14 August 2007

Encouraging the next generation of hackers

From Sara:

I suspect that many Parenthackers, like me, have their antenna constantly up for "how can I teach my kids to love computers like I did when I was a kid" (for me, that mostly means programming). Since Josie's less than 2, I think I have some time to figure it out (or even better -- one of you will figure it out for me!), but I bookmarked "Where's the 8 bit revolution for my kids" by Surj Patel on O'Reilly Radar. There are a lot of interesting and provocative things in the post, most of it from Normal Lewis -- how we do kids a disservice by flattering them for superficial technical prowess, a proposal to get them started programming in a form factor they are used to (cell phones), and a link to the Scratch programming language. It's a very worthwhile read.

We've discussed this topic before (Computer programming for kids), and Ross Mayfield (a fellow GeekDad) recently started a page on Wired's new How-to Wiki on the topic: how to teach a kid to program. We've also played with Lego Mindstorms programmable robots, but they're suited for older kids (I'd say 9 and up).

But Surj's post (and Sara's point) is broader: how can we encourage our kids to dig deeper into technology -- to go beyond customizing ringtones and playing games and unlock true creative potential?

(Oh, and Surj is a friend of ours, so I was excited to see his name come up here.)

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I am a firm believer that my playing with LEGO bricks extensively as a child helped prime my mind for the task of programming as a teenager and beyond.

I think constructive, creative play and exploration are a big part of the hacking mentality in general, so any toys that emphasize this are great for young minds.

Here's the thing - you can't make your kid love technology like you did. For us (and I count myself among the hacker generation, back in the day when all us 10yr olds had was machine language and TRS-80s), it was like an instinct that had always been there, and only with the coming of the software age did it have an outlet. Nobody taught us, we taught ourselves. Sometimes we were the ones that taught the teachers. And now we want to reverse it and say "How can I teach it to my kids" when our parents were never able to teach it to us in the first place. Understand that. It is not because your parents failed you, and you have to make up for it with your own kids. It is because your kids are positioned to make a quantum leap past your ability to understand what it is that they want to do, and it might not even be possible for you to help them in the way you think you can. Your children are destined to surpass you, that's the way the world works. I'm anxious for mine to do so.

My dad loves to tell the story of how he would come home from work every day and I would be standing in the door, waiting for him, to explain a bug I had in a computer program. I'm 10 years old. My dad's a butcher, he has no programming experience at all. But it was the very act of explaining the problem to him, and having him ask me unexpected questions, that almost always clicked in my brain and showed me the answer. I still use that technique today.

Encourage your kids to find the outlet for their own creative instincts and help them to take it in the direction it most naturally wants to go. That's the best favor you can do for them. They might not want to be programmers.
They may want to write stories, or paint, or sing songs or dance. Find ways to help them do that to the best of their abilities. Heck, find ways to help them redefine the nature of what it is to do those things in the first place, like we did for ourselves with software.

Here's another great package to help teach programming:

http://hacketyhack.net/

It's fantastic! A local teacher gave a talk about teaching programming to students and what the experiences of those students are. Here's a video:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1711561897321228308&hl=en

My dad always wanted me to learn how to program, but I had absolutely no interest in it. I loved putting computers together though. It was like messing with really cool looking Legos, heh.

That first sentence ("how can I teach my kids to love computers like I did when I was a kid") made me laugh! When I was a kid a computer was an enormous room-filling monstrosity with blinking lights and beeps and I only saw them on TV.

The first PC I used was some Tandy piece of junk in my high school. I hated it with a purple passion. Do I love computers now? Like I love chocolate and ice cream and chocolate ice cream!

Duane put it best in his response -- kids will do what they'll do and if we're doing our jobs right they'll outdo us!

I adore computers -- but not programming. Being a girl, I can't swear I didn't get taught (by the same pervasive attitude in my town in the 1960s that taught me to hate higher math) to be that way, but on the other hand, I'm fairly anal when it comes to editing just about any sort of copy EXCEPT code.

That said, I'm very given to hack just about anything else and have been doing so since long before there was a politically correct term (McGyvering, hacking, etc.) for the practice. My dad used to make his own oversized rubber bands out of old tire inner tubes and gaskets to go between ceramic lamp parts out of empty cereal boxes. I've fixed typewriters with ballpoint pen refills, retrieved helium balloons with duct tape, worked a screw-type jack with a long screwdriver when the jack handle went missing, and reattached one end of a shock absorber to my car with a green stick (the mechanic had trouble getting it out to put the proper bolt in, 4 miles down the road).

THIS kind of hacking, my kid is absolutely fascinated by. And, thankfully, seems to have the markers to be able to learn it; it's my experience that while you can be taught some of the specific tricks, you have to have an instinct for it to come up with your own. God knows my brother - whom my dad was trying to teach it to - was completely incapable of learning anything but specifics...

Point is, don't try to confine a love of computers to programming; I'm doing internet tech support for a living now, and am effectively the IT dept. for two households, going on three. My kid thinks I know everything there is to know about computers and wants to be just like me. What more can a mom ask?

I agree with Duane. As parents we can only guide our kids to do what suits them most. Not what parents want them to do.

I played Lego Mindstorms before and it's even a challenge for an adult like me with some IT knowledge ;-)

Ouch! The "like I did when I was a kid" comment is bittersweet, seeing how I am 45 and a first time parent as of Jan 30. Suffice it to say that computers were neither a part of my childhood nor of my grade school or college education. There was that atari 400 basic cartridge though. Still have it in the attic. Guess I'll be pulling it out in a couple of years.

my first computer was a commodore 64. actually, it was my father who was into it, but i played with it. "press play on tape" ... those were the days.
our children (6 and 11) play with lego, and lego mindstorms, and other random similar stuff. it's all so cool.
we've also used:
http://www.htmldog.com/


peace

Has anyone found a "LOGO" type program for Young children?

I looked around once, but it seems that colleges just want to make Logo fancy for 3-d graphics, not "keep it simple" for young kids to learn a little looping an such.

I remember 2 programs from younger years on Apple II. One was get / put something, turn, move, etc.

the other was "turn xx degrees, line on, move xx, line off, turn xx degrees, etc".

I'd love to find those again, with a KISS interface for KIDS! :)

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