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Software & Web Development

UK: Teaching Kids to Code Needs Good Old Fashioned American Enthusiasm

While working for New York Magazine at the Ground Zero of Occupy Wall Street, Alex Klein was invited into a tent by the protestors and gave them a challenge; “You’re so anti-corporate, trying to fight the man. But I’ve seen you on your iPhone, your Macbook, using the tools of the oppressors. Why don’t you try something like Linux, why don’t you learn to code? If you really feel the products we use are bending our minds, take the most important products you use and make them yourself.” Their reply? “These open technologies were designed and developed and only understood by a very, very small 1%, there’s nothing for us and we’ve been locked out.”

Without trying, Klein is full of exactly what the government needs to encourage coding. American enthusiasm. As the co-founder of Kano, a Raspberry Pi starter kit that raised well over $1 million on Kickstarter, he knows a thing or two about getting kids (and grown-ups) excited about coding, but without all the uptight lecturing that comes with government initiatives and education pledges.

Speaking recently at the Cass Business School, Klein called the Pi an incredible device with a flaw.  “Although it’s sold many, many units, most have ended up in the hands of experienced hackers, developers, computer scientists. When I took it to my 7-year old cousin and told him we were going to build a computer, he was essentially mystified.”

Himself a relative newcomer to coding, Alex is aware of how dry some of the education material can be. “Any effort I put into learning code had been stifled by the difficulty of the available material, and also a tendency in the tech community to use exclusive jargon and buzzwords to keep other people out. I remember the Raspberry Pi for Dummies book was 450 pages long in tiny little font.” Throughout the talk, he reiterates the value of creation & exploration over stuffy textbooks. The Kano comes with simple book written with his 7 year old cousin – and tells a story as it teaches the kids to use it. “The second book is what we call the ‘in your backpack story of code’; what code can do to make a game, what code can do to make you laugh. Not necessarily what code can do to make an app or a Gmail add-on, but what code can do to transform the world around you.”

Before the Kickstarter campaign, they made 200 prototypes of the Kano and took them around the country to various schools for testing. “I walked into a classroom and I said, ’Ok kids, who here has seen the inside of a computer before?’ a couple of hands go up. ‘Who thinks they know how computers work?’ Maybe two hands go up, and some very creative explanations come out. And then you say, ‘Who here thinks they could build a computer and make a game on it?’ No hands go up. When we saw that, we knew we were onto something.”

We shouldn’t necessarily be saying, ‘Learn to code and build a Raspberry Pi  because otherwise you’ll be unemployed’

 

Kids love to play, to fiddle. When I was a kid, I’d pull apart anything broken to see what it was like inside. And Klein thinks kids today have the same desire. “There’s a latent hunger to look below the hermetically sealed screen and start playing, start experimenting,” he explains. “Kids who are born into a wholly digitally native world have the expectation that the world is there to be poked and prodded and interacted with in a way that’s more fulfilling that choosing a product that someone’s designed. ”

“Our world is totally suffused with technology, and yet only 1% of us actually know how it works. And I think people aren’t satisfied with that anymore, they want to start making and playing again. We have all this power now, the barrier is one of enthusiasm and accessibility.”

Code – Homework or Play?

With Kano being London-based, Klein is fully aware of the government’s drive on teaching kids to code, both the good and the potential pitfalls. “The UK is the first G8 country to make computer science part of its core national curriculum from age five,” he says. “That’s incredible, and that’s laudable. But I think a lot of people don’t realize how difficult this is going to be. The government recently pledged £500,000 ($830,000) as part of the Year Of Code, I think that’s something like £3 ($5) a school. ”

“This is an entirely new subject category, which is going to go across the entire curriculum and my fear is that if we bring it to the classroom in this wrote, textbook way, you’re just going to turn off another generation to computers and make them think it’s all about entering numbers into a spread sheet and you’re going to be seeing code failing to compile, and kids running off to painting class and never coming back.”

The UK government could do a lot worse than adopting the Kano ethos into its teaching philosophies. “Fundamentally, what we wanted tell kids from anywhere, of any age, was: you can do this. Coding and computer science is not just a vocational, technical skill. It’s not just for people who want to be engineers at Facebook one day. This is a way of expressing yourself.”

“We should be being much more optimistic, especially when we talk to young people, we shouldn’t necessarily be saying, ‘Learn to code and build a Raspberry Pi and make a Kano because otherwise you’ll be unemployed’, which is what we’re saying to them now. We should be saying, ‘Do this and make a game.”

So what should the message that we’re sending out to kids be? “Coding is creativity. It’s about bringing your ideas to life. If you make it about unemployment you’re going to lose and alienate another generation of kids,” he warns. “I think it’s probably false to say everyone needs to go home and learn how to write PHP or Python. But what I will say is what coding gives you, is a practical application of the fundamental ideas that make computers work, and those ideas are actually quite beautiful.”

With tools like the Raspberry Pi, Alex thinks the UK can be a leader in getting kids excited. “Brits should be more proud of their computing heritage. You’re having a real hardware renaissance, and think I think physical computing is the best way to get kids excited about this stuff. The ideas that make computers work are very abstract, but when you make them real; lights turning on, robots roving across the floor, 3D printing; that animates people.”       

“A school that has a Raspberry Pi is already light-years ahead of the school that doesn’t.  But at the same time, just taking an invention and throwing it into a classroom doesn’t always work. It should be fun to make and play with computers, it shouldn’t be homework.”

“The way kids, and all of us, have been sold computers is the advanced consumption machines, instead of platforms for creativity.” And you get the feeling if he could, all smartphones would come with a screwdriver to let the kids open up and play with its insides…

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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