[This post started out just to focus on Richard Stallman’s comments about Free Software in schools, but morphed as I wrote it to also focus on programming in schools. I guess you are lucky. You get two posts in one!]

Richard Stallman isn’t exactly a household name.  The chances are that his name isn’t brought up in most US schools either, but it should be.

Stallman is the moving force behind Free Software. Yes, that does mean free from cost, but much more importantly such software is free to be used, studied, modified, improved.

The Free Software Foundation is an organization working to put Stallman’s ideals into action. The most well known of the organization’s work may be the GNU General Public License (GPL), a software license that seeks to ensure software freedom.

The operating system, GNU/Linux is licensed under the GPL as are thousands of other programs.

I bet Richard Stallman would not even mind too much if students didn’t learn who he is, as long as they get to benefit from his ideals.

Students need to learn by doing. That means they need to learn to read by reading, learn to write by writing, learn math skills through computation.

Students learn more by being creative than by rote memorization. It has seemed to me a shame that the creative activities of computer programming have been almost totally absent from the curriculum lately. There has been an argument that students should see and use computers only as a tool, one they learn to use, but not actually control. So we teach them how to do word processing, spreadsheets, etc. That strikes me as similar to stopping math education after fractions…no algebra, trigonometry, calculus and so on. Math teachers are certainly asked often enough, “Why do we need to know algebra? We’ll never use it.”

You might know that programming was once a common part of many schools’ curricula. TRS-80, Pet, Apple II, IBM 8086 and more all came with the computer programming language, BASIC along with the operating system. When those computers spread into schools in the late 1970s and 1980s, programming was common in high schools and junior highs. Soon after that, Computers got the Logo programming language created earlier by Seymour Papert and colleagues at MIT. Logo took programming skills into the elementary schools. Is any programming language still generally taught in your school/district? Has programming remained at all, even as an elective for high school?

Writing on Education, Stallman has said:

Free software permits students to learn how software works. When students reach their teens, some of them want to learn everything there is to know about their computer system and its software. That is the age when people who will be good programmers should learn it. To learn to write software well, students need to read a lot of code and write a lot of code. They need to read and understand real programs that people really use. They will be intensely curious to read the source code of the programs that they use every day.

Some have argued that programming need not be taught until college, but is that really soon enough to begin programming?

Stallman further along in his article says:

The next reason for using free software in schools is on an even deeper level. We expect schools to teach students basic facts, and useful skills, but that is not their whole job. The most fundamental mission of schools is to teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors—to cooperate with others who need their help. In the area of computers, this means teaching them to share software. Elementary schools, above all, should tell their pupils, “If you bring software to school, you must share it with the other children.” Of course, the school must practice what it preaches: all the software installed by the school should be available for students to copy, take home, and redistribute further.

You can read the full article at the Free Software Foundation:

http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/schools.html

You might also benefit from reading more about Free Software.

http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/

Questions for you to answer:

Does your school/district use and encourage students to use Free Software?

Does your school/district have programming courses in the curriculum?

Do you use algebra in your daily activities, and if not, would you advocate it be removed from the general curriculum?

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