My Students have Forgotten How to be Curious

University computer science education is broken

I teach software engineering to university graduates. Nearly all of them hold a Computer Science degree. Almost none of them are able to make software.

Very few know what an HTTP request is. None have heard of REST. Few can write HTML and still fewer can explain the term “API”. Most know nothing of Git, and those that do can’t use it. Almost none have GitHub accounts. While many now use OSX, vanishingly few have seen Terminal.app.

Even if we accept that web technology is a small part of a CS degree, this pattern is the same across almost every aspect of the discipline: from UX to product design, from OOP to (code) design patterns, from unit testing to agile practices. Most of the graduates I teach know very little when I meet them.

Me: We’re going to look at caching today. Anyone know what it is?
Students: Mmmmmm. I remember the phrase from year two.
Me: We’re going to look at Object-Oriented Programming today. Anyone know what I’m on about?
Students: Mmmmmm. I remember something from year two. It’s classes an’ stuff.

It’s about more than just knowledge, though.

It’s about curiosity.

Curiosity is, in my experience, the single biggest factor in differentiating good technologists from mediocre ones — innovation is what drives most businesses, after all. And it’s not just designers and entrepreneurs that must be curious. Nearly every good developer I know has an insatiable desire to learn new stuff and to understand how and why things work. Yet our education system seems almost purpose-designed to curtail this.

I was curious while at university. In fact, I was considered a bit of a nutcase — I spent my time writing ruby and learning new tools like Sass (neither of which were in common use at the time). I studied the HTML5 specs as they were written and I watched as Twitter and Shopify launched — both built on Rails stacks, initially.

Of course, I was penalised by my university: none of these things formed part of my course.

Working as a web developer before and during my studies meant that — no matter how hard I tried — I just could’t get excited about UML Use Case Diagrams. They seemed dated and unimportant compared with what was happening at the time.

Loads of mad shit is happening on the web right now. This is the future. Why is nobody here interested in that? — Me, while at university

My students seem to lack curiosity.

When I think about the things I listed earlier — the stuff my students should, but don’t know about — I realise that I learned all of them by myself. Almost nothing there was actually taught to me: I read articles and I built stuff. I played about. I was curious.

I still do this. My Pocket list currently has 56 unread articles in it. I play with new libraries. I have a CodeSchool account.

From what I can tell, most of my students have never used a tool like Pocket. Nor do they use twitter or github to follow people in the tech world. If fact, in answer to my usual interview question of “What do you do to keep up-to-date with the latest industry happenings”, most answer with a bland and un-inspiring “I read BBC technology and sometimes go on gaming forums”. Almost none can describe an interesting article they’ve read.

But perhaps they just lack passion for technology — perhaps theirs lie outside our industry. They might all be secret dancers, physicists, musicians or cricketers who’ve been told by their teachers and parents to do something computery. “There’s money in computing.”

Yet, I find this hard to believe.

Once they get going they’re intensely curious, for the most part. (It’s 11:30pm right now, and one of them has just sent a Slack message about CSS positioning.)

Instead, it’s like they’ve forgotten how to be curious.

I have to spend the first weeks of a course convincing most of them that passion and curiosity matter; that a vague and apathetic interest in technology will not lead to a happy and fulfilling career (and that nobody’s going to swoop from the heavens and give them a job at a cool startup just for showing up).

I can’t get my head around this. All children are innately curious — they question everything. Sir Ken agrees, and his talk is well worth watching…

“The second principle that drives human life flourishing is: Curiosity.”
“If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further assistance, very often Children are natural learners.”
Sir Ken Robinson
How to escape education’s death valley — Sir Ken Robinson, 2013

The only conclusion I can reach is that years of formal education has somehow removed curiosity from the minds of many grads; or at least failed to reward it, and direct it towards interesting and useful thought.

While I do take issue with the way that Agile (for example) is taught at universities, it’s not my major concern. My biggest worry is that students are uninterested. Their schools and colleges have failed to communicate the most important lesson of all: that they cannot teach everything. That it is down to the students to follow their own lines of thought, and to educate themselves. We have failed to teach students how to learn for themselves.

Is this what we want our education system to look like?

What do we do about it then?

This is a hard question to answer. At the most basic level, we need to help graduates understand why curiosity and love of learning are so important, and enthuse them to start discovering knowledge for themselves.

The trainers where I work do this a lot, and I can confidently say that all the people who finish our courses have regained an awful lot of their natural curiosity.

At a higher level, we need to change the way we educate. Since this article has already run to a thousand words, I’ll save that discussion for another time. For now though, I’d ask both students and lecturers alike to step up their game:

Go and learn something. Share your knowledge. Be interested in the world.

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