Why should kids learn how to code?

I get asked to respond to this question in public and private forums a *lot*. I often trot out the driver/passenger analogy, but this is not necessarily a good explanation for children. So here is another wheel-based explanation of why I, personally, believe it is an important skill to be taught in schools:

Buying a child a computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone without teaching them at least the basics of computational thinking and programming, is like buying them a bike and letting them cycle on the roads.

As responsible parents we ensure the children know the rules of the road, stuff like:

  • which direction the cars drive in
  • how to keep themselves safe
  • when to use pavements and when to try the road
  • to avoid motorways

and so on…

We probably start with teaching them how to operate the bike at home and in safe areas before allowing them the freedom of the road, but let’s face it for this analogy, most of these children know how to ride a bike from their first efforts with a tablet and apps when still toddlers. However, we need them to understand the environment, so that they can act accordingly, safely and happily ride their bikes – exploring and learning and most importantly having fun.

Some of these children will grow up to simply continue to be casual bikers, it is just something they can do and enjoy. Some will become professional cyclists, some will become serious weekend road warriors, some will learn to build bikes and make a living out of it. But they have all grown up completely understanding the environment within which they can ride their bikes, and how it all works.

If you take this analogy back to giving them their computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone, current accepted behaviour is to restrict them to only riding their bike in the sitting room, with Mum, Dad or teacher holding their back wheel – this way they will be safe. Or the other extreme, let them out the front door and send them straight off onto the roads with no guidance. To be fair, most parents assume that schools have already got this one, that these young people are being taught the basics of the environment therefore it is not ridiculous to let them out the front door.

But the reality is that currently they don’t. And it is only best efforts from volunteer groups, such as CodeClub, and a small number of IT teachers who have the skills and ability to teach the essential rules of operation in a digital world. In Young Rewired State we have spent the last five years finding and fostering the young people who have been teaching themselves how to code, introducing them to each other and to mentors who can help them further their skills – slowly we are building a supported network of people aged 18 and under, who are learning through peer-to-peer and are no longer isolated and having to work out the rules of the road by themselves.

The world that these children are growing up into is rapidly becoming a world largely dependent on digital, a digital renaissance is upon us if you like. To whizz back to the analogy, the roads and the cyclists are becoming ever more critical to the infrastructure and operation of our entire world. It is not just about job opportunities, it is about being digital citizens, fully informed and empowered to confidently make choices and decisions, almost without having to think. They need to just know.

Here is a little video we created at this year’s Festival of Code about why we do what we do:

Assange, Swartz, Manning, Snowden: you get it, right?

A fundamental part of being a human nowadays is that if you don’t really understand something, you are pretty certain that someone somewhere is an expert at it; and if it is a matter of global political discourse that many people know about it, and not only *it*, but all the tiny *its* that are a part of the big *it*, that obviously some University or other is studying, or has studied the facts for years and the next generations are far better equipped to deal with the complicated future. (I think I might just have stumbled on the formula for Radio 4).

We take heart from the academic inquisitiveness, so we don’t all need to know the nuts and bolts of what is causing us to have a slightly uncomfortable feeling – because the current and next generations are getting ever more clever and brilliant. Phew…


What: Wikileaks

Common understanding: publishing lots of things through a site called Wikileaks

Scary: because there is no control over what is being published

Phew: he is being held in a room in an Embassy in London and (weirdly) the government people went and oversaw (not sure if that is English) the destruction of the Guardian hard drives containing the information, which should be OK


What: Committed suicide after being arrested for illegally downloading academic journals

Common understanding: young geek allegedly caught stealing/illegally downloading academic journals with a mind to publish them for free. His suicide was a nasty shock and no one can ever know why, but the court case and litigators were mighty, so that was probably tough for a young person

Scary: someone actually died

Phew: freely publishing academic journals, whilst wrong, does not sound like it threatens our security – this was just a single, and very sad, case


What: leaked restricted documents

Common understanding: a US soldier released classified documents to Wikileaks

Scary: who knows what is in these documents

Phew: she (Manning has since changed sex, but this is unrelated) has been caught and punished


What: leaked details of mass surveillance

Common understanding: US and UK government agencies can read our private email and messages

Scary: not sure we want government agencies of any country reading our emails

Phew: maybe they will intercept the terrorist emails and not illicit sexting, and someone will work out whether this is right or wrong – meanwhile Snowden has not been arrested yet so it is not something to be too worried about… but we had better be a bit more careful about the illicit stuff and what we say in emails “haha @jamesbond *just joshing* (please disregard this message)…”


I am being deliberately obtuse here to illustrate a point. If you are not news or politically minded, I could point to the completely baffling business models of modern day organisations: twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat – where is the revenue model? Someone obviously knows something, I mean of course there is an ad revenue in services such as Google, but *ha* I will not be caught out by those suggested ads so that won’t last. And I must protect everything I put on Facebook because Mark Z is going to sell my data to someone, which might mean I put my family at risk, so I had better just be very careful what I put on FB, and occasionally lie to wrong-foot those would-be thieves/burglars/bad people. (Also what I write in my emails in case the FBI is monitoring me).

Thank goodness, we cry, that we are from the last century and can reminisce fondly on our first experiences with computing. These digital kids, we can’t even begin to understand their world…

“… why I even have to get my son/daughter to help me dm someone on twitter… ha! Vine? I like mine bottled not digital… kids nowadays, they are the digerati!…”

But yet

  • in schools we do not teach children the basics of programming, the language of the digital world – this is changing next year in the UK with the introduction of coding in primary and secondary education so in 15/20 years time we will have lots of people grounded in the digital basics in the workforce
  • we stopped teaching programming in schools over 20 years ago therefore there is a huge generational gap in the mass market of people who actually have a grasp on the digital revolution
  • very few people worldwide actually understand and drive the digital direction, because it all happened so fast and generation upon generation assumed the education system was keeping up
  • there are more and more demands on a rapidly dwindling and ageing digital workforce by analogue institutions, trying to ram digital renaissance into creaking infrastructures
  • *those in charge* of the next generations, including us parents, make it our life’s work – no it is our duty – to limit, deny and restrict access to the digital world, that superhighway of paedophiles and porn because someone else will be educating them in all the stuff they actually need to know in this digital future, the educational and politically important stuff that someone else knows all about… right?
  • our kids spend their lives online, they need to get offline and play, take an interest in the real world (that world that drives stories such as Assange, Swartz, Manning and Snowden)

I hate to scare you, but the reality is that our children need to be online, our duty is to give them digital freedom to explore and learn. The rules are not yet made for digital citizenship, our children need to define, shape and abide by them. Not just in keeping safe. Not just in understanding whether Assange, Swartz, Manning, Snowden are right or wrong. Or whether a business based on reach of message to mass communities is a viable model. Or what open data really means.

The current drive to teach our kids to code is being built on a sand-bound argument of economy, but I challenge this. We need to actively find ways to educate our children and ourselves in the basics of the Internet, of information, of data, of sharing, of algorithms – computational thinking.

Because, if we don’t, an ever decreasing number of us will actually really understand, and an ever decreasing number of us will shape the future. And history has shown time and time again that this way madness lies.

Business card thunderclap – and you

Hello, this is a slightly different post from me, a letter really, dear you…

I have a lot of business cards from people I have met over the last few years, I tend to be given them during or after a conversation and I keep them as I know that person had something in common with me and we spoke long enough to exchange cards.

I am a dullard and only bang on about three things:

  • hack/modding days (Rewired State and Young Rewired State)
  • coding kids (Year 8 is too late)
  • women in technology (need more)

Therefore, I know that all the cards I have here relate to one or all of those subjects. I have exactly one foot of people who love the same things I love.

Being 41, I think – I do lose track: July 1971, I have pretty much decided what I want to do when I am a grown up. These are:

  • be a good Mum
  • keep the business alive for life so that I can still be doing it when I ‘retire’ and work with *lots* of people and friends
  • relentlessly campaign to bring coding back
  • actively grow a worldwide community of coding kids who can do with it what they will
  • work tirelessly to significantly enhance the number of girls in computing and design by whatever means I have at my disposal
  • open data, open borders, open business
  • help to code a better world

Those seven things are my bucket list.

Now I am starting on this foot high pile of business cards. I am creating a spreadsheet, that only I have access to (this is not a commercial thing) of people I have met who are as passionate as me about these things.

This community of people, bound by the three passions I bore on about, will then be in one place and I will endeavour to explore how I can use this list of incredible people and their energy, to create a worldwide thunderclap of informed action over the next few years.

If you have never handed me your business card, but want to be a part of this thunderclap, email me emma@rewiredstate.org with your name, job, email address, passion and I will add you to the list.

This is not a commercial enterprise, it will take some time as it will be my spare time, but it seems a pretty good way to build on the energy in this space right now.

I am not missing the irony of the fact that last year I started the Silent Club to do exactly the opposite of this. But I am not suggesting that the Thunderclap be a physical networking thing, but it will be active not passive, and community-based – I am not ruling out us having a massive and brilliant party one day.

Open Education and freedom to teach computing

I think anyone vaguely awake in the education and digital space cannot have failed to notice that 2012 is the year of Computer Science, of coding and kids. 2011 was a cacophony of noise about why this was so terribly important, and 2012 is reaping the rewards.

Government is making commitments for fundamental change and industry is running out of developers fast – and kids have no jobs.

In September of last year I wrote a blog post about how Open Education could work; indeed people have been writing about this for years but it was only really at this point that you could see anything actually happening.

Teachers and freedom

Can giving teachers freedom to teach a subject in any manner they see fit possibly work? This is a fundamental change from the micro-managed curriculum we currently enjoy, with the focus on exam pass-rates and associated funding streams.

I am not wholly sure that it would work easily and immediately with other STEM subjects, Science, Engineering and Maths – it can definitely work with Technology. But boy is it going to take some doing.

Speaking from experience

My eldest daughter is 14 and goes to a school that has just attained academy status, specialising in brilliance in Science – this does not include computer science. Me being me I have been a royal pain in the backside, whilst trying to be helpful, speaking to the deputy head about all I was doing in the coding for kids space and how my experience and contacts could help the school up its game with teaching coding and computer science.

Six months ago they ignored me.

Three months ago they called me in for a meeting.

Two months ago they asked for help.

One month ago we made a plan:

  • inter-form hacking competitions
  • programming computer club working with free online resources, local geek industry and gaming bods
  • an annual assembly
  • participation in Young Rewired State for the coders who had already taught themselves how to programme

This is the stuff dreams are made of. Relevant cross-curricular learning, with a skill that not only de-nerds coding, but simultaneously teaches each child something about programming the digital world they live in, regaining control, knowledge and new Summer jobs. What’s not to love?


The reality

It takes a lot of work and time to co-ordinate and set up a computer club with local enterprise and free online tools. Done individually, school by school, this will fail at the first missed meeting.

Senior schools operate on a time-poor, information-rich merry-go-round of priorities and logistics. There is an awful lot of information that needs to be imparted in very few hours over very few years – you can only imagine the eye-bleeding decisions that have to be taken.

As a result, senior schools are not the most malleable of organisations to effect immediate and affective change, regardless of good intent and recognition of a problem. New stuff has to become a part of the old stuff – traditional corporate change mechanics: communication, education, management, reward, story-telling and so on.

I tell you – even with one school, regardless of the work I do with Young Rewired State, Coding for Kids and Government – this could be a full time (voluntary) job.

So, I still hold out hope that in 2012 this school will be able to live its dream of being one of the first to market – but there is no kidding about the fact that this is a behemoth of a task.

How can this scale? We’re stuffed

I can hear the Computing at School teachers sharpening their pencils to send me a strongly worded letter about how they are succeeding in their own schools without parental interference, thank you very much – I know. But you face the same problems I saw, I think, judging from the posts on CAS.

So, let me be clear, I have read up on this subject, I work with young programmers, I am a parent to two children, one (aged 9, girl) obsessed with programming the other (14, girl) not so much – so it is with this that I plant my flag firmly in the camp of Year 8 is too late.

Senior school is not the place to focus attention right now. Yes, there will be things that can be done, that teachers can do – but the seeds of need must be planted in junior education.

Equip our young, time-rich juniors with the basics of computer science, take time to make it fun and exciting across the curriculum. The children will then enter senior school with an enthusiasm and expectation that is simply not there right now. And senior school teachers will, for a while, have to play to the masses who see no relevance at all between their BBMing, Facebooking and Tumblr blogs and what they could potentially be learning at school.

Trying to solve this problem with a top-down, managerial (half-hearted) cry to throw open the digital doors in Year 8 and force change in education and interest is going to be a long and bloody process. If this is the way we choose to go, then accept that it will take time, money (lots of money) and it will affect the whole of the education system, not just ICT reform.

Can we focus on the long term by paying attention to junior schools and exciting those teachers and children? And can we work with the kids currently negotiating their way through senior education who have already applied the principles of Open Education by teaching themselves? Young Rewired State focuses relentlessly on these kids and I can tell you the need to support them gets greater every year.

In light of this please can I encourage anyone reading this to still take the time to sign the e-petition and to consider supporting Young Rewired State.

Before I get slated by the Computer Science purists, coding is only one bit of computer science, but it is the only bit I know anything about.

Open Education: It’s not impossible, it’s already here

Imagine a world whereby our borders are open, where data is open, where organisations are open… where education is open.

Those of you who read my blog are pretty au fait by now with the open principles of data and organisations, and we live in a world of pretty open borders – so now, just bear with me through the open education thing.

There is an almighty (thank goodness) brauhaha at the moment about teaching programming in schools, indeed upping the interweaving of digital teaching throughout all subjects (beyond googling the best essay ever on any given subject). But there is the huge gap in enthusiasm amongst the young generations – relatively easy to solve – and the ability of teachers to teach all a young person needs to know in this future digital world, one that many have not grown up in, let alone been taught how to teach, this is harder.

But is this a deal breaker?


Many (many many many) people say to me: but I taught myself how to code and I am fine, I have a career and I do well, if it was taught to me maybe I would not have found it so interesting.

Fair point, but you are all over 25. The under 25s do not agree – well not 100% anyway.

So I think that we can accept, just by reading all there is online right now about this subject, that there is a need, a very real need; and it is not just for the younger generations whom we may be letting down by not doing anything about this. Can we take that for granted for the sake of this post?

However, there is a big problem that we need to be addressing at the same time as we fight for recognisance of the need to teach 21st century computing – and that is that the teachers we have now, indeed the teachers we are training now, are not equipped to teach this.

I am a part of a network called Computing at School, and have recently been included in their google group. This group is full of teachers who are supporting each other, sharing resources, introducing people from outside the education community who are programmers, are building software and hardware (open source), or who are parents with rudimentary knowledge or extraordinary knowledge – robotics anyone? or those just wanting to help somehow.

In this google group I am a party to many conversations between teachers crying out for help and information, and helping each other. They share links, wack up a wiki when a subject gets too big for just an email list, bring in industry experts – and all in their spare time. Those teaching Computer Science degrees helping the primary/secondary school teachers and vice versa. It is all an open forum, anyone can ask anything, and they do. I cannot tell you how humbling it is to read some of the conversations, enthusiastic and daily, sparked in this group – and it completely negates the publicly perceived view that this task is impossible because the IT teachers are crap. It is simply not true.

Yes, many of them did not train in IT, but they trained as teachers, and as teachers they take the education of the UK’s next generation extremely seriously. (I am sure you can all haul out a rubbish teacher to point to, but let’s play to the masses and not the exceptions). These are people who love what they do and want to do their best, they know that they need help to get this right, but I do not see any reticence there.

What I do see, is the occasional call for help – to assist with making the case for changing the stuff they are teaching, often a cry of:

The head gets it, but will ask the *usual* questions. Anyone help me?

Now I am not a teacher, so have no idea what these questions are, but taking a wild stab I would assume that they are on a par with the senior management teams in organisations who can only approve things if they fit with industry approved measurements of success – and struggle when there is no such thing (yet).

Yet schools are already being forced to move into measurements not yet measured. Schools are no longer valued just on the say so of Ofsted (oh I know it is still a big thing, but for how much longer, open data?)

Open education?

Well, it’s not impossible it is already here. Computing at Schools is an excellent example of open education. The head of ICT might not know how to teach Python to a bunch of 9 year olds and make it fun – but Mrs Miggins down the road does.

So please, when you hear the counter-argument to teaching kids to code being that teachers can’t do it, that’s not true, they can – it will be a good decade until they are officially trained to do so, but even then all they really need to know is how to teach, then they can choose what they teach, and it is an ongoing learning path, I am sure (unless it’s Latin or Ancient Greek).

Until then, let’s nurture open education. If you can code and know that you might be able to help a teacher, or write some open source software for use in schools – please do it.

I would encourage everyone to start with Computing at School (CAS) as it is already here and already plugging right into the heart of the teaching network. CAS is a grass-roots organisation and that is the only place we can start. Top-down simply will not work – anyone think we will still be learning Scratch in 2020?

Let’s accept that government has a lot to do and that it will take time to make the necessary policy changes, and let’s make sure that our voices are heard as people living in a democracy, use the petition system, the voting system and the fact that we are actually allowed to speak to our politicians, and they will listen (again please let’s play to the masses not the exceptions here).

But at the same time, let’s just do what we can to make it all work a little bit better in the mean time. Besides, we can experiment (a bit) and if we experiment with the best minds we can lay our hands on (in an open education way) then the risk is greatly reduced.

And I think the next generations will forgive us for trying, they may not forgive us for giving up. I hope they wouldn’t anyway.

Please take time to sign the e-petition – http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/15081

And here is a link to Computing at Schools – http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/