When it comes to technology, adults know more than children think they do

21st December 2012 at 00:00
The youth of today may think they are good with computers, but can they actually solve problems?

Back in the Nineties it was common in the school where I worked to have senior classes that contained a mixture of pupils and returning adults. This was particularly so in computing, where I don't think I'm immodest in saying that I was the Scotvec module king of our establishment. Another way of looking at it is that I was a science teacher with a computing qualification, so it made sense to give me the single-period module classes to fill up holes in the timetable.

Amid ticking checklists, I sometimes had a chance to reflect upon the different ways that the youngsters and the returners dealt with a problem. From the adults, I would hear an apologetic: "I'm really sorry, I must be doing something stupid here", whereas the teenage classmates simply announced: "This isnae workin!" The latter had the right attitude. Computers are incredibly dumb compared with people and it is the machine's lack of understanding that makes life difficult.

Recent articles in TESS have made me revisit the question: "Are children actually good with computers?" Most parents assume they lag behind their offspring. The truth, I think, is that the majority of children have an easy confidence with the hardware and software they use for their own needs. As to whether this is the same as being good with computers, if the computing situation was reflected in the motoring world, we'd have a population that knew how to drive and customise cars, but nobody who could design, build or repair one. Hence my interest in the Raspberry Pi computer and the coding initiatives reported in these pages.

There is a move to get pupils tinkering with circuits, to learn something about programming, the way they allegedly did in the heyday of the BBC Micro, though I don't recall seeing much of that in those days either. Children rote-learned tricks that looked impressive to baffled adults, but there was little problem-solving going on in most cases. Don't blame the kids for that - the type of thinking necessary to code does not come hardwired for the majority of people. It has to be nurtured. My first program was a dug's breakfast, but I later developed a liking for what I saw as Lego of the Mind.

The aforementioned Raspberry Pi is more than a programming platform. Indeed, if that were the only role it could fulfil it would be a waste of money, as free, open-sourced programming tools abound. Google "Python 2.6". Arguably, the best thing about the device is the awareness it creates that these skills matter. We've already let the rest of the world make everything for us. Don't let it happen with software design as well.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, used to be in awe of the Wordwise word processor for the BBC B.

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