Kids and code: “It’s good because you can boss the computer around”

CC licensed by phrenologist on Flickr

As a child in the late 1970s and early 80s I enjoyed a golden age in which learning to program was part and parcel of everyday use of computers. Now as a parent in the Noughties I see my primary school-age sons with instant access to untold online information and computing power, yet they never encounter a line of code.

On our home computer they use Google Images, Amazon, Flash games and Paint. At school and in after-school groups they learn how to use word processors, how to search for info and crtically appraise the role of IT in society.

The one thing they don’t do is write programs. Should I be concerned?

When I micro-blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, some friends replied that it didn’t really matter. As one – an accomplished developer and tech author – put it: “I would say yes, except I drive a car and don’t know how to build an engine”.

But I still had my doubts. After all, the car in question isn’t just a single vehicle regularly subject to an MOT test. Software underpins almost every aspect of our daily lives, our financial system, and even the way we see the world. It’s not so much a Terminator or Matrix-style robot takover that worries me – more that we’re heading towards HG Wells’ Time Machine world of innocent Eloi who live in fear of grunting Morlocks straight out of The IT Crowd.

As David Brin wrote on

“… quietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast.”

In Britain, the situation is similar. Our National Curriculum focuses on “digital literacy” and research skills using ready-made tools, rather than on creating code anew. Out of school, the Scouts’ badges for IT have a similar content.

I want my children to be more than passive consumers of information technology. They should not feel like GUI tourists gesturing towards the goods in a shop where they don’t speak the language. They should be confident to “boss the computer around,” as one of them put it in describing his experience with Logo, the one piece of programming with which he has engaged.

Truly taking to heart the advice that “you don’t have to be an expert at your topic” to run a session at Barcamp, I threw together a few slides and scribbled in an empty presentation slot “Kids and code – does it matter if children use computers but never see the programming?”

I showed a bunch of child-friendly programming environments including:

  • StarLogo, a whizzy 3D world for our favourite turtle
  • Lego Mindstorms – very cool but prohibitively expensive to buy new
  • Carnegie Mellon’s Alice, another 3D virtual environment for telling stories and playing games
  • MIT’s Scratch, which invites children to imagine, program and share their Squeak-based creations

The  journalist in me loves the way these projects put storytelling at the heart of programming, with coding as a highly creative, not just mechanical, process. One of Carnegie Mellon’s researchers found that this angle is especially powerful in getting girls involved with programming.

On reflection, much of my presentation was unnecessary. I was preaching to the converted.

  • The older Barcampers shared my nostalgia for the bygone age of Dragons (remember them?) and Beebugs.
  • I think it’s fair to say that more recent graduates were generally dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of computer science (as opposed to digital literacy) education in their schooling.
  • Tim Dobson told us about DFEY-NW which he co-founded to provide a social space, and a supportive, stimulating atmosphere for young people interested in issues of computer freedom.

Some points from the discussion…

Children’s lack of engagement with programming reflects a wider suspicion of science and technology in general.

The lengthy turnaround time for updates to the National Curriculum may make it hard for schools to keep up with fast-changing technology. Higher education has fewer restrictions…

… but either way, it’s unreasonable to expect schools and colleges to teach this stuff by themselves. Parents, peers and out-of-school activities like computer clubs can play a big role.

Gaming, hacking existing code, and even using basic HTML to personalise Myspace pages can be great training. And those students who go deeper can always earn beer money modifying WordPress templates!

Handheld and physical computing could provide today’s children with the challenges that my generation got from PCs.

Lots to think about, and a big thankyou to everyone who took part in the session. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out :)

Update 8/6/2009: Tim Dobson posted video of Alex Wolf’s follow-up session (which I missed) on Barcamp Day 2.

See also, my notes on some other Barcamp Leeds 2009 sessions.

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