Last week I got into conversation with Sue Black and others about kids and programming, which prompted me to expand on my observations here…

My experience has been that with a combination of enthusiasm and encouragement from me, and opportunity (in the shape of the excellent kid-friendly Scratch from MIT) my six year old son has got to grips with some of the basics of programming and has had loads of fun making my laptop do crazy things.

Unfortunately, when I’ve visited his school and seen the way ‘ICT’ (how I hate that term) is approached, I haven’t come away feeling that there is either the enthusiasm or the opportunity for kids to get their hands dirty on some code. I watched a class of bored children clicking on stuff with no real direction, supervised by an equally bored teaching assistant whose main role was as guardian of the usernames and password printout. By the end of the lesson there were still children who hadn’t actually logged on.

I should say at this point I’m not singling out the school or the teachers for criticism. Somehow, as a nation, we have allowed computing in schools to morph into something to be held at arms length, relegated to the ‘ICT suite’, where our kids are taught to click on the right buttons to churn out Powerpoint presentations. For a country about to celebrate the centenary  of the birth of the ‘father of computing‘, this is a sad state of affairs.

So what? Why should we care?

We should care because we have a choice about how we deal with technology… Douglas Rushkoff makes the case very eloquently in his book ‘Program or be Programmed‘, but it boils down to…

“Do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?”

We should care about how computing is approached in our schools because if we don’t do something, many of our children will not be equipped to make that choice.

As I see it, at the moment, we are teaching our kids to ‘be directed’… to blindly press the right buttons. I want to see our kids being given the opportunity to create the buttons themselves. Of course, not everyone will want to become a button maker, but we must give them the choice.

And the solution is….?

I don’t how we are going to make this happen, but I suspect that whatever the solution is it we will need to address at least these two questions…

  • How do we dramatically increase the level of enthusiasm for coding that kids see around them?
  • How do we create more opportunities for kids to play with programming?

In the communities I am part of I see lots of enthusiasm and lots of opportunity, maybe the solution lies in working out how to bring that to our children and our schools.

I’m hoping that we find the answers to these questions and that in 2012, one hundred years after Alan Turing was born, we can take action to change things. That’s a change I want to be part of.


6 comments until now

  1. Hi Jim. Great blog post. I think the enthusiasm is already there in children – as your son is demonstrating.

    I had hoped things might have changed since I trained as a secondary school teacher in 1991. As part of my training, I had to spend two weeks in a primary school. There I saw a programmable turtle sitting unused in a box (the turtle has a pen attached and draws as it goes for a walk). The teachers were too terrified of technology to use it.

    How to create more opportunities? I think outside the system. An in-the-cloud, online Coding Club? Using gaming and tapping into children’s competitiveness?

    I don’t know, Jim. I just think that schools and teachers have so much stacked against them & so many demands on their time that outside the system makes more sense to me.

  2. Have you seen the Young Rewired State project?

  3. Interesting read. Thanks for posting. :-)
    I think if you were to look you would see the same approach being used in every subject with the same result. It’s a systemic problem.

    So how do we fix it? The answer is:

    I don’t know.

    My wife and I went over this for years and eventually decided to opt out. We can’t fix a broken school system, certainly not quickly enough that our children will benefit from it. But we can create a much better option for our kids right now. So we did. Now we teach our kids at home.

    We can cover the work of a full year of school in 3 months because the system you describe above is horribly inefficient. That leaves us with a huge amount of time to follow their interests. So we travel, we program, we make movies, do robotics, write stories, make music, and have an adventure almost every day.

    I don’t mean to hijack your discussion, what I wanted to point out is this:
    Fixing the system may be too big a problem for you to solve. But I’m sure you can solve this problem for your children. Maybe you can solve it for their friends too. Focus on what you can do, you can show your kids and their friends your passion for technology. You can be a mentor and a guide.

    Thanks again for posting.

  4. It’s hard to find the right place to start. For me, if the kids are using PowerPoint then it’s only right they should be taught VBA. That’s a less obtrusive way in.

    The struggle is, unlike learning foreign languages, there are the twin challenges of obsolescence and propriety. What will be more important is the skill of learning the principles rather the specific language syntax, I guess.

  5. Perhaps part of the solution might be to partner primary schools with local colleges where the expertise exists to provide CPD for teachers. You could also use the computing students from colleges to go into primary schools to run sessions using Scratch and Kodu. That would be good for the little ones and also for the teenagers as it would allow them to give something back. In fact, I might suggestj this at my college when we go back tomorrow.

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