terriko: (Default)
[personal profile] terriko
My friend Gail and I stopped by the Girls@VV (the girls-only version of a local science/engineering summer camp) to give them a presentation on computer science. Gail already has an excellent write-up of our chat with the girls on her blog.

One of the things we asked the girls about is what we could do to encourage more young women to explore computer science, and a very prominent suggestion was that we start teaching it earlier, so people have some idea of the possibilities.

So it got me thinking, why don't we start earlier? I taught my sister how to program when she was in elementary school. One of my friends always asserts that I shouldn't generalize based on my sister and her friends, who are incredibly smart and exceptional people, but honestly programming isn't that difficult. My brother and I learned at 13 from a book for kids. So why don't the schools teach it?

Here's some reasons I've been told in the past:

  1. Teachers don't have the time. This is especially true at the elementary level, as illustrated by Diane Scaiff's excellent summary of teachers work hours in Ontario. Adding stuff to the curriculum takes time that many teachers just don't have.

  2. Schools don't have equipment. Computers are expensive to buy, maintain, and they are common targets for theft.

  3. People think computer science is hard. Often they think it requires advanced math. You do not need significant math skills to program, despite this perception. When I was teaching basic programming to my sister's friends, we started with web quizzes. The only math was simple addition. But this perception intimidates a lot of people who haven't tried it.

  4. Teachers don't have the knowledge and skills required to teach computer science. And, as stated before, they don't have time to learn and may be intimidated by the perception that computer science is incredibly difficult. This is especially true since many elementary school teachers feel that they are weak in math (at least according to the gentleman who started JUMP math tutoring).

  5. People don't think kids will be able to do more "advanced" stuff. This irks me. Kids are a whole lot smarter and more capable than many people take them for.

As you might guess, this isn't just relevant to computer science. My parents, who are biochemists, hit some of the same roadblocks when they wanted to make sure I got a good science education from a young age. They found ways around it and ways to supplement my education.

And what you might not realise (but I think the girls did) is that because this stuff isn't taught in the schools, girls especially aren't getting exposed. Guys often seem to get exposed to computer science in other ways, but more women rely upon the curriculum. (A recent study suggests that girls may have less spare time than boys, which is one reason that might explain this.) So while this extra education could help all children, it's likely to be especially helpful to girls.

So, I'm going to leave you all with two questions:

  1. Why else don't we teach younger children computer science?

  2. What can we do to alleviate these problems?

I obviously have opinions and suggestions on number 2 (For example, freely available materials like the CS Unplugged activity we ran this morning!), but I'd like to see what other people think first.

Date: August 14th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I was taught computer programming in grades 3 and 4. Granted, I was a giftie, and back then it was all Basic and Logowriter, but I certainly don't think it's impossible to teach it at an earlier age. In fact, I think it's getting more and more possible as time goes on and computers continue to become ubiquitous in our lives.

Date: August 14th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
That was me.


Because programming isn't primary education?

Date: August 15th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm a computer geek, but admit that computer programming is useful to only a subset of the population.

Just about everything else taught in elementary school is used almost daily by the general populace.

That being said, by grade 5 or 6, most kids are getting computer exposure in school.

I'm sure programming is a useful way to teach other skills (basic math, problem solving, etc.), but I just don't think it's as fundamental as grammar or arithmetic.

I think it's important to remove barriers to kids choosing their own way, whether they want to be historians, programmers, or gym teachers. But I don't think that we need to be 'driving' more kids into particular streams or areas of expertise in Grade 3. ;)

Re: Because programming isn't primary education?

Date: August 15th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
---- Whoops. Signed by me.


Re: Because programming isn't primary education?

Date: August 16th, 2009 01:53 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Well, I for one really do think that if not primary education, programming and basic computer science really actually should be taught as a part of *civics* more than anything else. Almost every interaction with modern society in a developed country these days is mediated at some point by software. People should at least come to an understanding of what computers can and cannot do as part of their basic education. The DRM debate sounds like a case in point to me.


Re: Because programming isn't primary education?

Date: August 16th, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I find Alan Kay's arguments for teaching programming to young people quite compelling.

In the UK, there is no official interest in programming education under 18 these days, but "information technology" is mandatory throughout the curriculum.

Children are expected to be able to control IT equipment by kindergarten (reception class) age. That means that most schools and pre-schools have not only computers (for drawing programs and simple animated games) but other IT like floor robots and interactive whiteboards.

I think that is encouraging, and perhaps overkill, but I would like to dig into Kim Rose's books of case studies to understand more about what elementary school students gain from actual programming, which is an entirely different field of knowledge.

In reply to the comment about programming being unimportant in our society, I would reply that entering formulae into a spreadsheet is programming, in a very real sense.


Re: Because programming isn't primary education?

Date: August 20th, 2009 11:01 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Your mention of a biologist reminded me ...

... much of the brilliant work identifying and tracking diseases like the swine flu epidemic could not be done if biologists and medics relied blindly on professional programmers. Some of the scientists do the programming themselves, and others understand enough of it to get good results quickly in partnership with the trade programmers.

If your sister could do that with Visual Basic macros, imagine what could be achieved if a sizeable number of enthusiastic amateurs applied more powerful but accessible languages like etoys, smalltalk, python, ruby or scheme.

Re: Because programming isn't primary education?

Date: August 21st, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
You have to see this:


There is a funny reddit thread about it:

My favourite in there: "The four-year old would certainly be operating at a higher cognitive level than the typical project manager."


Date: August 16th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] sfllaw
What do you think about why's Hackety Hack?

Hackety Hack off line

Date: August 20th, 2009 10:45 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hackety Hack was taken off line yesterday (a day after I bookmarked it to read later.)

News at Ycombinator http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=773106 (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=773106)

Old and slow archive at:

http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://hacketyhack.net (http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://hacketyhack.net)


Re: Hackety Hack off line

Date: August 20th, 2009 10:47 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
can you fix the links in the above comment for me, please?

Re: Because programming isn't primary education?

Date: September 21st, 2009 05:24 am (UTC)
badgerbag: (Default)
From: [personal profile] badgerbag
All that, plus teachers who know how to program generally go get jobs programming to make 3x the money.

I'm teaching Python to a 9 year old whose dad majored in computer science 30 years ago. He thinks that his son needs to understand advanced algebra before even starting to program! I still can't figure out why. I have him doing simple loops, LOGO types of drawing programs, and got him a programming book for kids.

Date: September 21st, 2009 05:28 am (UTC)
badgerbag: (Default)
From: [personal profile] badgerbag
Oh, one more story! The girls (slightly older) in my Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle-ish gang of kids weren't interested in "learning to write computer programs". They thought of that as a boring thing that boring people did, people who were obsessed with pointless shooting games. But when I mentioned "hackers" they got madly excited. They wanted to know if computer hackers were real, and how to do it, and were willing to pay attention forever while I showed them. We ended up talking a bunch about passwords and math and probability. It was interesting what attracted them to the subject -- knowing things, being a little bit bad maybe, figuring out how to outsmart other people, figuring out other people's weak spots, I think. Certainly not anything... pink and sparkly.


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