Kids hate school. Here’s what you can do about it.

An honest essay for parents in the age of computing.

From the pen of a creative engineer and an enthusiastic mentor, interested in personal growth and health, and concerned about education.

Kids are geniuses. All of them.
Contrary to the common misbelief, almost every (healthy) child is born with an equally gifted mind. The rest depends on what happens next.
Strictly speaking, all the stimuli affecting the child forms ultimately his personality, and how he will use the skills he’s born with. As we are concerned about what we put in our child’s mouth to eat, we should be very much concerned about what we feed to their mind.

We could contemplate endlessly on parenting techniques, disciplinary methods and such, but I would like to focus on something else. Apart from the obvious effects of the parents’ actions and attitude, the other crucial factor is the environment. What the child sees, feels, hears, and maybe even more fundamental: how the environment responds to his actions.

A large part of the kid’s environment, especially in early years, consists of toys. Anything they may be. But what is the role of the toys? Their ancient, basic element? I’m sure you have some ideas, and I very much hope they are on the right track. Their purpose is no other than through interaction, they can inspire kids and fuel their natural (not yet suppressed) curiosity to learn about the world they live in. And the way how they do this, is also very important.

We humans have something that no other animal possess: the Self. The ability of being able to ask the question: “what is the meaning of life?” The ability to be able to comprehend such a thing as “me”. (And let’s not get into the debate whether a dog or cat has consciousness or can feel something like I’m sad, that’s another topic.) And this complex consciousness brings in an essential element into the discovery of the world: the desire for the act of conscious decision making. I alone want to decide when and how I do things! Right?

“Smart men learn from the mistakes of others”, they say. Well, I’m sure that every respectable “smart” man will try something himself before calling it a fact. And they are right. Because nobody is the same. I started with the statement that at the time of birth (well, more precisely at the time of conception), everybody has an equally gifted mind and potentials. I’m not questioning genetics, I’m just saying that every (physically) healthy mind has a chance to remain healthy, and to keep the potential to excel in one or several areas. But the more time passes, the more we differ, and the same stimulus, the same situation will mean different things for you and me and we will have different footprints in our minds. So to understand something the way I can understand it, with my mind, I must experience it mySelf. And as part of this experience, my decisions play a big role.

Why do you think Lego is such a popular toy? Or why are video games so addictive for kids? Before trying to answer these questions, I would like to draw your attention to the next step — after toys — in the kids’ Discovering The World game: education.

Take your seat and shut up

Almost every time, this is where things start to go wrong, and… well, disappointing. In a lot of cases, kids have to be persuaded to go to school. How many kids do you know who happily state that he loves to go to school?

The most common way of education is where children are standardized, they are stuffed with the same stimuli, and what’s more, expected to learn and prove their knowledge the same way as everyone else. In other words, classroom conformity. Let’s compare this with the experience toys seek to achieve. Interaction? Na-ah. Inspiration? Rarely. Fuel their curiosity? Hardly. Letting them to decide? Definitely no!
And we still ask ourselves why they don’t enjoy “learning”?

There is a teacher who shadowed two students for two days to experience what it is to learn in a school all day, and wrote down his experience. He was shocked. “I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things” — he wrote. At one part he describes what it’s like to sit all day listening to lessons:

“But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.”

And as the kids’ body, so is their mind. If they are forced to sit passively, motionless all day, how on Earth we dare to expect their mind to be active, creative and proactive? They are caught up and paralyzed in this war of contradicting expectations, so they hate school.

There are however tiny rays of hope in reforming education. More often than not, this “revolution” starts from bottom-up, rather than the opposite. Bright individuals who dare to question the old standards that almost transformed into tradition. Watch for example one of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED lectures on education. There are also a lot of creative and motivated teachers who care for their students and are not afraid or lazy to try new methods. For example to turn the old pattern upside down and make students learn new things at home, on their own time, and solve their homework at school with the aid of the teacher, as started by a school in Clintondale (this seems to be a whole movement now, called “flip it” or “flipped schools”). There came of course new problems with this new solution: how do we expect kids to learn at home (on their own)? Parents are sort of out of the question. They have no time, no experience in teaching, and they don’t have the knowledge to convey. One solution can be educational videos. Some schools make their own content, asking every teacher to film their lecture / explanations, or make a screencast, and suggest some additional material available online. But making quality online content is also an art, takes practice and experience. Fortunately, we have a lot of people doing a marvelous job at this. Take for example the countless educational channels on YouTube (Veritasium, Minute Physics, Smarter Every Day, SciShow, Sixty Symbols), or to mention a professional: Khan Academy. See the founder, Salman Khan’s TED talk on how and why he created his remarkable and popular project.

My own way…

Back to our two questions: Lego and video games? The magical answer is: they let the kids decide the path of their discovery.
If used right, of course. The children, who — for some reason, most probably lack of encouragement and suggestion from the parents — assemble one Lego kit following the instructions, will put down the toy after a while and maybe never play with it again. Even then his motor skills were somewhat improved, they trained their spatial abilities, and a few more. But one element is missing from the picture: decision. Throw those instructions away, and build something by heart. Such a nice expression this is: “by heart”. It means that not analytical, not deductive, not logical, not copied…, but to create something that never existed before, something made out of my decisions alone. This intuitive process, which does not happen in the conscious part of the mind, rather is a function of the body, and cannot be achieved by thinking alone…

this is creativity.

And creativity is gravely essential for the healthy development of the Self, and conclusively for the child. Because the Self can only express, find and understand itself through creativity, and through the feedback of creation.

This process can be effectively encouraged by asking questions and posing problems for children to solve. Even better, just put them in a situation, and let them recognize and form their own questions, shape their own problems, to walk their own path towards “solving” the situation. This is what life is about. Not of solving problems, but of asking the right questions.

…as part of a whole

Most things however have to be functional part of a system. Kids should learn how to be creative within a set of constraints. Every human being living in a community (doesn’t matter if it’s a tribe, a family or a city), have to learn the rules, discover the constraints, and unleash their creativity in this context to achieve self-actualization. Children are subconsciously aware of this, and seek opportunities to practice: role playing games, hanging out in gangs, playing soldiers, and such.

Toys like Lego are very similar in this manner. Kids have a limited set of building blocks, and somewhat limited ways of combining them, and if they can use these rules to their advantage, even break them sometimes, they will surely create something special.
Video games are as well. They allow kids to follow their own heart, make their own decisions, or be whatever and do whatever they want. Something they can’t do in the real world, because they never learned how to. Yes, of course video games can be manipulative. They follow a predefined path, a written story. Most of the time. But they do this seamlessly. There are games that hold only the appearance of free decision making, but the better ones truly provide many ways to achieve a similar goal or result in the same context.

The rich kid with no sense of money

Video games bring up something, that is already infiltrating our children’s life, but we still can hardly recognize it. Being connected through virtual and abstract channels. “Being online”. Phones, social networks, photo sharing sites, short messages, mailing lists, online groups, instant information and feedback, responsiveness, networking, …. They grew up with these new ways, they take this for granted and they don’t want to live without them. Like the previous generations with electricity. These are magical tools with possibilities never seen before. But, unfortunately, it’s like the case of the rich kid, getting a tremendous amount of money from his parents, but no advice on how to spend it — better yet, advice how not to spend it. Kids live in a new world their parents can hardly understand. So they are on their own discovering it. They learn it day by day, making mistakes, taking detours, experimenting, sometimes hurting themselves on the way.

Wouldn’t it be nice, if we could install some training wheels on their bike? Sure. But first you must catch up with them on the way.

Digital literacy

Kids’ experience of technology is radically different than that of their parents’. Technology is part of their everyday life when they’re communicating (mobile, social networks), doing sports (eg. fitness trackers), learning (online materials, or discussing the homework on facebook), playing (video games, online games), or just chilling out (watching videos, listening music on their phone, scrolling through 9gag or Instagram).

And what can their parents do? They don’t know this world. They feel they can’t watch out for their children while they are on the digital playground. Parents are afraid of this world, so they often try to steer the kids away from it. I know for a fact that this is impossible, and unnecessary. Instead, we must grow up to this challenge, and be there for them — however we can — in their digital world and be a reassuring source of guidance. We must not leave kids alone in a field that is getting more complicated day by day.

Computers and digital “smart” devices are devouring our world. Whether it’s a good thing we should welcome, or a dangerous one we should fear, is another topic. Did you know for example that there’s a good chance that in the next hundred years the true General Artificial Intelligence will be discovered, and it will most likely determine the fate of humanity? Maybe even before we run out of fossil fuels. Computers are really that important.

Kids should learn how to handle the huge amount of information they receive, how to use the new digital devices emerging day-by-day. Not how to push a button or how to delete a widget from the home screen, but how to use the possibilities that a device offers them to their advantage, for their own good. They should learn how to communicate with these devices. What gestures to use? What language to speak with them? What to expect of them? How to use them for their own advantage? How to ask their own questions? Some example:

  • How to search for something on Google?
  • How to delete a person’s posts from my Facebook feed?
  • How to make my smartphone to solve my math homework?
  • What is a secure password for my bank account?

And no matter how hard engineers and programmers work on it every day, the digital world still speaks a different language.

The language of programming

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer. Should learn a computer language.
Because it teaches you how to think.”

…said Steve Jobs in The lost interview.
Learning programming (or “coding”) is something like learning to drive. You had an instructor with a car, and you learned to drive that car. And for some reason you are suddenly allowed to drive any car. And that’s alright with everyone, because we know that all cars are similar, and anyway, the bigger part of being allowed to drive is to know the roadsigns and know the rules.

All the same with programming — or as we should call it: communication with digital devices — you can learn the rules, signs, and the techniques in one programming language, and then if you have to code in another one — speak to a different machine, you won’t have to re-learn the whole thing to do so.

Don’t think of programming as typing mysterious code in front of a black terminal on a loud keyboard — that is history. It is about creatively solving problems in an existing system of rules and constraints (remember Lego?). But it’s also required merely to use computers and technology. Whether you like it or not, computers are already part of our everyday life. As cars and television became just some 50–60 years ago. For our children this is no longer a new possibility or a passing trend, but the very foundation of their mindset. In a good way. The possibilities and the doors opened by modern tools and ideas like connectivity, network, online community and Wikipedia are the very base on which the future is being built right now. And it is being built by our children. So we better give them the chance to learn to use them creatively.

“… I feel like programming is the closest thing we have to magic. It allows you to create things with words.”

Programming is the practical implementation of computing, the ability to be able to comprehend the ideas and logic that governs the field. This is an essential skill and an effective way to learn how to discover this world, and create something in it. Because currently this is the language we can speak with the machines our life depends on.

At the same time, learning computing and algorithms helps you to think. Acting as a mirror of your thought process, a program can augment your ability to solve a problem, and amplify your innate skills. It promotes 4C skills (Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking and Creativity) and helps to learn how to build efficient mental models.

But should every child learn computing? I quote Simon Peyton Jones, an honorary Professor of Computer Science at the University of Glasgow to answer this question:

“Should every child do it? From primary school? So let me ask you this: Why do we ask every child to learn Science from primary school? Not because they are all going to become physicists. So why? It’s because science teaches us something about the world around us; and if we know nothing about the way the world around us works, we are disempowered citizens. Even when you switch on the light, you know that the light doesn’t happen by magic, it happens by electricity, that comes along wires, the wires can be dangerous, the electricity comes from a power station, the power station burns fuel, it may cause global warming… all of that is underpinned by the science knowledge you gained at school, whether or not you’re a scientist.”

…so Computing is the new Science.

Where are those training wheels?

Recognizing this trend and realizing that programming is not only a profession with more than 1.4 million unoccupied jobs till 2020 (in the US), but a global mission of teaching people how to thrive in the new digital world; organizations, companies, brands, politicians and whole governments began to take action.

  • started in January 2013: with some jaw dropping facts, videos and even a speech from President Obama, it became a huge movement (“Hour of Code”), and an endless source of engaging tutorials.
  • The U.K. government started an educational shift and made computer science and programming mandatory for every children in secondary schools, and put computing at the heart of their curriculum, ahead of USA and in fact the whole world.
  • BBC decided to give away at least two million little wearable computers to 7yro children to start creating and coding.
  • A part of the CoderDojo network, free computer programming clubs are forming every day around the world with the help of volunteers.
  • Small ventures began to develop and manufacture educational toys and devices like Codie, Piper, Kano and many other, which promote tangible and real experiences (instead of pure virtual ones on the screen).
  • Toy industry also tries to keep the pace by introducing similar products.
  • Educational content creators start to realize this trend and how efficient is computing as an engaging learning material.
  • There are many other opportunities if you’d rather play with your kids away from the screen: games like RoboRally, or just games, eg. Dr. Techniko’s How to train your robot, both promoting logical thinking and the mindset of programming.

So the world started to move, but change is hard and change is slow, especially in schools. Teachers have to be trained for the curriculum, new devices have to be purchased, schedules have to be changed, performance monitoring systems have to be installed, and the list goes on. As a parent, you better not wait until someone at school teaches your kid computer science and programming. Take this matter into your own hands, go and find your children a game, toy, educational videos, and make sure he or she spends quality time looking at the screen — and with you.

Written by Károly Oláh, Lead Engineer at Codie, making a robotic toy that teaches computing through the logic of coding.
Go ahead and
check out what a modern educational toy looks like!

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