Year 8 is too late (part 2)

A whole year and a half ago, in August 2011, I wrote a post called: Year 8 is too late, this post is an update to that one, because – worryingly – this is not recognised as an issue. To me it is blindingly obvious and I suspect it is to most people when you stop and think about it. Back in 2011 the reference was to educating girls in computing and less about the fact that programming was not being taught in schools – which has obviously become the topic du jour, thankfully.

So I would like to reiterate the problem and outline the solution:

  • children are not being taught digital literacy in our schools
  • knowing how to use software products and shiny kit is not the same as being digitally literate
  • understanding how the web works is a fundamental right for every person living in the 21st century, how else can we know and understand how and what choices are made on our behalf (read Douglas Rushkoff Program or be Programmed on this matter)
  • if in the UK we outsource the building of our ideas, because we have failed generations by forgetting to teach basic programming skills to keep up with technology, we become irrelevant muppets
  • spending time and money on fabricating a tech base in London, on a roundabout, is a complete farce if we are simply shop fronts with the technical talent having to be outsourced/imported because we neglected to educate the people who are learning in the UK
  • naturally, if we want to move towards equality in technology, we must ensure we afford the girls the opportunity to learn at an age when they are excited and searching for more stuff to learn – ie in junior school, or from birth
  • children are being taught to fear the internet rather than understand it, with schools restricting more and more access, rather than enabling them to understand what digital citizenship means; leaving them abandoned at 18, naive, unprepared and scared of what might happen, perpetuating the myth by avoiding too much understanding and simply being consumers of code-driven technology
  • the current solution is being authored by exam boards reinventing the ICT GCSE – this in itself is a problem because this is the hardest place to start, it is way too late, but everyone assumes the solution is on the way – it is not
  • the DfE can’t do anything about this other than highlight the problem, the schools have autonomy over what they teach and how – maybe we should have a policy change, I am not sure, but schools have the onus on them to address and resolve this
  • schools do not currently have access to the talent that can teach programming and there is no way to use traditional teaching methods – the industry moves too fast
  • computational thinking is not taught as standard – this is ridiculous
  • digital literacy is not seen as core. Digital literacy is as core learning as numeracy and literacy, “computeracy” is a terrible term but it MUST be understood to be as fundamental as maths and taught
  • this discussion is so old and in spite of much being written and understood about why this is important, nothing is being done, properly STILL(!) this is a national disgrace, we should be ashamed of ourselves
  • we have not even yet managed to incorporate digital learning in the classroom, so terrified are we, yet look at what is happening in South Korea simply enabling learning beyond the classroom is a start, certainly for learning how to code
  • we are falling behind all other countries by doing nothing more than shaking our heads at the problem and perhaps attending a one-day course on coding
  • even more worryingly, some of the solutions being mooted in schools involve ideation only, coming up with an idea for an app, then the creation of that app outsourced to India (getting them to do our kids’ homework) I think this is criminal and exacerbating a problem that is already terrible
  • computer science, including programming, is a new and separate subject, it is not a version of ICT, nor some newfangled way to do business studies, it is a separate and new subject for schools and should be inducted as so
  • our Universities do run computer science courses, that unsurprisingly do not require any ICT GCSE/A levels to qualify for the course… as a result of this, much of the programming section of the computer science degree is taken up by teaching young adults GCSE level computing – this is embarrassing and explains why few self-taught developers will bother going to universities, which means they miss out on the stuff they would really benefit from learning at University, plus the other immeasurable ’rounding off’ being in further education brings – this is not fair
  • if your child is ten or older and they have not begun to understand how the internet works and how to program, or even just computational thinking and logic – it is going to be hard for them, and that is unfair
  • there are jobs, thousands of jobs, unfilled, in this country alone – for programmers of all levels from technical leads to absolute beginners – and it is only going to get worse as more and more children leave school without 21st century basic working skills. At a time when we are broken and heading for triple dip recession, how can this not be seen as insanity? What the actual ****? Teach those kids those skills, get them into those empty jobs – kickstart the economy… no-brainer

Here is my fist stab at a solution to all of the above:

  • teach “computeracy” as a part of the core curriculum from year 5. Here is some advice from Matthew Applegate on what to teach at what age:

Year 5 = 9-10 age Computational thinking, logic, cause and effect (try Scratch, Google app inventor or Lego Mindstorms all visual based programming) or even Game Maker.

Year 6 = 10-11 age Should definitely be coding (try Processing very visual very quick feedback and free see for code examples and )

Year 7 = 11-12 age try XNA, iPhone & Android dev the program doesn’t have to be complex or world changing you just have to show them a way in. Also they love being able to use and create on up to date tech.

Year 8 = 12-13 age some of the best iPhone developers are 13 years old.

  • stop thinking of it as a nice to have and understand that it is a human right to be digitally literate and therefore have some measure of control and choice in the 21st century
  • encourage every child you know age 10 or under to become digital makers – find and use those online resources, for example Mozilla’s web maker – designed for everyone, let it be natural
  • fight hard, ask your school, don’t think it is being dealt with – it is not
  • learn how to teach basic programming and computational thinking and get down to your local junior school and offer your services – in the same way you would go and listen to kids reading, it is just as important
  • focus on the under tens, I am afraid the 10yrs+ kids are going to have to fight it out for themselves if they are so inclined – if they have not already done so
  • let the exam boards work on changing the structure and content of computer science GCSEs/EBACCs and A Levels, but be prepared that this will be a long-burn slow-win until we have taught the basics to the junior school kids

Year 8 is too late

Every time we run Young Rewired State, indeed pretty much every time Rewired State runs any hack, we are asked:

What is the male/female ratio?

The answer to this question is usually 5% max female.

Sometimes people then look at me expectantly for me to explain what I am going to do about this, and I usually look a little bit scared.

 To be honest, finding developers of any age or gender, willing, talented and happy to either volunteer their time or give up a weekend (even if it is paid) to help government or organisations as they emerge blinking into the open digital world, is challenging enough. But to answer the girl question – so far I have been at a loss really, and sometimes irritated by the question. Why is no one ever happy?

But yet… it is an important question; and pertinent to me, as the mother of two daughters, one of whom is crying out to code, counts down the days to come to work with me on a hack day – and often fills in the memory gaps where I have missed vital sections of presentations.

The answer

Kidding, I don’t really know the answer, but Courtney Williams (a mentor from the National Museum of Computing, Bletchley Park, at Young Rewired State (YRS) this year) and Wendy Grossman (a freelance writer who followed and diarised YRS this year) have volunteered to look at some of the data we have and do some clever brainy things. This research will kick off in September 2011 and I will keep you all posted.

In the mean time, here’s my personal opinion based on a few years of working with developers of all ages, children of all ages and being a Mum of an aspiring girl-geek (9) (and a teenage daughter who has no interest whatsoever – she can be the ‘control’).

=========warning====personal opinion====not based on data====based on surmise and thinking=========

I find it relatively easy to understand and explain the lack of girl geeks, in YRS as well as in the grown up world. Here goes:

  • girls get self-conscious and socially conscious at around puberty/aged 12-14ish
  • coding and digital prowess is still niche at a young age, self-taught by the studious. Often considered a bit nerdy in senior school, where it is not (nor ever has been) taught as a part of the curriculum; therefore those who code have taught themselves. Teaching yourself something that should really be covered as a part of lessons, is a bit like doing extra homework – *why* (ask many teens) on earth would anyone do that?
  • there is no way the majority of hormonally challenged, desperate to find their place in the world, teenage girls would risk ridicule or isolation by doing such a thing – let alone be open and proud about it? (Boys of the same age have different social challenges and do not measure their societal worth so much by peer review aged 13/14)

This is why I reckon YRS gets a higher female sign-up but greater drop-out rate just before the event. They sign up because they want to, they drop out because they cannot face the potential embarrassment <- if only they knew how heralded they would be by the achingly cool. But even the achingly cool kudos doesn’t win against the female peer group pressure.

What’s the answer?

Well, I hate to limit this to just the girl geek question, but perhaps in solving the problem of a dearth of female coders we can make a big dent in the broader problem of the lack of teaching any coding languages in the National Curriculum – anywhere.

Forget enticing computer science degrees, or trying to encourage teenage girls to pick up Python…

Year 8 is too late

Start teaching coding as a part of the curriculum in Year 5. At this point the maths is strong enough in most kids. The IT curriculum has fostered a familiarity with computing and computers and the young minds are ready to start learning programming languages. Indeed they are creative, excited and have not yet developed any association, good or bad, with certain subjects.

I don’t suggest replacing the teaching of IT, that really helps kids get to grips with spreadsheets and word processing skills (yeah OK, Microsoft products, but hey). This is a new subject, an emergent but critical one – as critical as the traditional STEM subjects with which we are all so familiar.

If  it can be introduced as a part of the central curriculum in Year 5, I bet you my last penny that by the time those kids are drawn up through the education system, you would find far less of a disparity between the sexes – and maybe even an increased number of talented young people with an ability to manipulate open data, relate to code and challenging each other to design and build digital products that you and I have not even begun to imagine. Have a little imagine now… good innit?

Make one change: teach coding in Year 5 and thereafter, make it a part of the curriculum (as relevant and necessary as the traditional STEM subjects).

If you want to talk about this, share knowledge, do anything, then I will track what I can on twitter through the hashtag #yr8is2late

But I am only one person and this is not a personal campaign (yet) I want to do what I can, and I can share knowledge and experience, but it takes far more than YRS, Courtney, Wendy and myself to make a difference. And this difference would be for all young developers, not just female.