Yesterday’s post was on the potential for real-life job preparation that computer science in schools could be. There are, of course, a number of reasons to argue with that idea, some more valid than others. Over the next few days, we’ll touch on a couple of them.
One of them goes like this: “Programming is what, like, the super duper smart guys in movies do! Isn’t that way too hard for kids?!”
In a word, nope.
We’ll talk at length later about this misrepresentation of computing in entertainment and culture more broadly (I’m looking at you, Apple Geniuses) and how it perpetuates both tech fear and stereotypes. For today, though, let’s just take a second to talk about what writing code is: it’s giving a computer a set of directions to complete a task. It can be done in any of a number of programming languages, which are just that: languages. And language is a thing our brains are naturally wired for.
Sure, many programming languages have more formal structures and rigid grammars than most human languages, and we have to write new ones consciously rather than letting them naturally evolve over time. At their core, though, they’re still languages, and kids in several countries (including Vietnam, Estonia, and now the UK) are picking them right up. I get as excited as anybody about kids in the news who write apps and Minecraft mods and whatnot – and I don’t mean to sell short anyone who’s motivated enough to seek out resources and dedicated enough to stick with a project – but I’m leery of seeing them heralded as prodigies.
Before fellow linguists jump down my throat, though, let me be clear about what I’m not saying here. We’ve convinced ourselves for a long time that kids are somehow magically still better language learners than adults, which may or may not be true. A huge difference between child and adult learners, though, when it comes to computers, is the fear I mentioned before. In learning, especially language learning, we talk about the affective filter, more or less the idea that if you’re scared or stressed out or anxious, it’s way harder to learn things. Kids are better learners of programming languages not because their brains are better wired but because they haven’t learned yet that they should panic about trying.
I’d really, really like to teach the Mommy and Me of programming, more or less : workshops wherein a parent/preliterate pair create an interactive storybook or holiday card together. My suspicion is that parents who would never seek out that kind of thing for themselves or be scared that their questions would be too dumb would give it a try if it were pitched as being for their children, and then they’d be able to see firsthand that it is something kids can learn. And, of course, there’s the added bonus of demonstrating to parents that screentime can be social time with their kids rather than isolating them…but that’s another story for another day.