How are we doing at teaching our kids how to code? Until relatively recently, the answer was 'not that well'. Hopefully, things will improve now that the UK government has seen fit to include computer science as a key skill. From next January, it will be part of the English Baccalaureate, and will be counted as a science in school league tables. In the long run, the Baccalaureate certificates could replace some GCSEs.
For a long time, kids in the UK were taught ICT, rather than computer science, as a part of the science curriculum. ICT concentrated on teaching kids how to use technology, but didn't necessarily talk about how to understand it. It's one thing to learn how to create a Word document, and move things around in it. It's all very well practicing how to put it in an email attachment and send it to someone. But this is a far cry from understanding the underlying mechanics of technology.
In his book Program or be Programmed, Douglas Rushkoff talks about how, when any important information revolution comes along, power tends to be divided along the lines of those who consume, and those who control. When the alphabet was developed, those in power used it to articulate themselves in writing, while everyone else listened to them read. By the time the printing press was developed, more of the hearers were able to read, but publication was a privilege enjoyed by a select few.
Now, in the digital revolution, Rushkoff suggests that we face the same challenges. We are in danger of creating a nation of workers who use technology without really understanding it, and who therefore can't manipulate it outside of carefully designed parameters.. We can watch countless dogs on tightropes on YouTube, just so long as we're willing to work within the confines of Google's system. We can create Powerpoint presentations, as long as we're happy to accept what Microsoft gives us.
Coders move beyond those confines, and are able to create and manipulate, rather than blindly use. Coders don't have to be content with the same old mousetrap; they can build a better one
Now that computer science has been promoted to a first class citizen, we may see students getting more interested in programming. This will be a major boon to an industry that finds itself perennially short of coding skills.
There's just one problem: we're not starting early enough.
The computer science component that the government is including in the baccalaureate covers GCSEs, making it applicable to teens. What about kids in elementary school, where interests are first realized, and inspiration can take root at an early age?
We need to show children what technology can do at an early stage, rather than leaving it until later, not simply by exposing them to video games but by showing them how to make their own programs.
The tools for this are already available. MIT produces a wonderful program called Scratch for young children, designed to show them the basics of programming structure through the use of graphical aids. I tested it on my kids, and they were creating a 'play' featuring two separate programming objects within half an hour.
If we don't start our kids early and get them truly fired up about coding, where will our next generation of web designers, coders, and system architects come from?
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