The depressing truth about my kids' school, and yours
I had a depressing online conversation with my childrens' school principal the other day. I had seen code.org, a web site recently created to help inspire children to program. It features a video with the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg explaining what got them hooked on programming, and why it's important to expose children to this stuff.
I'm a hobby coder. I've used PHP to build some stuff at home, and now I'm learning Ruby and Python. You can do amazing things with these languages, and I already have an idea for a web app to help solve a key problem for recruiters. So I was particularly inspired by the video, especially as I have two little ones of my own.
Inspired, I mailed the teacher at my kids' school to ask them how tech-friendly they were, and in particular, what their attitude to teaching programming skills was. I was depressed, but not surprised, by the answer.
"We haven’t taught coding," said the school librarian (who was the designated tech person). "There isn’t a curriculum re: technology. Rather, technology use is about integration (not a separate curriculum). For this reason, it looks different from class to class."
Some teachers have students creating documents with Word or online, others might teach some keyboarding skills, she continued. So, word processing and Powerpoint. Or not, depending on which class you get. Perfect for creating a generation of receptionists and marketing managers. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. But can those kids learn coding at school? Nope.
When I was a kid, shortly after they discovered electricity, the teacher gave us some homework. We had to find all of the prime numbers up to 100 and write them down for the following day. I wasn't particularly good at math, and I got up to the low twenties before collapsing in tears.
The next day, my friend (who had a Commodore Vic 20) came in, and announced that he and his dad had written a For...Next loop in BASIC to automatically calculate and print out the results. He finished his homework in about ten minutes. Was that cheating? Not at all - the point of the lesson was understanding. He understood more writing those few lines than I understood in two hours of frustrating donkeywork. But a few years later, when I started to code, my math - and my love of math - improved tremendously.
This is one reason why coding is great for kids. It teaches them how to think analytically about things, encouraging real understanding about how systems work. It encourages them to think creatively, too. They can create beautiful, elegant sections of code, refined and made more efficient. These skills may enable our kids to go on and do amazing things, like this. Or this. Or this 17 year-old's neural network, which helps diagnose breast cancer.
It also helps prepare them for the working world. IBM's recent report, Fast Track to the Future [PDF], found that only one in ten business has the technology resources it needs. But three students in every four said that they were not equipped to help employers meet technology demands. We're failing our students, badly. Not just in Canada, but elsewhere. Even Estonia is kicking our asses.
This isn't all the school's fault, of course. We all know that they have limited resources. And in any case, the individual schools don't produce these technologically barren curricula - the provinces do. But you'd think that while we're busy boosting our GDP by pulling oil out of the ground, we'd try to put something useful in our kids' heads. After all, one day, we're going to be dragged kicking and screaming from a natural resource-based economy to a knowledge-based one.
But where schools fail our students, parents can step in. Coder.org has resources on several programming languages, available for free, that parents can use to help inspire their children to code.
As for me? I'm going to teach my little ones how to use Scratch. It's a good starting point to get them involved in technology.Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets