Teaching Youngsters Programming

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by manderson » Thu Oct 13, 2011 3:13 am
A question about BASIC for anyone willing to help me out...

I want to start a programming club at my high school. I tried to learn Ruby for this purpose and found all the tutorials too confusing (I'm an old dog who has trouble with new tricks). I found a wonderful update of BASIC called BASIC256 (earlier known as kidsBASIC). The download and tutorials are found at http://www.basic256.org. They say it could run on the raspberry.

This brings back all the great memories of my learning BASIC in the 80s. The tutorial quickly gets the kids making sounds and graphics. It supports sprites, reads the mouse, and even has the computer speaking like Stephen Hawking's machine. The lay-out of the program looks a lot like kidsRuby, with a window for the programming, a window for text output and a window for graphics output. I could easily teach this. (I don't know any other language).

My boss questions if BASIC is still a legitimate way to start kids off in programming. I don't care if it is the BEST way to start. I just want to know if it is a VALID way to start. The creator of BASIC256 sure thinks so. Do I have any seconds out there?

If so, it would be helpful to my case if you stated your background, so I could say to my boss that "there are 3 college professors who say..." or "there are 5 professional programmers who say..."

I thank you for your input.
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by liz » Thu Oct 13, 2011 4:45 am
My experience of hanging around a whole lot of professional programmers and college professors is that there's no consensus at all on this. We started the Raspberry Pi project with a very limited scope, thinking that Python would be the default learning language on the machine (this with the backing of several Cambridge University lecturers). We've learned a lot in putting the machine together, and one of the things we've discovered is that different languages work differently for different people. Some people have had great success with Lua, some with Ruby - and yes, some with BASIC, which is what I learned when I was a kid, although I think you can probably do better these days by starting kids with an object oriented language. Even if you're not starting kids off with OO work, it's good to be learning a language where OO can come into play gradually as they progress.

What age group are you working with? There are plenty of tools out there for different age groups, and certainly at university entrance level there isn't a preference for any particular language; at Cambridge the fellows don't have an interest on forcing any specific language on people, but do like to see an interest - any interest - in programming. I think I could go further here and say that it's actually *good* to see flexibility in kids and a happiness to look outside boxes.

As regards beginning to program, Python (says the guy who is sitting next to me, who designed the Raspberry Pi and used to do undergrad admissions at Cambridge) is one of the best ways to go these days - it's a personal opinion, but it's a very considered one. It has a low barrier to entry and is logical and easy to follow; the Hello World program goes:

Print "Hello world"

There's an enormous amount of library support; Python's popular, which helps, so this means you can google pretty much anything you want to do in Python and find ten lines of code which will do it. It's not too warty, and as with a fluency in all languages, it'll help you in learning the skill of *thinking like a programmer*, which is what we hope kids will end up doing.

I think that's the Raspberry Pi Foundation's official two cents on the issue. Other people will have different approaches; don't just take our word for it. We've three University of Cambridge Computer Lab people on our board of trustees, and I don't think I'm stepping outside the bounds by saying that they'd all agree with what I've said in this post - hope that's enough "college professors" for you!
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by tufty » Thu Oct 13, 2011 3:14 pm
Disclaimer - IANACP (I am not a college professor), but I have been responsible for teaching / mentoring programming with new recruits in various jobs.

I can't find much to disagree with in Liz's post (there is one thing, actually, but I'll come to that later), and there's much to strongly agree with. Particularly with respect to this:
Quote from liz on October 13, 2011, 05:45
it's actually *good* to see flexibility ... and a happiness to look outside boxes.

That holds not only for kids, but for general employability too.

So, what language should one use for teaching? There's almost certainly no one language (although I can think of a few that shouldn't be considered; Dijkstra's diatribe on BASIC[1] holds, IMO, for C++ and Java, for example).

I would take exception with the idea that "Object Orientation"[2] should be considered a priority for teaching languages - OO as generally taught pretty much requires a base in data modelling, which is rather secondary to the concepts first taught in programming. Structured programming is a far simpler concept to "get your head around", and can be followed by more esoteric concepts such as functional programming or the various types of OO.

In short, though, I'd echo what Liz says : Use what works for you, but don't necessarily restrict yourself to one language.

I like Python, Ruby and Smalltalk for first time programmers, and LOGO for kids.

Simon

[1] "It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration."
[2] Which is usually interpreted to mean the type of OO implied by C++ and it's various bastard offspring. Yes, there are other sorts of OO.
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by gbulmer » Sat Oct 15, 2011 9:44 pm
IMHO, it is worth digging into a second programming language, preferably one that is quite different from the first one. I think learning the second one gives a wider view of what programming is all about.
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by pvgb » Sat Oct 15, 2011 11:45 pm
My experience is that it more important to "get" the ideas behind programming - the problem solving, the visualisation or mental model of the process - and this means the language that you use is less important, as long as it supports that process.
Maybe it is another expression of Sapir–Whorf.
One of the biggest barriers to learning to program is that the "quick win" does not come soon enough for some. Without this reinforcement the confidence required to persevere fades away.
We have to remember that teaching people to program is a human issue - not a technical problem.

Part of the problem is in the bloat of the software we use - It is funny to reflect that 20 years ago the all singing, all dancing IDE (Integrated Development Environment) was the answer, now it seems to be a big part of the problem. I see people learning to program having more trouble with the environment than the code !

The notion of being able to start again, with a simple text editor ( not ed ! ) and an interactive prompt is the most encouraging thing that I see going on at the moment.
Back in the 80's there was an excitement about learning to program - it was pushing the boundaries, it was learning stuff that wasn't in the textbooks, it was actually trying stuff for yourself. If we can get back to that, then perhaps we have a chance.

My opinion on what language to teach is pick what you are most comfortable with or enthusiastic about. The confidence that you show transmits. I have seen lecturers who are not confident in the language imposed on them completely lose a whole cohort.
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by Sciman » Fri Oct 21, 2011 8:45 pm
When I started this topic I said I was going to be starting a Coding Club at School. This I have done and I thought I might give an update as to how it is going. There are students from years 7, 8 and 9. If successful, I hope to start a club for our Year 6 students from our Junior School. Well so far it has been very encouraging.

I have been teaching Python 3 using IDLE. Some may remember that I was initially drawn to Eclipse as an IDE well I now prefer the simplicity and immediacy of IDLE (which comes with the standard install of Python on all platforms). I have tried teaching Java before and found most students could not cope as there was too much syntax needed before you can get anywhere. With Python this is not the case and the students love it and are not frightened off.

The students attending the club include those that have tried Game Maker and got to the point where they want to attach some code to their games, a student who has tried to teach himself C++ but has plateaued quite early and others that have no programming experience at all. The club was advertised as learning to program well with code, not a visual interface. This was important to me as I wanted students who were interested in programming, not making games. The club title was also chosen for this reason. Having said that, so far (4 sessions) we have already completed our first game (8Ball) and the students have been confidently hacking it to make it more fun.

There are many languages that can be taught but as an introduction to proper coding for kids I think Python is pretty hard to beat. Please ensure there is a copy of Python 3 on the Raspberry Pis as I have told the students not to allow their parents to throw away any old TVs!
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by liz » Fri Oct 21, 2011 8:52 pm
Brilliant! We hope we'll be able to make some sort of announcement about Game Maker for the Raspberry Pi, hopefully before we launch - yes, we'll make sure Python 3 is available to you too. Have you played with Scratch yet?
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by barnaby » Sat Oct 22, 2011 6:55 am
Liz - is game maker available for Linux? AFAK it's only available on windows, albeit a rather awful looking port to Mac OS X (haven't tried it, but the screenshots look dire).

Great to hear about the success! I think you've taken a great approach, focusing on code and still getting them interested. Are you writing your own materials, or coming up with it as you go along?

Cheers,
Barnaby
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by Sciman » Sat Oct 22, 2011 10:39 am
Barnaby - I am writing my own materials as I go along, though I have a plan I am working towards. I have always felt that the problem with a lot of ICT teaching is the contexts used. I have seen books that introduce children to spreadsheets, for example, in an accounting context! Thus I am thinking carefully about contexts that are familiar to youngsters, e.g. to introduce while loops we imagined we were caught writing code in a history lesson and given 50 lines: "I must not write code in history lessons". You can guess the rest. To introduce functions and extend while loops we make a function called times_tables that takes two arguments and prints out traditional times tables as far as the user likes and which ever table they like (e.g. the first 15 lines of the 23 times table). You can guess what the students like to do with this! I also insist that they type the code I supply as I believe this is important to their learning properly. I only supply code in short chunks though and help with debugging if there is a problem.

For those not familiar with Python here is the times_table function:

def times_tables(how_far, num):
n=1
while n <= how_far:
print(n, " x ", num, " = ", n*num)
n = n+1

To print to screen the first ten rows of the twelve times table simply call:

times_tables(10, 12)
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by liz » Sat Oct 22, 2011 11:35 am
Barnaby - Game Maker isn't ported to Linux *yet*. 8)
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by Scribe » Sat Oct 22, 2011 12:59 pm
You want a good, easy but powerful game editor then I recommend ShiVa 3D. There's a free personal learning edition and educational licences, that include functionality for the advanced edition at a pretty low cost. Currently it can only be used on Windows or Mac Parallels but you can build your title for linux and test it/play it outside of the editor. The upcoming version 2.0 due early next year will have Linux support for the editor.

I've been using this for a while and given that it's a 3D engine, the LUA scripting system is as easy to use as most 2D engines. Check for yourselves (under script): http://www.stonetrip.com/developer/doc/

You can build games or apps for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Palm, Marmalade, Wii, Internet and I know that ps3, xbox360 and flash support are upcoming.
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by barnaby » Sun Oct 23, 2011 3:13 pm
Quote from Sciman on October 22, 2011, 11:39
Barnaby - I am writing my own materials as I go along, though I have a plan I am working towards. I have always felt that the problem with a lot of ICT teaching is the contexts used. I also insist that they type the code I supply as I believe this is important to their learning properly. I only supply code in short chunks though and help with debugging if there is a problem.


That sounds like a pretty good plan to me. Agreed that typing the code themselves is important — when I was learning from web tutorials, I always used to make myself write out the code, not copy/paste. I would (and still do) also look anything new up in the documentation, to see what cool stuff it did!

The reason I asked was because it might be cool to post the teaching materials here, and let others use/add to them.

Are you using an interactive python shell, or writing/running? I had a play around with the interactive shell yesterday, wanting to find out what was so cool about python. It was quite good fun! Not keen on the blocks-defined-by-indents, though.

Barnaby - Game Maker isn't ported to Linux *yet*


Ah, okay! Well, I hope that *if* it is, it's better than the half-hearted OS X port…

Cheers,
Barnaby
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by Sciman » Sun Oct 23, 2011 4:39 pm
Barnaby - I am writing materials and then using them with my students to find out what works for them and what doesn't, as such I think it would premature to post the stuff I am writing yet. The reason I am having to do this is because there does not seem to be a suitable text that is aimed at youngsters in quite the way I want. There are beginning Python books available. I have a good one that is for absolute beginners as a reference but at 464 pages I do not think it is suitable for kids (ISBN 978-1435455009).

The interactive Python shell is brilliant for introducing simple things. We have now got on to writing/saving/running files. The fact that there is no need for a compiler also takes one less complication away.

I did not like the "blocks-defined-by-indents" to start with either. I now think of Python as a curly bracket language without curly brackets and have begun to like it. IDLE takes care of the indenting for you and the lack of semi-colons is great as there is one more thing that students do not have to remember all the time. When writing code in Java or php I am regularly forgetting the odd semi-colon - though this could just be me!
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by Petr » Sun Oct 23, 2011 9:20 pm
Dear Raspberrians.
In my country we have a saying:
One thousand man, one thousand flavors (tastes)
.

I think it is the same when talking about programming languages. Nearly any of us have different point of view to programming/teaching.

My point of view (I am using Python for about 5 years + experiences with VB and JavaScript):
1) Python indentation forces you for typing discipline (which is IMHO VERY important in programing) => the code is easy to read for everyone, it forces you to less structure typing errors.
2) Python syntax is very clear and simple (no curly brackets and other boring and disturbing stuff) => the code is easy to write (and read) for everyone.
3) Python has a lot of high level syntax/programming techniques which let you to write comprehensible/understandable code.
4) With Python I have found solution/libraries/techniques for every!!! task under Linux (and Windows as well) I needed. I mean (just a snippet):

  • using instead of the shell script (linux and windows)
  • controlling Excel tables - connecting them to the SQL engine
  • driving vending machines
  • communicating with payment devices (serial port)
  • communicating wiht Microchip PIC processors (I2C)
  • managing web sites (TurboGears)
  • talking to the SQL engines (Firebird, MySQL, SQLite...) using SQLObject
  • low level serial port communication
  • parsing strings
  • drawing charts
  • doing science computing
  • manipulate graphic
  • ...... and MANY MANY more

So why the hell to bother with other languages and solutions (even they work).
Why the hell to argue which one is better.
Why just don't use something what works great on Linux (Linux is, AFAIK, Raspberry Pi main/basic/(only???) platform.

BTW programing is, IMHO, not about the specific language. Programming is mainly about the abstraction of the problem. If you know how to solve the problem, you can write it in any language.
So why don't to focus for the good/best methodology.
I would like to see Extreme programming and test/event driven programming as the goal/target of education with Raspberry PI.
Writing the code without writing the tests is (mostly) the way to the hell.

I would like to see yours opinions/comments about this ,
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by Petr » Sun Oct 23, 2011 9:50 pm
BTW,
there is plenty books/materials for the Python beginners:
http://wiki.python.org/moin/Be.....rogrammers
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by barnaby » Mon Oct 24, 2011 6:57 am
Wait, python can do I2C? Please enlighten me/point me towards source of enlightenment! This is something I would like to do very much.

And yes, you're absolutely right — everybody will have their favourite programming language/writing style within that language! I can see python is a great language to learn, as it's simple from the start. I was just a bit uncomfortable with using whitespace alone to define blocks. It also made me a bit uncomfortable because where the block ended was not so clear as having a closing brace. I'm sure I would get used to it.

Yes, programming is to some degree abstract, and the thinking skills are more important than memorising syntax, etc. I think this is why 'production line programming' doesn't work — also why the machines haven't programmed themselves to take over the world yet :)

Cheers,
Barnaby
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by tufty » Mon Oct 24, 2011 8:41 am
Quote from Petr on October 23, 2011, 22:20
So why the hell to bother with other languages and solutions (even they work).

There's a couple of reasons.

The first (and, pragmatically speaking, most important) reason is that some languages are better tailored for a given set of requirements than another. This is why, for example, Java hasn't taken over the business world; there is still room for C, C++, Ruby and a whole host of other languages. There's even room for PHP and Visual Basic. In the context of teaching programming, this is less important, of course.

It's when we start talking about concepts that the second (and, in the context of teaching programming, most important) reason comes into play; certain languages express certain concepts better than others. To take an example, the concept of a stack is perhaps better taught in a language that is based around stacks, such as Forth or PostScript, than in something like C. The same goes for the difference between static typing and dynamic typing, class-based OO vs prototype-based OO, message passing vs method calls, functional vs imperative, and so on.

Of course, it is possible to do anything in any Turing-complete language. But can you imagine trying to introduce the concepts of functional programming in ANSI "C"? Implementing true dynamic message passing in C++ without vast swathes of template verbiage? Or even prototype-based OO in Python?

Teaching programming is about concepts, not syntax or specific APIs. Syntax and APIs come into play if you're teaching a specific language or system. In that respect, I would suggest that variety is good, even during the early stages. This makes the teacher's job harder, of course - to do this, (s)he needs to have a passing knowledge of more than one language, and at least the major concepts. It's hard to step outside of one's "comfort zone" (which is why, when I was at school, we were initially taught COBOL, thus rendering the PETs we had in the classroom utterly useless. Sigh.)

None of which is to say that Python is not a very good language; it most certainly is, and it's one of the least "cluttered by syntax" languages out there, which makes it close to ideal for initial and even intermediate teaching of programming.

Simon
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by obarthelemy » Thu Nov 10, 2011 6:48 pm
Revenge time guys ! let's raspberry-pie slashdot, they have a relevant article, and stuff that might matter. http://developers.slashdot.org.....es-sharing
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by Galaak » Sat Nov 12, 2011 6:05 pm
Hi,

Please could you put in your distribution ready for kids some emulators of 8 bits machines like PET, CPC, ... if it is legally possible (because of ROM copyright for some I presume). I know it sounds strange but on my opinion, once loaded in full screen mode, it's easier to master a CPC to begin to program than linux distrib with python.

I'd like to teach python in console mode only (no X, I mean Ctrl Alt F6) but I find it unforgiving for a kid if he's mistaken about indentation. But maybe I don't use python command line editor properly. Please let me know if it is the case.

On my CPC it was easy to type list, run, save and really understand the file system only later. You begin to save in "flat land".
The command "list" was cool. It's 1 dimensional in your brain first, one console, one flow of text, run or list. Having to deal with where to save and load your programs in a linux distrib is not cool for small kids, I would suggest to jump in it once the kid did some steps with a really simple computer with a really simple OS.

At least to think about first steps in text mode. It's from us to be inventive and inspiring enough to show them the fun to create, even if it's not Unreal 4 after two lines of code.

My first program was with a INPUT, some PRINT and a IF THEN ELSE. The computer asked to enter a secret number between 1 and 10, you entered it and it cleared the screen and ask to your friend (who did not see the screen) to guess the number. It was mind blowing for me. Why ? Because the father of my friend who explained us how to code made it exciting for us.

I tried yesterday cpc emu and it was easy to handle. I don't care about CPC or something else but another CPM like 8 bit computer we could use as a teaching platform would be cool too. This would eliminate some trouble about IDE, file system understanding, to jump directly into some line a codes to make a simple but so cool stuff when you're doing it yourself. I don't mean it should be THE option but it should not be eliminated. After all, for many of us, it was these computers we mastered one step at a time and gave us the desire to do more.

Why not something about the BBC Micro like ?
http://www.mkw.me.uk/beebem/index.html

Thanks for reading :-)
Nicolas
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by obarthelemy » Sat Nov 12, 2011 6:47 pm
I would think hard about whether the way *you* did it *way back when* it still the right for *others* *today*. I know I find BASIC and Z80 assembly much better than anything else, but, frankly, that's because that's what I learned way back when. Now I know it, and I know how to learn it, so I like it. Pretty much the same way that music is not getting any better or worse, it's just changing, and is a very generational thing.
What I'm trying to say is, people who know and understand how to learn and teach much better than I do, and, especially, are supposed to have broken out of "this is the way I did it when I was young, and it's most certainly the best way", are strongly advocating stuff like Scratch and Alice, and other programming languages. Both for their better motivational factors and their cleaner, richer designs.
I'd really try to work with those before trying to convince kids that ZX81s rock.
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by clivef » Sat Nov 12, 2011 7:22 pm
Quote from Galaak on November 12, 2011, 18:05
I'd like to teach python in console mode only (no X, I mean Ctrl Alt F6) but I find it unforgiving for a kid if he's mistaken about indentation. But maybe I don't use python command line editor properly. Please let me know if it is the case.
I personally find it unforgiving for a kid if their program doesn't work because they've missed a single curly brace or semicolon in a sea of many. And when I teach Java this is what I spend most of my time fixing when their code won't compile.

Whereas if a learner can't press the spacebar to make their next block further in/further out/shake it all about then perhaps they don't understand the concept of the block they are trying to write and they may need to go back a step?

My first program was with a INPUT, some PRINT and a IF THEN ELSE. ... It was mind blowing for me. Why ? Because the father of my friend who explained us how to code made it exciting for us.
This is exactly the excitement and engagement that Rasperrry Pi is trying to (re)capture. The audience is different now and it will be a long haul, but it will be worth it.

In the meantime, here is my favourite code from when I started learning Python.

//Steal the Internets
from urllib import urlopen
print urlopen("http://www.google.com&quot;).read()

Now that's mind blowing :D
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by Galaak » Sun Nov 13, 2011 12:13 am
Quote from clivebeale on November 12, 2011, 19:22
I personally find it unforgiving for a kid if their program doesn't work because they've missed a single curly brace or semicolon in a sea of many. And when I teach Java this is what I spend most of my time fixing when their code won't compile.


I totally agree with you, a language with curly brace and semicolon is not an option to start with. That one of the reasons I prefer Basic than many other languages to start with. I find Basic easier to explain, but perhaps it's because I want to explain some hardware stuff too. I find it easy to explain the connection between the way a computer works inside and Basic.

My problem with python is not the language, I'm not against indentation. In fact I love python and that's one of the two languages I use the most. The problem for me is the workflow. If you type something directly in the python interpreter and you miss an indentation, It will run the code and you kind of lose it, it is hard to rewrite it correctly. You also don't have a clean environment. With a 8 bits OS/BASIC in "ROM" approach, each time you run it starts from scratch. It avoid trouble explaining to a kid persistence in the python environment. Be sure I don't say, ZX81 rocks because I'm nostalgic.

I also like the fact not to start in a environment with windows to make it simple.

I like languages not case sensitive to start with. It's not about nostalgia but about trying to find a way to make a computer accessible for a kid.


Whereas if a learner can't press the spacebar to make their next block further in/further out/shake it all about then perhaps they don't understand the concept of the block they are trying to write and they may need to go back a step?


That's a good point, but even if you understand the concept of indentation I find the indentation approach unforgiving in command mode.
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by Galaak » Sun Nov 13, 2011 12:30 am
Quote from clivebeale on November 12, 2011, 19:22

In the meantime, here is my favourite code from when I started learning Python.

//Steal the Internets
from urllib import urlopen
print urlopen("http://www.google.com&quot;).read()

Now that's mind blowing :D


I'm not sure I would begin with that code for a kid. May I ask you at which age did you start learning python ?
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by Galaak » Sun Nov 13, 2011 12:45 am
Quote from obarthelemy on November 12, 2011, 18:47
I would think hard about whether the way *you* did it *way back when* it still the right for *others* *today*. I know I find BASIC and Z80 assembly much better than anything else, but, frankly, that's because that's what I learned way back when. Now I know it, and I know how to learn it, so I like it. Pretty much the same way that music is not getting any better or worse, it's just changing, and is a very generational thing.
What I'm trying to say is, people who know and understand how to learn and teach much better than I do, and, especially, are supposed to have broken out of "this is the way I did it when I was young, and it's most certainly the best way", are strongly advocating stuff like Scratch and Alice, and other programming languages. Both for their better motivational factors and their cleaner, richer designs.
I'd really try to work with those before trying to convince kids that ZX81s rock.


I understand and appreciate the fact you want to warn me about not simply duplicating what worked for me without looking at others possibilities. Be sure I already tried Scratch and Alice and I know it's good but I prefer to start with something with less layers.

As I said, I asked not to forget the "old school approach" in the distribution, without advocating people should go for it. But I think it would be sad to miss this possibility in the distribution if some "teachers" are more confident with the inspiration they can give with this method. The thing is, if you want to have a chance to explain programming with any language or emulator, it has to be included in the offcial Raspberry Pi distribution because installing software is a killer for a kid. The RPI would be an even better learning/teaching platform if you have several ways to approach it.
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by Galaak » Sun Nov 13, 2011 12:52 am
Quote from clivebeale on November 12, 2011, 19:22
The audience is different now and it will be a long haul, but it will be worth it.


Is the audience that different ? Even if some things change, kids still like Playmobil, Lego, Barbie, bikes, cars, ...
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