moving images as well as text.
- It allows them to create not just content but the actual structures of webcraft that govern their lives today.
- It allows for more diverse participation in the creation (not just the consumption) of the digital cultural, as well as the economic, educational, and business products of the 21st century.
- It helps to end the false "two cultures" binary of the arts, humanities and social sciences on the one side, and technology and science on the other. Algorithmic thinking is scientific but also operational and instrumental--it does stuff, makes stuff, allows for creativity, multimedia and narrative expression--all worked out within code that has been generated by these larger human and social and aesthetic priorities.
- By making computational literacy one of the basics, it could help redress the skewed gender balance of learning right now, with an increasingly high proportion of boys failing and then dropping out of the educational system, a disproportionate number of women going into teaching as a profession, and an abominably low percentage of women going into technology and multimedia careers. Starting early might help level the playing field in several directions at once.
- If we don't teach kids how to control this dynamic means of production, we will lose it. Computational literacy should be a human right in the 21st century but, to access that right, kids need to learn its power, in the same way that the earlier literacies are also powerful if you master them.
- For those kids not destined to be programmers when they grow up, it gives them access to computational thinking, it shows them what webcraft is and does, and it shows them how the World Wide Web was originally designed; that is, with algorithms that allow as many people to participate as possible, allowing as much access and as little regulation, hierarchy, and central control as possible.
Interestingly, unlike math, which can often be difficult to teach in all of its abstraction, algorithms do stuff. Algorithms are operational. You show kids how to use a program like Scratch or Hackasaurus and, very soon, they can actually manipulate, create, and do, in their very own and special way.
Investing in teacher training---not in punishing teachers, not in commercial interventions in our schools but actual, serious teacher training--is essential. Let it be the teachers who lead the way to a new kind of literacy. All those graduates who need jobs? Well, our schools need you! And maybe we can go to one of those programs where, teaching five years in public schools means all your student learns are negated. Now, that would be an incentive and a universal good for all.
Some have argued that the most important 3 R's in education are really rigor, relevance, and relationships. Adding "Algorithms" to reading, writing, and arithmetic also helps with that goal. The rigor is not only inherent, but it is observable. You get your program right, and it works. No end of grade testing required. Algorithms ONLY work when you make them right, so you don't need external measures. Relevance: check! What could be more relevant to the always-on student of today than to learn how to make apps and programs and films and journalism and multimedia productions and art for the mobile devices that, we know, are now almost ubiquitous in the U.S., if not by ownership then by availability in town libraries, schools, and elsewhere. Finally, relationships: teaching algorithms is hands-on, even when it is done digitally. You correct on a minute level, you learn, you go to the next level. Someone guiding you can make all the difference. More to the point, starting such training early can also mean more diverse learners.
And a final point: Right now, computer science and software entrepreneurship are remarkably un-diverse--in educational background, family income, race, gender. This means the people making our products do not represent the demographic of those clamoring to use the products. How would our world change if we had something closer to universal computer literacy equal to the old forms of literacy and numeracy which were the object of 19th and 20th century public schooling? What could our world look like if it were being designed by a more egalitarian, publicly educated cadre of citizens, whose literacies were a right not a privilege mastered in expensive higher education, at the end of a process that tends to weed out those of lower income?
The 4 R's. Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Algorithms. Think about it!
NOW YOU SEE IT
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). NOTE: The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization. For more information, visit www.nowyouseeit.net or order on Amazon.com by clicking on the book below. To find out Cathy Davidson's book tour schedule, visit www.nowyouseeit.net/appearances