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Training and Development

My life as a tech teacher, part 4: Would more women in IT make it less Dilbert-like?

Third lesson. It should be easy by now, but the butterflies hadn't disappeared entirely. I gave the children 15 minutes to come up with their own programs then asked them to use the overhead projector at the front of the class to demonstrate what they'd done. And, crucially, to explain the steps they'd taken.

We had everything from rotating lobsters to colour-shifting unicorns, a cat dancing to a drum-beat and, in a “here's one I prepared earlier” moment, a boy who'd written a simple but impressive computer game at home, based on what he'd learned in the lessons so far. That earned him a deserved round of applause.

There's currently a focus in the media on women in IT, the general view being that there aren't enough of them. I don't have an opinion on that. If my daughters decided to be programmers when they grew up, I'd be neither delighted nor disappointed. It's a job, but it's often awkward, annoying, stressful and managed by idiots. In other words, it's fundamentally Dilbert. Whether that would change with increased numbers of women present I don't know. Nor do I know the effect it would have on any women who might try to change it.

One of the arguments against increased female participation in IT is that the mind-set for programming is representative of the 'male brain'. It's the idea that programming is a logical, mathematical, rigorous vocation that's best suited to socially inhibited, borderline autistic minds. Which apparently means men. Hmm... thanks for nothing. Such people might be over-represented in the IT industry, but correlation does not imply causation.

I hadn't thought much about this for my lessons, except that I was glad I was teaching the whole class. Initial plans were that I'd teach only those children who expressed an interest in programming. I'd been concerned that this could lead to girls self-selecting themselves out, whether due to misconceptions or peer pressure. As it is, everyone now has a fair crack of the whip.

So in lesson three I watched for gender differences, and found none. There are some fast learners and some slower ones, some keen and some not so keen. But the differences aren't along gender lines. They seem random to me. The only thing I've noticed so far is that the fastest learner is a boy, but so is the slowest.

There are certainly individual differences, though. This week, some of the children concentrated on design elements, changing the colours of the sprites and introducing new ones. Some concentrated on structure, working out how different components would work together. Some recorded new sounds for the sprites to use. Some were interested in movement; still others had a more holistic view.

As before, I made no attempt to curtail their exploration. But next week I will try to focus their minds on a particular sub-section of games programming, before again letting them loose on their own for the final 15 minutes of the lesson.

There was a TV programme broadcast yesterday in NZ about teaching children to code. I missed it, but there's now some newspaper interest in this school's programming lessons. It seems we're doing something right, for the boys and the girls.

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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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