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The myth of tech-savvy kids

This may be the most technologically illiterate generation of computer-using kids yet


 

“Kids today are incredible tech-savvy”.  

So goes one of the world’s most popular myths. Kids may have an irresistible attraction to interactive screens and an uncanny ability to figure out how to play games and use apps, but when it comes to the code that makes these things work, most kids are totally ignorant. In fact, they are the most technologically illiterate generation of computer-using kids yet. Older, dumber computers forced their users to be smarter. Having to enter commands into an MS-DOS prompt meant speaking to computers in their own cryptic language, which forced us to learn how these machines think. Today’s kids are brought up on user-friendly, idiot-proof devices that don’t even require the know-how to to replace the batteries. The result is a generation of kids who are as reliant on technology as they are mystified by it.

Here’s how Barack Obama recently put it:

“Given how pervasive computers and the Internet are now and how integral they are in our economy and how fascinated kids are with them, I want to make sure they know how to actually produce stuff using a computer and not simply consume stuff.”

The urgency around learning code is increasing, and an all-star crew of tech titans and celebrities have teamed up to push the message directly to kids through Code.Org, a non-profit dedicated to improving the dreadful reality that only 10 per cent of schools bother to even offer coding class. Here’s their mandatory inspirational video, complete with celebs:

The incentives for learning code are laid on thick: coding will make you a “wizard” with “magical superpowers”. It will make you popular with the girls, just like Bill Gates. It will make you a rock star, just like will.I.am. Less revoltingly, and more plausibly, it will get you a job, a promise not even law school can make these days.

This pro-programming propaganda is very nice and well-intended, but I’d suggest that they’re gilding the lily. Not everyone who learns to code will become a coder and create programs. Not everyone should. Obama’s desire to make sure kids know how to “produce stuff” with code is overly ambitious and unrealistic. I can’t build a light bulb–I can barely change one. But I do have a basic understanding of what electricity is and how it works.  Anyone living in our society and lacking this, I hope we’ll agree, is dangerously ignorant, helpless and vulnerable, existing in a world that might as well be illuminated by magical fairies.

Similarly, to walk the earth ignorant of what computers really are and how they work is unacceptable. I’m hopeful for a time when computer literacy is compulsory at the grade school level, taught alongside reading, writing, adding and subtracting as part of a basic literacy skill set.

Understanding technology doesn’t make you a wizard, it’s just part of being an informed citizen.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown


 

The myth of tech-savvy kids

  1. You make some good points about the necessity of learning how to write code, but it is far more complicated to begin incorporating learning this in school than what you suggest. It is precisely because of the ubiquity of technology that teaching kids the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic has become more difficult. Fewer parents are reading to their kids. Fewer kids are choosing to read for pleasure. Everything academic suffers in a world that promotes entertainment every second of the day.

    • VBA is around for more than a decade. I can’t think of a simpler tool that would teach people the understanding of code.

      Yes, I’m aware that this may sound blasphemous to older gen of IT people who started with pointers, machine codes and memory allocation, but VBA makes a perfect grade 6 course since you don’t have to do all the boring stuff.

  2. Finally :) – indeed I am very concerned about the next generation as their basic logic skills SUCK !!!!! there seems to be this myth of multi-tasking which as far as I am concerned is just another word for not being able to do anything very well! – I have been in the puter business since 1977 started off mainframe and learning cobol and fortran in the 80’s got involved with first networking and taking care of BBS’s became local expert on trumpet winsock and then ran 2 internet service providers in the nineties – I now take care of hundreds of web applications hosted by government – I have never seen such poor quality and work skills of new people in all that time – when I taught evening classes I would always take people back to basics – the sirst month in learning how to program I won’t let anyone touch the computer – I break out the graph paper and start teaching top down algorithm then flow charting – then I start teaching assembler – then quick C and a bit of java and a couple of listeners (web server software) in a couple of months I can have someone up and functional at a workplace

  3. But with the other hand, they craft laws making it a crime to reverse engineer code, to modify hardware, and to share derivative works. You can’t learn to create new technologies if it’s illegal to tinker with the old ones.

    • Trust me, it’s next to impossible to reverse engineer the code unless you know some stuff about coding.

    • Sugata Mitra is incorrect. He is obviously incorrect if you actually stop and think about it. But that’s another problem with media, few actually apply their critical abilities to the propaganda. So, you can lock yourself in a room with a computer for as many years as you like, but truly, do you believe it will make you educated? Honestly? As for coding, it is all good and well that those who want to code have the opportunity, but, all a student has to do is go to codeacademy.org and they’ll be coding…. Still if the school system actually imposes this upon students it will be just like Math, and Science and whatever else is imposed upon students…. boring, useless and mandatory… can’t we do better for everyone by allowing the student some say in this… And by the way, when computers go Quantum, what language is it you think we’ll be coding in? Latin?

      • No, he is not incorrect. Nor is he ‘media’.

        ‘Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University,
        England. He is best known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment, and
        widely cited in works on literacy and education. He is Chief Scientist,
        Emeritus, at NIIT. He is also the winner of TED Prize 2013.

        Mitra has been described as a polymath by the University of London, as his 30 years of research spans a wide range of disciplines.’
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugata_Mitra

        The kids in his experiments are becoming educated as they use computers…..as is anyone who googles….or goes to university online….or is self-taught online.

        When computers go quantum? I think you’d better learn about the one you’re currently on, and leave quantum for the kids. LOL

        • He is as you say he is, but, I’m sorry, he is still wrong. It would seem very convenient if he was correct, wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe we just give computers to children and they learn, and that’s how simple it is. But is isn’t that simple, machines aren’t good teachers. Children are wonderful learners, but computers aren’t good teachers. Skinner though he had the ticket too, but he didn’t, and Mitra doesn’t either. If you believe he is correct, keep your kid at home, give him a computer and let him learn. But don’t forget to invite lots of kids over, because Peer learning/teaching is very powerful and Mitra’s hit upon that. And in that he is correct, but, really, do you believe that the young girl really has any understanding of DNA structures? Or for that matter should have an understanding of DNA structures at 7 years of age? I understand TED gave him an award, that’s good and nice, and I understand that he wants to level the playing field for millions of people in India, but that’s not a technological problem it is a political and social problem, so technology won’t really help solve it. Steve Jobs understood this and commented upon it in a Wired Interview. And Steve Jobs have away more computers than anyone.

          As for programming, I only suggest that we don’t need it to be compulsory in schools. I have my students program in Scratch as I like it for teaching logical sequencing and they like it because it is visual. Logical sequencing can be used in a much fuller capacity including being applied to the humanities as well as to technology.

          • You must be a teacher who is frantic to keep your job. LOL

            Sorry….Steve Jobs didn’t invent computers, and of course little girls can and should know about DNA, whyever not? Is it secret?….and as I’ve already said, programming is an ordinary skill like writing. Not hard.

            Scratch? Surely you jest!

            THIS is the future of education:

            http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html?utm_source=newsletter_weekly_2011-03-15&utm_campaign=newsletter_weekly&utm_medium=email

            So update your resume.

          • I didn’t suggest Steve Jobs did invent all computers, but he was sure that technology couldn’t solve all problems – and he was clear after giving 25 million dollars of computers away to schools in the early years of Apple, that technology didn’t educate people. Further I think that you should consider the development of the child, and you may believe that a 7 year old repeating sentences about DNA is a sign that learning is occurring, and you may even attribute that to hanging about with computers. But I just can’t think that way, I just see it as the wishful thinking of the Technopoly. I guess I just read too much to consider TED as the voice of deep understanding, or the moral authority or of even the most accurate information. I also find it a bit disgraceful the way anyone who openly goes against the power of the very influential TED is deemed to be frightened, or a Luddite.

            If computers alone, or even with Skyped Grannies, can get a 7 year old to actually understand DNA, then how come after more then 20 years of computers in North America hasn’t produced these startling results?

            As for the future of Education, it will look very much like the present as there is revolution desired by the general population. If a revolution does occur, it will most likely be driven by the teacher. Let us hope it will be driven under better research than TED talks.

            As for programming. There is a consensus that we can’t prepare students for the future by guessing what jobs they will have. We need new competencies. Programming is just another curriculum item that may or may not be relevant to our students. Should they learn Fortran, HTML5, or Processing? All may be equally as useless if a technology changes the system for computer calculation. They need skills that can be applied to the mysteries ahead, and not necessarily the skills that are tied to a specific technology.

            As for the future of education related to this, I hope that it will be tied to a system of self-design that recognizes the desires and strengths of the student and stops this one size fits all education. You might consider surfing to: http://zhaolearning.com/

          • Technology….knowledge….will indeed solve our problems. Maybe you’re waiting for fairies to do so,but that ain’t gonna happen.

            Computers are a tool, and man has always been a tool-using species. If you’re sitting in a room in front of a computer with your hands folded in your lap….no, you won’t learn anything. Use the tool.

            TED is simply a series of talks about ideas….are you scared of ideas? Are you scared that a child might indeed understand DNA? Are you scared that the teacher’s monopoly on knowledge has disappeared?

            As to why it’s happening in India [and other countries] and not here…..the west is complacent. Thinks it is leading the world, and always will. We’ll crash as have others before us due to this kind of arrogance.

            In China people fight for a seat in a university lecture hall, study most of the night and all weekend….here, a university is a place to party. ‘Sex, drugs and rock and roll’ as they used to say. It’s why we’ve fallen so far behind.

            The idea that we don’t know what to teach students also came from TED.

            And I told you myself that coding is just another skill like writing….nothing exotic. You’ve convinced yourself that computers and DNA and so on are vastly complicated advanced topics that few people understand. Not true.

            But fergawdsakes don’t go teaching them old stuff like Fortran and so on.

            ‘One size fits all’ education….jeezus man, that’s what we’ve been getting for centuries! What we can have now is tailored, specific education. It’s even called ‘just in time’ education compared to the old ‘just in case’ stuff.

            I hope you’re not an example of our teachers today, because you seem to have no clue what’s going on.

          • Again you attack my personality, please don’t bother to do so.

            I guess you aren’t reading my comments carefully, or, seem to ignore the implications of your arguments.

            You are correct that Fortran is completely dated, but if we teach code in schools, it is likely that whatever language we teach will also be dated. In other words, we need to teach the understanding of how to program, not give lessons in skills on specific programming languages.

            You are also correct that “one size fits all education” is what we have had for centuries. So again to add to the curriculum even with programming is to miss the point of educational reform, we need to allow – and support- individuals to learn individually. Again, we don’t and shouldn’t dictate that students learn programming simply because we have a technological deterministic viewpoint.

            Computers are NOT simply a tool, they greatly affect the environment. They are not benign. They change everything! You might consider reading Neil Postman, or Mashall McLuhan, I actually think you’d enjoy their works.
            As for me being indicative of teachers today, no, don’t worry, I’m not.

          • If I had attacked you personally, you’d be bleeding on the floor.

            Now listen up….anything ever taught will become dated. Don’t use it as an excuse not to teach anything at all. You teach the latest available. Cutting edge stuff. And at the moment everything is moving faster than it ever did in history.

            All students will soon be learning with variations of the Khan academy method. Kids, adults…..all their lives. They will learn directly from the computer. It allows for personal interests and is the ultimate in individual learning. We don’t need teachers anymore. You’ll be a facilitator at best, in a room full of people working on different subjects, and at their own speed.

            Yes, computers are benign, and yes they changed everything….and I read McLuhan before you were born…..

          • FORTRAN isn’t necessarily dated. It’s still pretty relevant if you’re doing scientific or engineering work – there are fantastic code libraries, and it’s used in creating a lot of computational fluid dynamics code. On the other hand, it’s not what you’d use for developing web applications or commerce systems. Fact it, students need to learn the basics of algorithm structures – it doesn’t matter exactly what language is used. It’s like studying physics, biology, or chemistry – doesn’t matter if the text is in English, German, or Chinese, so long as the principles are communicated.

  4. An educated populace is harder to fool than its noob equivalent. It’s time for the citizenry to do like a videogame, and level-up! Including coding in basic schooling totally adds up. I can say from personal experience that learning coding is not that easy to pick up as an adult, so better to get them started young!

    My site about the tek-upgrade potential of gov-systems, if anyone is interested: http://technology4democracy.com/

  5. I think the weakness with kids is more on the troubleshooting side – one doesn’t need to know how things work, but one needs to troubleshoot when things don’t work as they should. The tech courses in high schools miss the mark on this.

  6. hmm what about all the layoffs in the computer field and outsourcing and downsizing and human resource departments that bar competent programmers because they don’t match a narrow set of skills,,,,,

    • Because millions can now do coding….. in India and China….everywhere. Python and so on.

      It’s an ordinary skill….like writing anymore. Nothing exotic.

      Here……….buy one for your kid

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raspberry_Pi

  7. Not everyone who plays minor hockey goes on to the NHL. Sometimes learning something is just good to learn

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  9. So True! thank you for this!

  10. ‘Producing stuff’ and ‘consuming stuff’. Highly technical terms from the messiah himself.

  11. I’d say that most jobs that require a college degree (even a B.Sc. now) do use a lot of coding and understanding how computers work, even if the consumer isn’t an IT person outright.

    And, in my opinion, making computers harder to use than now is one of the things schools have to do – just like the skill of using a calculator doesn’t mean that manual addition and multiplication shouldn’t be taught.

  12. I’m 12 I can code. I know JavaScript and a bit of Python. Programming is awesome!

    • Apologies! correction: kidscodingcanada.ca

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