During college, I enrolled in an educational technology course that examined various methods of teaching computer programming to children. We visited first grade classrooms throughout the semester, introducing students to simulations with wooden blocks and LEGO robotic kits. Meanwhile, our professor and her research team were busy developing tools — both successfully funded on Kickstarter — that have become KIBO and ScratchJr.
The idea was big: what if we could empower children during their most formative stages with the fundamentals of computer programming? These fundamentals, known as “computational thinking,” describe the process of problem solving through algorithmic methods. Seymour Papert, an MIT researcher who originally coined the term, and Jeannette Wing have placed computational thinking as a fundamental skillset for everyone, not just computer scientists.
Even if students aren’t readily exposed to terms like abstraction, looping and control flows — perhaps until an introductory computer science class in college, as I was — the fundamentals of computation are all around us. Yet in the first grade class with which we collaborated, most kids were more concerned with the appearance of their LEGO creations — and perhaps rightly so — than the scholarly underpinnings of their own intellectual development.
But the question remains: how could we possibly give children a “leg up” when it comes to computational thinking?
In creating technology tools for children, the foundation of computational thinking may go something like this: If we hope to get the spaceship to reach the moon, then it must move three squares before turning right, then move another two squares until it reaches the final destination.
This example highlights one powerful construct known as “sequencing,” the ability for children to comprehend how individual events are ordered within a chain of events. A kid’s capacity to manipulate these interconnected events may signal a significant developmental advance. Research into early childhood education shows that children in classrooms as early as kindergarten can actively engage with powerful ideas like sequencing.
For kids, understanding how to place things in the right order from an early age could potentially unlock key computational thinking skills.
As adults, we often take sequencing for granted. When was the last time that you commuted to work without any socks? It’s pretty rare, I’d say. But for young children who rush out the door to kinder-soccer practice before putting their socks on (then their shoes on…with the laces tied), sequencing matters.
Yet we face sequencing challenges everyday whether we know it or not. Building products is fundamentally a method of solving problems. If you work in a startup, then you’ve designed interfaces, marketed products, or shipped code before even talking with a potential customer. And sometimes you make mistakes.
Countless companies have come before us and failed despite having top-notch investors, fully-developed features and extensive media coverage. Take LearnBoost, for instance, which created a popular online gradebook used by thousands of teachers. Yet by building early features that weren’t included in most district-level purchasing orders for classroom management software, the company relied on converting teachers to paid accounts. Few did and one of the last features the company launched was a data export tool before pivoting to cloud file sharing.
In order to avoid similar failures, we’ve come to depend on entire models like the “Lean Startup,” minimum viable product and agile development. These methodologies are rooted in sequencing. In fact, many of the terms we use in business (i.e. “lifecycle”) are derived directly from notions of stages and sequences. The goal is always to build the right features at the right time.
But there’s no absolute order that works for every product every time—just as thinking computationally doesn’t equate to thinking like a computer. But it’s all too clear that failing to get the order right during a company’s most formative stages introduces challenges that certainly inhibit growth.
Just as sequencing is a critical developmental concept for young children, it may be worth a refreshed look at how we solve problems in a series of interconnected events. Just remember to put your socks on first.