A fourth “r” for 21st century literacy

This was written by Cathy N. Davidson, a Duke University professor, self-described “technopragmatist,” and author of Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. 

By Cathy N. Davidson

What basic skills do kids today need to thrive in the 21st century digital age? The 3 R’s of “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” were deemed essentials of mandatory public schooling in the 19th century Industrial Age where mass printing and machine-made paper and ink made books available to just about everyone for the first time in history. A student today needs a fourth R:  Reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic  and ’rithms, as in algorithms, or basic computational skills.   By getting the youngest kids started on algorithmic or computational thinking, we give them the same tool of agency and being able to make (not just receive) digital content that the 3 R’s gave to Industrial Age learners. 

Here's a definition of algorithm 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.  

Before mass printing, 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 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.   Simple 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, and savings so elementary numeracy is crucial.

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:

*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 , designed by the MIT Media Lab, inspire kids to “create and share your own interactive stories, games, music, and art.”  Or kids can take advantage of the free online web remixing program Hackasaurus , created by the nonprofit Mozilla Corporation that develops the Firefox browser.

*Learning basic algorithms allows them to create not just content but the actual structures of Webcraft that govern their lives today, including interaction with other kids learning the same skills they are. 

*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, this Fourth R 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.

*For the Fourth R to catch on, we’d also have to invest in teacher training. That might include scholarships for college students who wanted to go on to be teachers of basic computing skills.  Think about the range of societal impacts this would have.  It may be true that simple code writing today can be outsourced and off-shored — but teaching the building blocks of literacy for a digital age is an important skill and requires good teachers.

*Unlike math, which can often be difficult to teach because of its abstractness, teaching basic programming skills allows kids to actually do and make things on line, that can be shared within the various educational communities supported by programs like Scratch or Hackasaurus.  Grade school kids can very soon manipulate, create, and remix, in their very own and special way, with unique sounds and colors and animation and all the things that make learning fun and the Internet so vital. 


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 when you make them right, so you don't need external measures.  Your progress is charted, tracked, and can be measured against that of others every time you solve a problem on line.  

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 United States, 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. 

If every child began to learn programming along with basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, the world of computer scientists and software entrepreneurs would be far more diverse — in gender, educational background, income level, race and ethnicity, and region. 

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!  


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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