back to article Should we teach our kids how to program humanity out of existence?

"Kids tend to spend far too much of their childhood in an unproductive way," it says here. I quite agree. It was the same when I was a child. All that counting numbers and spelling words they made me do over the years was a massive drain on my television-watching time. "Research shows that children have an increasing problem …

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  1. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

    I wonder if this will accidentally have the opposite effect. Many of my age learned to program in our own time because it was fun and interesting.

    Make it a 'subject' from an early age and suddenly everybody will be trying to get away from it and we'll end up with a generation of programmers who are solely university trained. Ie: know absolutely fuck all because they had no inclination to learn on their own.

    1. MiguelC Silver badge

      Oh I don't know about that, first contact I had with a personal computer was at school, aged 11. And from that moment I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life was making that machine do what I told it to! Convinced my parents and remaining family to contribute to buy me a ZX Spectrum for my birthday (I was one of the first kids in school to have one, with much envy around), started programming BASIC, then moved to assembler then started making money writing small programmes and games, until it was enough to buy my first proper PC (a Schneider with - not one! - but two floppy disk drives!), rinse, repeat. And still going strong (although less hands-on and more SW design now).

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        But if it had been a "proper subject" that you learned at school you would all have been in rows chanting the table of Sinclair basic commands and memorising memory addresses to regurgitate in exams.

        That would probably have put you off about as effectively as times-tables puts people off appreciating maths.

        1. MonkeyCee

          Hmmm

          My experience of IT teaching in schools is it's a position that's either held by the oldest non-STEM teaching member and functions as a bad introduction to word processing (typing classes -> computer classes) or it's run by an enthusiastic young 'un (and thus highly variable). Almost always there where *much* better "computer as a tool" subjects where the computers where incidental to the work, but alos provided much more useful skills. Art classes using Adobe products, GIS stuff in geography, video editing in drama etc.

          Programming also hasn't suffered too much (yet) from pointless fuckery from on high, which is often the issue for many of the hated subjects at school. I've a fairly high level of math knowledge/ability, and so have tutored many a struggling student, and I've yet to find anyone who didn't *get* it if you bother to explain it in terms the can relate to. Trig can seem horribly complicated, but relate it to physical objects and it's fairly simple to understand. Algebra is calculating constant unknowns, again physical visualisations often work. Applied statistics to games makes it more appreciable. The biggest hurdle is often that the student does understand, but thinks "it can't be this simple" and then puts an extra hurdle in their way.

          As for times tables.... didn't that go out with the dinosaurs? It still seems a bit preferential to the "enforced" teaching of new math, despite the fact that "new math" is closer to how I do mental arithmetic, it seems to focus on the steps rather than the principle. The main points of times tables (to me at least) was to identify possible factors quickly. Even numbers divide by 2; if the sum of the digits of a number is a multiple of 3, the it divides by 3; multiples of 5 end in 0 or 5, multiples of 10 end in 0. Breaking steps into easier to compute chunks.

          Teaching using an abacus is also quite neat if you want fast mental computations instead of using paper, although even when I'm visualising it my fingers still twitch when doing the calculations. Even though I've never used it in anger, using a slide rule is also great for younger minds.

          I'm also often surprised by which things I was taught in school that have been the most useful to me in my adult life. Knowing how to (safely) use a sewing machine, axe, bandsaw, circular saw, soldering iron, drill press, lathe and potters wheel have all served me well, while being taught how to make a piece of wood square using only hand tools and how to write a balanced budget are things that I've spent waaaaay more time post school than many of my academic subjects.

          For whatever reason politicians (and Jo Public) seem to think they not only know more about education than educators, but they get to fuck around with it. As compared to almost any other area, where at least some bowing to reality is done.

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      I did sciences at A level and read the books that the english students were made to study - I loved them, they hated them. I started programming at 15 on bits of paper someone took to the tech and returned with the (shit) results. We programmed in FORTRAN IV (not shouting it was uppercase then) on an almost permanently 'hardware fault'ed ICL mainframe at uni and then a PDP11 for a term. That started to get interesting and managed to simulate a nuclear bomb - not what I should have been doing!

      What really turned me on to programming was, as a chip designer when CAD was at about puberty level, was realising how much work I could get computers to do rather than me having to do it.

      Laziness is the true mother of invention - but you cant really appreciate the true power of programming until you've done that shit by hand first.

  2. PhilipN Silver badge

    "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

    Agreed! Star Trek was rumoured to be based on episodes from the Odyssey. Kojak clearly derived inspiration from Aesop and other classicists. Noggin the Nog was existential and the Magic Roundabout surreal. By comparison the infrequent value of formal schooling was for example limited to finding out where Jethro Tull got the name.

    1. m0rt

      Re: "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

      Surreal - you want surreal? Take a look at Chorleton and the Wheelies, Willo the Wisp, Jamie and the Magic Torch, Mr Ben. Kids' TV was ace back then.

      1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

        Surreal - you want surreal?

        Waddaya expect. Those were made when running a blood sample of a children entertainment professional would have shown an off-the-scale amount of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Magic Mushrooms and Good Ole Dope.

        Those days are sadly long gone - the past time of choice is now Bolivian Marching Powder or Bolivian Marching Powder. Expecting surreal (or creative) from someone who had a good line of that is overly optimistic. At best. So you get gung-ho shows where the characters (or contestants) do stupid things fast with lots of energy. As expected from someone running on a fresh supply of Colombian Supreme. Surreal? Strange? Weird? Creative? Some other time.

        1. Mage Silver badge

          Re: "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

          "children entertainment professional would have shown an off-the-scale amount of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Magic Mushrooms and Good Ole Dope."

          Doesn't sound like Oliver Postgate

        2. LionelB

          Re: "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

          Surreal? Strange? Weird? Creative? Some other time.

          So you've never seen Adventure time or The Amazing World of Gumball or Spongebob Squarepants or ... (or Teletubbies, for that matter).

          1. macjules Silver badge

            Re: "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

            HAH! Your surrealist argument pales into globular fractal distortions when we can mention such luminaries as The Clangers and Pogles' Wood (Oliver Postgate, you are my God .. well, almost), The Banana Splits, Camberwick Green, Crystal Tipps and Alistair (cry Scott Adams, I know where you got Dilbert from), Trumpton or The Wobbles.

      2. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

        I was off work ill one day when I saw a cartoon called Dr Snuggles - it was brilliant. I put it down to Hills Bronchial Balsam which contained morphine acetate in those days. I set the video for other episodes.

        Found out many years later some of it was written by John Lloyd and Douglas Adams. Almost as good as Maid Marion and her Merry Men!

      3. Long John Brass Silver badge

        Re: "a massive drain on my television-watching time"

        Vision-On was also a favourite :)

  3. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    Programming or coding?

    Placing coloured blocks of code is still a form of programming being it a robot or whatever. Will this arouse interest in the kids to later on pursue a career in IT? Or should they rather learn to write actual programs and feel the real pleasures of coding assembly and stuff?

    I'm actually with disgustedoftunbridgewells on this. About 25 years ago cooking classes became mandatory for all pupils around here (before only for the female). Did this lead to a surge in boys becoming chefs? Certainly not. And when thinking about domestic cookery I believe Jamie Oliver had by far a greater impact than those classes taught at school.

    What is needed for children to choose a certain career path are positive experiences or role models in the respective profession. They might be found in school - for someone wanting to become a teacher. But role models for most other professions are rather found outside school and its curriculum.

    1. m0rt

      Re: Programming or coding?

      I had a Bigtrak. It was fun. I bought one of the recent re-released smaller jobbies for my nephew. It kept him entertained for at least an hour.

      I only wish the Blue flashy 'weapon' actually had real lasers*. But then this was when CD players were cutting edge tech.

      "But role models for most other professions are rather found outside school and its curriculum."

      And here you are bang on. Teaching is about effective teachers. Not role models, not mentors, not social workers, not childcare. But teaching.

      Sometimes I think this is lost sight of by the same class of people who attribute big data to a large apache log file, as AO recently wittily stated.

      FLASHBACK: What was that turtle robot thing that used the LOGO programming language? (bings** it) - HA - it was called the Turtle. Happy days...

      * Sorry, I obviously mean Frikkin' Lasers.

      ** Did I buggery. I used google like every other whipped 'net user.

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: Programming or coding?

        I only wish the Blue flashy 'weapon' actually had real lasers

        Never had a Bigtrak myself, always coveted one.

        The boys, however, do have one of the (smaller) modern re-creations. It came with a Nerf-gun style accessory. There is nothing like a bit of wanton destruction to motivate an 11 year-old. Set up a Lego model or a pile of no-longer-used building blocks or a row of minifigures and see how much of it you can program the Bigtrak to destroy given just four "missiles" and a limited amount of program memory.

        I agree with Mr. Dabbs that "logic" is the first hurdle that must be overcome, and children really seem to find it hard breaking problems down into steps, but the way to do it is to give them motivation.

        In the case of the boys it was a Bigtrak and destruction.

        In the case of my youngest girl it was the crushed-upon teacher at school who ran the afterschool coding club. Said 7 year-old came home from school one day, fired up a web browser and "programmed" from scratch (not with Scratch, but something similar) a "collect all the apples" game in about 15 minutes, complete with score, re-spawning apples etc. I watched her do it. The only things she imported were the images!

        I'm re-doing the heating at home. How's this for incentive? Each bedroom will have its own heating zone and a thermostat, probably constructed from an Arduino. If they don't learn how to program it before the winter, they'll freeze :-)

        M.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Programming or coding?

          "[...] and children really seem to find it hard breaking problems down into steps,"

          The problem I found with many IT people was that they could only think in serial steps. Introduce a timing race or some parallel computation and their brains just seized up. Several times they would produce a solution that was a series of linked building blocks. Yet the efficient answer recognised that most of the intermediate steps were an unnecessary "druidic ritual". They didn't see the big picture - just each hurdle as they came to it.

          There's always the "obvious" way - and then there is the "lateral" way that takes insight and innovation.

          1. Martin an gof Silver badge

            Re: Programming or coding?

            The problem I found with many IT people was that they could only think in serial steps

            Hmm, good point. Perhaps I shouldn't have said "steps", but rather "units of work". If you can't identify individual units of work in a problem it's difficult to get the problem solved. Once you have identified units of work you can then work out which ones are dependent ("I can't do this until I've finished doing that") and which ones are independent ("These two actions can happen at the same time").

            The beauty of something like Scratch is that each block of program is effectively independent and this sort of thing comes naturally.

            For the rest of us who grew up with linear Z80 or 6502 assembler, awful Sinclair BASIC or the vastly better BBC Basic, it's a big step. Maybe we should be teaching combinatorial logic, Boolean Algebra and even Gantt charts at primary school...

            M.

            1. m0rt

              Re: Programming or coding?

              @ Martin an gof

              "Maybe we should be teaching combinatorial logic, Boolean Algebra and even Gantt charts at primary school..."

              You utter, utter sadist.

              Were you a PE teacher in a previous life?

              1. Martin an gof Silver badge

                Re: Programming or coding?

                Were you a PE teacher in a previous life?

                Sorry, no :-) I did teach (primary) briefly, but I was rubbish at it so I went back to engineering.

                We had to do Gantt charts as part of my engineering degree (business studies!). I still haven't recovered, and I still haven't found a real-life use for them that can't be done more easily in another way(*).

                On the other hand I did quite enjoy flowcharts and Boolean algebra and binary maths when I did my A-levels. It turned out to be the last year those subjects were mandatory in A-level computer science for that particular exam board.

                M.

                (*)That said, we're about to embark on a huge project at home. This is the sort of thing that Gantt charts are supposedly designed for. I might give it a go.

                Or I might not.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Programming or coding?

            There's always the "obvious" way - and then there is the "lateral" way that takes insight and innovation.

            The problem with the "lateral" way is that its more error prone and harder to debug those errors when they occur, and much more difficult to understand once the "genius" who came up with it departs for his next great adventure in asshattery.

            There is a reason we break things down in to logical small blocks, it fucking works.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Programming or coding?

              "There is a reason we break things down in to logical small blocks, [...]"

              Not necessarily. It is easy to end up with bloatware that has many interface mismatches because no one tied them down to very unambiguous definitions.

              I once took on a project with one colleague to produce an enhancement to a system. The development department had pronounced it "impossible" - after the contract was already signed. In spite of that we delivered a fully working system three weeks ahead of the customer's deadline. It ran for many years with no major problems.

              At the same time a large project team was assembled to produce an almost identical enhancement for another customer. The project was abandoned after about nine months having not produced any working code.

              The difference was that my colleague and I knew the hardware and software inside out. One of our first tasks was to rip out some previous "blister" enhancements - and replace them with an orthogonal solution that meshed with the original designer's intentions for expansion.

              The other project's large team had no one who knew the hardware and software intimately. They assumed that it was just a task of defining changes for their proverbial Chinese army of coders.

              That happened many times in my career. You had to do the hard graft understanding how things worked before you could come up with design that would work within the constraints. It was not erudite obfuscation - but elegant simplicity. The chameleon tweak - rather than a large coding blister.

            2. wayne 8

              Re: Programming or coding?

              Use the 80/20 rule.

              80% of coding could be done visually with predefined code blocks and objects. Challenging, but ho hum. Code monkeys.

              Leaving 20% of coding that needs a dev who can visualize the solution to solve a new situation.

              I would rather work on the 20% issues, coming up with new solutions.

              I learned to code, then I was able to understand calculus by coding the formulas into a computer and printing (ascii art) the integral, etc. The finer the granularity of the iterations gets a closer approximation of the answer. I could see what was going on. I was math phobic up until that moment.

              Later I taught remedial math for a summer to sixth grade boys. One issue was multiplying a four digit number by a three digit number, they were all sure they could not do it. I broke the problem into the smaller steps they could grasp. The ahh moments followed. They had learned basic, general problem solving.

              The point being the ability to visualize lower level details matters sometimes.

    2. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

      Re: Programming or coding?

      My bet is that the Great British Bake Off has had the most impact on convincing people that baking is fun and worthwhile. I'm a beneficiary of that as SWMBO has taken up baking to a delicious extent - she's gone from a bad cook to an excellent one.

      I can't see The Great British Code Off being such great TV though.

      1. d3vy Silver badge

        Re: Programming or coding?

        I considered Britain's got talent once..

        Lowell : "What's your talent?"

        Me : Im pretty good at c#

        I would then proceed to sit on stage with a laptop swearing intermittently for a few hours before showing them my creation.

        Golden buzzer material I think you'll agree!

        1. wayne 8

          Re: Programming or coding?

          For reality show add various team members, including a raj, interrupting every five to seven minutes.

          The raj will ask "how long will it take to complete the code?" To which I responded, "It will now take the amount of time I have spent talking to you plus whatever time it takes."

          I never got promoted there, but the raj never bothered me again.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Programming or coding?

      What? No design, documentations nor tests?

      At least they are allowed to do what they like to achieve it. I was told by my manager that I can only change 2 files to implement the new stuff - I ended up changing 6 files.

      I have already told him I plan to resign a few months ago so I can do whatever I like. If he keeps up this stupid manager knows all act. I will just walk out immediately.

      May be this is something the kids can learn - don't take shit from incompetent management/government :P

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        Re: Programming or coding?

        I'm right there with you AC, I have a General Manager who gets three estimates or prices for everything he does ( I think that includes bog paper each day) even if it is for something urgent. Always gives a finish date way before the real one and then keeps moving it back bit by bit. Most of the questions he asks are either just stupid or just so that he can say something.

        I have called him a cupid stunt to his face twice so far and give my opinions loudly, all he does is slap me on the shoulder occasionally and asks if everything is OK, then he runs off before I can reply.

        For kids now as always in the past, teaching them to read and comprehend, to spell and write

        (whether it is with a pen,pencil or keyboard),and basic arithmetic and maths in an interesting and relevant to life format.

        Once you have those foundations then teach logic and problem solving, engineering , the sciences and coding but not in the dry dusty manner that most of my teachers taught in.

        If children can't relate to what they are being taught, it just becomes rote and only for passing exams, make it relevant and interesting and they might want to do it for it's own sake.

    4. Bernard M. Orwell

      Re: Programming or coding?

      "Placing coloured blocks of code is still a form of programming..."

      Not only is it a good introduction to logic and program flow, in some corners visual coding is becoming the way forward. For a good example take a nose around Unreal Engine 4, which is possibly the best game-creation middleware available right now. Whilst you can code in C# for it, in the classical manner, it's primary interface is a drag and drop, box and block affair which is both intuitive (mostly) and very powerful.

      I've also come across coding tools for VR which consist of blocks, icon and snap tools for creating logic structures.

      Fascinating stuff, and I suspect the way of the future. Not that this should be a surprise for us at all - I cut my teeth writing assembler and turbo-pascal, but I can't remember the last time I did any coding in such a limited framework; since the advent of .net portability or even OO structure.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Bernard M. Orwell - Re: Programming or coding?

        Yeah, but in order to get to see the logic and structure and stuff you had to start with assembler and Pascal. You get to know what makes the difference between a software engineer and a code monkey.

        As for a limited framework, I would invite you to write a device driver using the intuitive and powerful drag and drop block and box interface.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Programming or coding?

        "Placing coloured blocks of code is still a form of programming..."

        Not only is it a good introduction to logic and program flow, in some corners visual coding is becoming the way forward.

        While this is probably true..there's still going to be one of "us" sitting a darkened room with a large monitor, a large coffee or tea cup, a pile of reference books that will write the code that lets other paly with the blocks.

  4. d3vy Silver badge

    Is that what "kill all humans" block does in scratch?

    1. DropBear
      Devil

      We can only hope "human" is declared as float and direct "==" comparison attempts will fail more often than not...

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Holmes

    Is it programming?

    Yes it IS programming. Very basic.

    I think the oldest example of programming is rope wrapped around a spindle/axle of an old automated cart* in Greece. It could be "programmed" where to go, by which direction the rope was wound, and so could drive onto stage, change direction, and drive back all by its self.

    l guess all programming is logic operations. Then understanding sequential and parallel commands and logic trees.

    *Bucket of water/sand/rocks on a long rope pulled down by gravity to drive it along: https://www.newscientist.com/blog/technology/2007/07/programmable-robot-from-60ad.html

    and: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19526111-600-the-programmable-robot-of-ancient-greece/

    1. Maty
      Headmaster

      Re: Is it programming?

      '... old automated cart in Greece.'

      Alexandria is not in Greece. It's in Egypt. The guy who did it worked for the Library in Alexandria, and had the name of Hero. He also developed a steam engine (the aeliopile) and the world's first vending machine.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Is it programming?

        "Alexandria is not in Greece. It's in Egypt."

        I think Egyptians just get tired of reminding people that (a) they aren't Arabs and (b) when European archaeologists were excavating ancient Egyptian civilisation, they should have had the humility to consider that when the Egyptians were constructing stone cities and long term planning grain storage using papyrus-based ERP systems, the ancestors of the archaeologists were living in wattle huts with smokeholes.

        1. DropBear

          Re: Is it programming?

          "should have had the humility to consider that when the Egyptians were constructing stone cities"

          Sic transit gloria mundi. Everyone knows how much "respect" yelling "first!" gets you in any forum. They actually got it lucky with barely a missing nose compared to Ozymandias...

          1. Vincent Ballard
            Coat

            Um

            Ozymandias was an Egyptian pharoah. Ramses II, to be precise.

      2. DropBear
        Trollface

        Re: Is it programming?

        "The guy who did it worked for the Library in Alexandria, and had the name of Hero."

        Hmmm. Weird. I could swear I haven't read that Neal Stephenson book yet...

  6. d3vy Silver badge

    If we are going to teach kids for IT careers we should do it right.

    Start with some vague requirements, "ok Timmy build me a robot that brings me things"

    Then supply the wrong tools, maybe give them duplo.

    Then tell them they only have until bedtime (you should spring this on them just before bed time) (also note that "bed time should not be substantiated, there is no actual time just a vague indication that it's some time in the future).

    Then change the nature of what you want... it's not to just bring me things, I want SPECIFIC things. Keep adding new things without extending the deadline.

    Finally tell them that they are being outsourced as you have found some Indian kids that will do it faster and for less money*

    *Bonus points give it two weeks then tell them that the outsourcing has gone titsup and they have to do it again (but to the timeline agreed by the outsourcer - dinner time!)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Childcatcher

      Don't they...

      Also have to train the other kids? I always got into trouble for not being a good example...

      1. d3vy Silver badge

        Re: Don't they...

        That's optional...

        It can be more fun to let the outsourcer do their own thing then give it back to your kids to support later (again with no training and little understanding of what the outsourced kids did)

        1. d3vy Silver badge

          Re: Don't they...

          You should also give the outsourced kids your kids pocket money (probably more too) to add to the realism.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Joke

          Re: d3vy

          Oh, I use to get that too, handed something by the brothers, then when the parents walk in, it's MY fault!

          Wait, are we talking about immature kids getting into trouble and arguing, or about children and parenting?

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Don't they...

        Also have to train the other kids? I always got into trouble for not being a good example...

        Yes, but be sure the "other kids" don't have your kid's native language as their native language. And add in some PHB equivalent between them for "clarification" purposes.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      That'd drive any kid mental and put them off it for life. It would also be self-evident to anyone that the adult is asking the kid to do nonsensical things.

      Can someone tell me why we are doing this again?

    3. Eric Olson
      Coffee/keyboard

      To increase the realism, find a second person to provide a not quite similar set of requirements through a friend who'll act as a business analyst on the project. Then demand that the one robot satisfies both possible users with no trade-offs or compromises. This way, they both can learn the joys of being set up for failure and conflict by indifferent (or malicious) management.

    4. wayne 8

      Interfacing the duplo with a lego system.

  7. Warm Braw Silver badge

    50 years of masturbatory teenagers

    There is an obvious way to interest teenagers in robotics while simultaneously keeping them distracted from thoughts of human annihilation*.

    *Though I suppose there is a risk of diminished fertility.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 50 years of masturbatory teenagers

      Obligatory reference to "Weird Science"

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090305/

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