Training and Development

My life as a tech teacher, part 2: First lesson

Continued from here.

I was nervous. I hadn't done any public speaking for years. It didn't make it any easier knowing that the audience would be a bunch of 8-to-10-year-olds. If anything that made it worse: they would say what they wanted to say, ask probing questions with no concern for my dented pride if I couldn't answer.

I had no idea how to talk for 30 minutes about "Understanding and programming computers". How could I engage with these kids, many of them from farming families, about new technology? I couldn't lecture them: they'd be bored within minutes.

So I flipped things around. Instead of writing notes about what I'd tell them, I wrote notes about what I'd ask them. Ten questions about computers, as follows:

1. Why is it important to understand how computers work?

2. Where would you find computers?

3. How long have computers existed?

4. Some examples...

5. What are computers good at?

6. So what is a computer?

7. Who here plays computer games?

8. Who makes computer games?

9. What else do programmers make?

10. How do you tell a computer what to do?

Number 4 isn't actually a question, obviously. It gave me the chance to wheel out my props: two computers from 1983. An Acorn Electron home machine and a Panasonic Portable Computer for business users (basically a 16kg laptop).

I also passed around an Intel CPU in a plastic case, so the children could see the 'brain' of a computer, and a floppy disk, so they could guess how many floppies would fit into the USB stick I held up. The highest number guessed was 20. The actual number is 200,000.

That was a surprise to the kids. But in every other respect they surprised me. I had made some notes to help move things along, but I didn't need them.

Their answers to the questions were thoughtful, salient and wide-ranging. 'Cuteness' was cited as a desirable component in a computer game; GPS systems, fish-finders, phones, tablets and smart TVs were given as examples of devices containing computers; the Enigma machine was mentioned as an early example of a computer. And perhaps my favourite response to number 6: "A computer is a tool for the mind."

Then I showed the children a YouTube video of some games that had been made using the Scratch programming system, which is what I'll be using to teach them how to code. They were only moderately impressed. Questions included "Can we embed code from other games in our games?" and "Can we add our own graphics?"

I'm going to have to teach them how to run before they can walk. That starts next week, after I've worked out the best way to install Scratch onto 30 laptops.

Feedback from an adult who was present in the lesson: I mumbled at times, but did well in getting the children engaged with the subject. But I think that's flattering. In reality they were engaged with the subject before I even arrived. I would have had to be truly awful to dent that engagement.

If you know of a primary school that's not yet teaching children about computers and programming, see if you can get involved. This is going to be a useful - some might say vital - life skill in the future, and you'll find no shortage of enthusiasm to learn.


Next week: My life as a tech teacher, part 3: The coding lesson that runs itself


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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