INTRODUCTION: LOGO AND THE FLOOR TURTLE
LOGO is a programming language developed in the late 1960's at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Seymour Papert and his colleagues. Although it is a powerful and sophisticated language, it is unique in having been designed to be accessible to young children. By analogy with natural language, learners can begin to use it with the minimum of previous knowledge. but can extend and develop the language as their knowledge and experience grow.
'LOGO' has, at the same time come to denote a philosophy of education which sees learning as an active, problem-solving process in which children construct their own knowledge as they interact with the world and each other.
Much traditional educational practice has involved a heavily directed, step-by-step learning process. In contrast, LOGO was designed as a structured environment which could foster the 'natural' learning of a range of basic yet powerful ideas and skills. The language is, in the first place, accessible to children through the medium of the 'turtle' - in its most vivid and concrete form as a floor turtle, a simple robot controlled through the medium of the computer. The commands of 'Turtle Graphics' are closely related to the body movements of the children who can act out the meanderings of the floor turtle themselves. In this way, their abstract planning and reasoning take on concrete form, and their thinking can become visible.
Part of the LOGO philosophy is the creation of an environment in which children find learning to be an exciting and enjoyable experience. Robots, in particular the Valiant Turtle (a floor turtle that actually looks like the real thing), are very important in this process. Children often adopt the turtle as a pet and will happily play with it in their own time.
The knowledge that can be developed by LOGO programming includes such fundamental ideas as 'procedure', 'variable', 'recursion' and also general problem-solving strategies. Children will inevitably begin by using 'bottom-up' methods i.e. first of all learning to master individual LOGO commands and, by trial-and-error, building these up into manageable sequences that produce desired effects. Gradually, more systematic approaches may be developed as they experiment with longer sequences of commands creating procedures, 'debugging' and modifying them.
Children may eventually adopt a 'planning', or 'top-down', strategy. Now complex tasks are broken down into simpler problems, solved and then put back together to provide a solution to the original problem. LOGO was designed to encourage this very powerful method of working. However, it should be recognised that this strategy may take a long time to develop, if it does at all in the Primary school years. It is best regarded as ONE powerful strategy that children may acquire in their own time rather than as an 'objective' towards which they should be hurried as fast as possible.
There does not seem to be any simple path of development in all this. Individual children will progress at their own pace and develop very different learning and problem-solving styles which should be respected. It is desirable that learning should take place at a pace suited to she needs of each individual learner. However, it would be unrealistic to ignore the social dimension of learning activities. Children commonly learn not in isolation but from each other whether or not this is intended.
The role of the teacher in all this is a subtle one. In keeping with LOGO philosophy, her role is not that of a 'teacher' in the traditional sense, but rather of a 'facilitator'. By creating 'Microworlds' for the children frameworks of activities are provided within which they can conduct their own investigations or which they can use as starting points for further explorations invented by themselves. The teacher will need to offer encouragement and support when needed, and make fine judgements about when to intervene. When progress becomes blocked. hints may be given as to possible alternative approaches, and fresh problems may be offered when the activity seems in danger of becoming purely routine.
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