Revolutionary times

It was 1981 and I was 11 years old. I convinced my parents to buy me my first computer: a Commodore VIC 20.* It cost $300 and I paid for half of it with my paper route earnings. It was a computer built into a keyboard. All I needed was a small colour TV hooked up to it and I could… what?

I don’t remember why I wanted it and I don’t remember everything I did with it, but I do remember typing in code for games from magazines. I remember spending hours looking for my mistakes. I remember programming an extension to a fantasy board game I had invented. But there were several things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that, with the addition of a modem, I could have joined a million other people on an interconnected network (I don’t think my parents would have allowed the phone bills, if I had). And I didn’t know that I was living in a revolutionary time.

Last Christmas, I gave my 11-year-old daughter an Amazon Fire HD 7 tablet. A computer that is connected with a worldwide network that she can carry around with her everywhere she goes, with everything built into it that she needs to operate it.

At first, she wasn’t even aware that it was a computer (I asked and she didn’t. But now she does). What she also doesn’t know, is that she is living in a revolutionary time. She is living in an age where computers are everywhere. We carry them around, we work with them, we play with them, and we navigate with them. And we are becoming less and less aware of their presence.

My daughter uses computers every day without thinking about it. She turns to YouTube to find out how to do something. She asks Google when she doesn’t know an answer. However, when she arrives at school, her world is separated into digital and analogue, into “online” and “offline”.

Imagine a world in which physics lessons taught kids how to walk, throw a ball and what to do if someone tries to hit you. This is analogous to what my daughter is being taught in her “computer science” lessons. We are teaching kids how to do things they already know how to do, or should be learning in other classes.

It does not make any sense to treat the use of computers as an extra discipline — not in a world where many children have already used computers in some way before they can read or write. My three year old niece knows there are no questions without answers. “Google it!” is her command, when the answer is “I don’t know.” Tools should be taught where it makes sense to use them: creating a document or a presentation or researching on the web should not be separated from the classes in which children learn essay writing and presenting.

What we should be doing, however, is showing them how technology works and how they can create with it. Whilst we have become very good at hiding the computer inside the device, programming itself has become easier and more accessible than ever. However, the irony is that while access to information about programming and to frameworks that make it easier to program abound, awareness among the vast majority of children has not increased.

If, when my daughter finishes school in a few years, she decides to study chemistry, will it be because she had heard of great careers to be made in chemistry? More likely it will be due to the fact that she was forced to learn a bit of chemistry and she discovered that not only is she rather good at but it is also a lot of fun. We should give computer science the same chance we give other disciplines — or rather, give all pupils the chance to discover the talents they might have in this area.

My company trains application developers. In many interviews I have had with young people wanting to begin this training, only a few had ever programmed a line of code. That doesn’t mean that they can’t become great developers, love their jobs and have great careers. It just means they have no idea of what they are getting into. And it means there are a lot of kids out there who don’t apply, but could become great developers, love their jobs and have great careers.

I want all kids to learn a little programming. I certainly don’t want to turn every young person into a software developer. I want them to understand a vital part of how our world works, and I want to give them a chance to discover talents, maybe even a passion, for making and controlling things in this world of theirs. For this reason, I have started the Hacker School with two equally motivated partners. We are not waiting for things to change, but that does not mean schools do not need to change: Let us stop teaching kids to use the technology in a separate class. Let us instead show them how to control and create with the objects around them. Because we are living in revolutionary times.


Originally published at www.online-educa.com.

*Known in Europe as the VC 20, less known than its successor the Commodore 64 which arrived on the market in 1982.