While it’s great to see the coverage of children coding, it puzzles me why journalists set them apart from the rest of us. How many articles in the general media refer to ‘boffin’ or ‘whizz kid’?
On one hand it’s flattering, but on the other hand is it helping to proliferate the idea that computers are magic, or “I couldn’t possibly do it”. Take the latest video about YRS http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23663350. The opening line ‘Meet the next generation of computer programmers’ suggests to me that a label has been attached to the children, suggesting their chosen profession, not that for the next generation, we’ll all have to be able to program a computer. Just over half way though, there’s then a scene of panic, suggesting how complicated it is to learn to code unless you’re some sort of whizz kid. The video features participants in Young Rewired State, a movement to try and get more people using computers to solve problems.
I was a mentor at one of the 40 Young Rewired State centres that challenged your people to build a phone app or website in a week. All the centres met at the Custard factory in Birmingham over the weekend to see what had been made and to swap experiences and generally have fun.
The overall winner was Picycle, an app that indicated directions for cyclists with LEDs. Personally I was pleased it was recognised as I always love to see hardware hacking. And it was powered by a Raspberry Pi. I really want one!
While I was impressed by the knowledge shown by some participants, I was more impressed by those that had not coded before. By the end of the week, everyone in our group had done some coding and contributed to a new app. I found it an immensely positive experience, with everyone, adults included, learning something new. From the start we were taken aback by some of the young people reeling off their competences and discussing the technical merits of one language over another; clearly they’d spent a lot of time studying and practising their art. To me though, more inspiring was the nine year old and his sister who’d never coded before, yet by the end of the week had decided they wanted to spend the rest of the summer learning more.
Did they arrive at the centre as computer geniuses? No. They just had an open mind and a willingness to experiment and learn. Did all their code work first time? No, and I’m yet to meet a professional programmer whose code always does either. However, by the end of the week they’d beaten the bugs and they had made a website that was novel and a real need for. And above all everyone had a good time.
So, maybe rather than talking about computer whizz kids with some inherent magical techie powers, perhaps it’s more about recognising the hard work, determination and above all willingness to have a go. Maybe articles in the future wanting to grab the headline could use adjectives like ‘fearless’ rather than going for the stock set. That way, more people might realise, actually they can program!