Can Learning to Knit Help Learning to Code?

| October 8, 2013 | 20 Comments
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“Thinking is like cosmic knitting,” Waldorf school founder Rudolph Steiner wrote nearly one hundred years ago. Steiner  developed a comprehensive handwork curriculum for Waldorf students based on this idea, filled with knitting, sewing and woodworking, believing that “a person who is unskillful in his fingers will also be unskillful in his intellect, having less mobile ideas and thoughts.”

Today’s Waldorf students still knit socks and whittle kitchen spoons and many Waldorf schools shun the use of technology. Those two things — handwork and technology — might seem at first glance to be at odds. But there’s a case to be made that handwork and computing  — and the kind of process that links the two — are more closely related than one might think.

When electrical engineering professor Dr. Karen Shoop of Queen Mary University in London took her first knitting workshop, she noticed immediately that knitting is very similar to writing computer code. “I noticed that knitting instructions are largely binary (like computers) – in other words, knit or purl,” she said. “More interesting were the knitting instructions, which read just like regular expressions [of code], used for string matching and manipulation when coding.” Shoop also recognizes that the earliest stages of computing were inspired by handwork: “Of course, computers ultimately started off partially inspired by weaving and the Jacquard loom, or earlier Bouchon’s loom. Arguably some of the earliest programmers were the people making the card/paper punch hole patterns for weaving patterns.”

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Shoop explains that regular expressions are simple but powerful for both searching and simplifying code, and are used in both knitting and coding to read patterns. In the essay “Knitters and Coders: Separated at Birth?” she writes, “In knitting notation (assuming an even number of stitches) it looks like:

Row 1: *k1, p1; rep from * Rows 2: *p1, k1; rep from *, or

Row 1: (K1, P1) rep to end Row 2: (P1, K1) rep to end.

Repeat these 2 rows for length desired.

“Computers do not understand the words we used in our explanation above: words like ‘row,’ ‘repeat,’ ‘rep,’ ‘to,’ ‘from,’ ‘end,’ ‘length’ and ‘desired,’ for example.” But what if the knitting pattern were written in code? Using coding’s regular expressions, the knitting notation above turns into something like:

“((kp){10}\n(pk){10}\n){20}”

“Students often feel anything to do with computing (especially coding) is in a separate bubble,” she said. “And I wanted to show that we ‘code’ in our outside world.” Shoop even had a student — an enthusiastic knitter — who, as a senior class project, developed a digital tool that could recognize and generate new knitting patterns.  “We’re interested in how creativity can inform technology and help create and inform new tools and technologies to support the creative process,” she said.

HOW HANDWORK CORRELATES TO LEARNING

Working with the hands can help both boys and girls develop thinking skills as well as fine motor skills, both of which are sorely needed in schools, says Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently. “For males [in general], handwork helps with fine motor skills, and for females [in general], it helps with diagrammatic thinking, found in the highest levels of geometry and physics,” he said. “School is fine motor-oriented, and we need more boys to get fine motor skills early.” Gurian would also be interested to see if handwork like knitting or woodworking would be a way to interest more girls in STEM fields, hoping that something like Shoop’s knitting project might serve as a guide for longitudinal studies finding a connection between handwork, engineering, and computer coding.

Seeing how the hand is connected to learning goes beyond skills matching or STEM, but to the roots of human biology, says Stanford neurologist Frank R. Wilson, author of The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture. In a keynote address given to the department of Humanities and Human Sciences at Point Park College, “Hand-made Minds in the ‘Digital’ Age,” Wilson implored teachers to incorporate more handwork into school work.

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“It seems abundantly clear to me that, because of the process of co-evolution, the hand enjoys a privileged status in the learning process,” he said. “Being not only a catalyst but an experiential focal point for the organization of the young child’s perceptual, motor, cognitive, and creative world. It seems equally clear that as the child comes to the end of the pre-adolescent stage of development, the hand readily becomes a connecting link between self and community and a powerful enabler of the growing child’s determination to acquire adult skill, responsibility, and recognition.”

Shoop isn’t sure that k-12 students can learn anything specific from knitting (“Being a devil’s advocate,” she remarked, “does it have to teach anything? Knitting as making activity could be sufficient.”),  and warns that teaching large classes of students to knit does have drawbacks — including the time to check everyone’s work. Yet she admires how the tangible, sensory experience of knitting and the seemingly intangible world of computer coding are so closely linked. “I loved the fact that there is a perception (usually wrong) that there’s a world of computers (soulless, technical, ‘geeky’) and a completely different domain such as knitting (traditional, ‘female’, craft) – yet there is a clear overlap.”

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  • CJWesterberg

    “many Waldorf schools still shun technology” is a sweeping statement that can mislead a reader about Waldorf. Technology is welcomed in the proper context, place and time – you will see Waldorf high schoolers happily integrating technology into their lessons.

  • petekaraiskos

    Waldorf schools shun technology for all the wrong reasons. A medieval demon lives in all things technological, according to Anthroposophy, the philosophy that guides every Waldorf school in the world. Ahriman also brings forth intellectualism, which is bad for children, according to Waldorf training. These are schools with a completely different set of rules, they think knitting and bullying are both helpful in the development of children. Learn the deep truth about Waldorf schools before trusting your children to people with a spiritual mission. Read The Waldorf Review to hear what parents and students have to say about Waldorf schools.

  • kikicrwban

    I’ve just started to learn object oriented programming and I’ve been a knitter for most of my life, since starting programming it’s reminded me so much of knitting and its lovely to see I’m not the only one to see similarities! I’m picking it up quickly so far and I’m sure it’s because I’m used to following knitting patterns.

  • deserteacher

    Maker Movement–let’s get going!

  • Cookie Cortese

    A good number of my fellow knitters have backgrounds in science, math and the arts. We share the ability to identify and work with repeating patterns. Working with my hands while spinning yarn, knitting, crocheting, sewing, weaving gives both sides of my brain the opportunity to exercise and work together and I get some great clothing, accessories and needle felted critters out of the bargain. As a computer scientist I find my hand crafts help keep my mind more alert. I listen better when I am knitting than simply staring (politely, of course) into space while people are talking. This is a good opinion piece that I will be sharing however I’d like to point out that girls are very interested in STEM pursuits when anyone takes the time to introduce them and expect performance. Too often societal opinions keep our youth (and their parents) from engaging in handicrafts rather than any lack of interest or ability. When we can break that barrier down, handicrafts will become even more wildly popular than they have once again become over the last decade. We may even see improved academic performance as a result.

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  • Kathleen Perez

    Check out Ravelry (like Facebook for Knitters). You will see so many forums that fit the Nerdy Knitter mold, Star Trek Pattern forum, Firefly, Dr. Who, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, NASA, math, Harry Potter, etc. etc. Dumbledore LOVES knitting patterns. He dreams of socks when he looks in the mirror of Erised. Hand spinners are nerdy too. We’re all about ratios, grist, elasticity, diameter and wraps per inch.

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  • Helen Griffin

    Nice article, old news. Hex and Bin, meet my friend Knit and Purl (now lost in archives– but the Home of Mathamatical knitting might have a good link– was written in the 1970′s about the link between knitting and code writting (and i have been aware of it since the early 1980′s– and 4 years ago, i finally got around to doing a bit of knitting using this link–I knit a message–I uses Ascii code (zero and one representations of key board characters) that i expressed in knits and purls vs 1 and 0–Lots of us have known the connection for 20 or 30 years (wait, the 1980 is 40 years ago.. LONGER!)

    Link 1 (home of mathamatical knitting)http://www.toroidalsnark.net/mathknit.html
    link 2 (scroll down to Sept 8, 2010)http://golden-apples.blogspot.com/2010_09_01_archive.html

    • otter

      Much earlier than that even
      Dickens wrote a character in “A Tale of Two Cities” who kept knitting a coded list of crimes/enemies
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_Defarge

      • Helen Griffin

        Yes, Madame DeFarge, well known to knitters. but its not clear what kind of code she used.

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  • Gary Garb

    Back in the early eighties, I was teaching an introductory course in programming using the Basic language. None of the students had any previous programming training or knowledge. In one class, I had a student who was an anomaly… she was in her 50s, this was her first ever college course, and she had never touched a computer, but she repeatedly produced correct and even elegant programs during the course. My first suspicion was that someone else was doing the exercises, but her ability to discuss the logic of her code and how she arrived at it was undeniable. One evening after class, I asked her how she would explain her extraordinary grasp of the concepts. She said it just seemed to come naturally. After more discussion, I finally asked her about hobbies. She replied that she had been designing and selling knitting patterns for over 20 years and her designs were regularly published in knitting magazines and books. Mystery solved! The following semester, with another teacher, she aced Cobol and Fortran courses. Unfortunately, I don’t know where she went from there.

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