Last week I saw a tweet complaining to Wonder Workshop about them using Blockly to program their robots when (apparently) the Kickstarter proposal said the would be programmable using Scratch. A conversation ensued as it is likely to do. I thought Blockly and Scratch were similar enough that it shouldn’t matter much. The other person disagreed. He was concerned that teachers should be able to pick a tool and stay with it a while. And I can see that point. On the other hand I love learning new tools and like using different ones with students. A matter of personal taste perhaps.
A third person entered the conversation to say that “diversity and competition drives the quality of tools up, teachers and students benefits” which is a notion that I completely agree with. Admittedly it can be hard on teachers though. Especially if change is mandated. We have a large number of drag and drop programming languages these days. My list of tools for Programming with blocks has been my most viewed blog post for the last month accounting for over a quarter of page views. So clearly there is a lot of interest in the topic. Both for using them and for developing them.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well the obvious answer is yes.
A couple of years ago I did a series of workshop using Kodu for middle and high school students. During the breaks I talked to the students about other tools they had used. Most had used either Scratch or Alice (the big dogs in block programming languages) and many had used both. Their preferences were clear. Some like Scratch better, some Alice and some Kodu. They all had reasons for their preference as well. This is not unexpected. People are different and see things differently. So in one sense the plethora of tools offers the opportunity to meet the needs of more people. And that is good.
On the other hand there are a lot of things for a single teacher to learn. There are 17 tools currently listed on that blog post and I hear about new ones regularly. (Let me know if any are missing.) Knowing them all is really not practical so some choices have to be made. There is not a lot of real research on any of these tools (though there is probably more on Alice than most and some on Kodu as well) so what is a teacher to do? Don’t look at me to tell you which one to pick! I’ll tell people what I use and why but that is not the right answer for everyone. Possibly not for anyone.
Beyond that there are many traditional languages to teach and more all the time. PASCAL was the last language that seemed to have any concession around it. These days there is Java, C++, C#, Visual Basic, Small Basic, other BASICs, Scheme, Rachet, and growing of late Python. And that scratches the surface.
As I have said time and again There Is No Best Programming Language but should we at least narrow it down a bit? I’m not a fan of that idea (limiting teachers to a small number of options) either. After all I even think we need more operating systems!
So what is a teacher to do? Well I think more teachers need to share what works for them and why. Yes, I think more teachers should blog. I regularly enjoy reading about things that Mike Zamansky and Garth Flint are trying and using for example. Two different teachers in two very different schools in two very different parts of the country. I highly value their perspective. I do wish more people blogged their experiences more often.
And of course there are conferences for sharing. I am planning on attending SIGCSE this March as well as the CSTA Annual conference next summer. I learn a lot from teachers at these events. And not just in formal sessions. That they are expensive and hard to attend for many teachers is why I like the online interactions I get on blogs and even Twitter.
The value of all the amazing tools out there is increased when people try them, use them and share what they have learned. Only then can we pick the right tools for our students and also help make our tools better. So ask yourself – what have I learned and how can I share it with other teachers around the world?