Teaching the 4th “R”. Fireside Chat with Cathy Davidson

Last week Mozilla hosted a fireside chat with Cathy Davidson: author, academic, and pedagogic provocateur.

The chat was framed around what the Duke professor calls the fourth ‘R’. Cathy argues that in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, we need to teach “algoRithms,” the logic and networked way of thinking that underpins much of our lives.

Algorithmic thinking is less about “learning code” than “learning to code.” Code is never finished, it is always in process, something you build on and, in many situations, that you build together with others. Answers aren’t simply “right” guesses among pre-determined choices, but puzzles to be worked over, improved, and adapted for the next situation, the next iteration.

Mozilla’s Mark Surman and Michelle Levesque responded to Cathy’s proposal in lively virtual debate. Michelle agrees with Cathy on the importance of algorithmic thinking, and she’s been asking what technical skills do you need to participate in the Web? and what softer skills are needed?

Using a conference line for audio and a shared etherpad for collaborative note-taking and questions, we spent the hour discussing the virtues of webmaking and ways we can bring these skills in classrooms and board rooms.

The best place to start, Cathy and Michelle recommend, is to work with institutions and instructors already ready for change. These groups will lead by example. We must to find ways to have wins and celebrate those wins. And talk openly about what didn’t work.

Mozilla wants to help people move from using the web to making the web. And an effective way to do this is to empower the people who are already interested.

Michelle closes with an analogy about plumbing. (No, not that the internet is made of pipes.) She cites a study showing that people are more likely to try home plumbing if there’s someone in the area that knows about plumbing. You feel safe taking risks, knowing that you can get help if you need it. Even if it’s a few doors down, that offer to help is enough to encourage people to try, to not be afraid of making a mistake.

And that’s a neat place for Mozilla to be. Helping neighbors teach each other and encouraging one another to go ahead and get out the toolbox.

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