14469151_sMy children attend one of the top-performing public school districts in the state of Massachusetts. Massachusetts, in turn, has the top performing public school system in the nation by most accounts (though that is a matter of some debate). Why, then, is technology education in my town - and so many others like it- so lost in the woods?

Let’s back up. It goes without saying that there’s a massive transformation going on in our society. We’re witnessing a tectonic shift in our economy from manufacturing to knowledge-based industries and the pervasive use of technology and computers across industries and professions, from manufacturing to medicine and everything in-between.

Considering all that, you would assume that the focus of our K-12 technology curriculum would be producing students who are very comfortable using technology in all its forms - computers, mobile devices and so on. But you’d also want to produce students who aren’t merely technology consumers (“I buy Angry Birds and play it on my iPad”) but technology creators (“I wrote a game that’s better than Angry Birds, and sold it on the AppStore.”) This isn’t a crazy idea. After all, our language arts curriculum isn’t just designed to just produce students capable of “using a pen and paper” and “creating grammatically correct sentences.” We aspire to graduate students who are capable of formulating and expressing original ideas in words and writing. Sure, it doesn’t always happen, but we aim high.

Unfortunately, in my town and in most towns in the U.S., just the opposite is true when it comes to technology education. Consider Massachusetts. The Bay State’s vision for technology education is articulated in the Massachusetts Technology Literacy Standards and Expectations, a 2008 document published by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE for short). This document isn’t law, but it lays out the basic guidelines that most districts use to craft their own technology curricula, so it carries a lot of weight.

The Standards and Expectations document hits some of the right notes - it talks about teaching students about the impact of technology across a variety of disciplines: ethics, health and safety, society, etc. Students learn about issues like plagiarism (and how Internet-based research can make it easy) and cyber bullying. All good.

There’s a lot of focus on using computers as research tools - students in grade 6 to 8 need to “demonstrate effective searching and browsing strategies when working on projects,” “collect, organize, and analyze digital information from a variety of sources, with attribution” and “use and modify databases and spreadsheets to analyze data and propose solutions.” All good.

In grades 9-12, the bar is raised a bit higher. Students are asked to be able to create multimedia projects like slide presentations, podcasts and the like. They’re asked to do more sophisticated layouts using word processors, and some advanced spread sheet operations like the use of pivot tables and formulas. Advanced search strategies (aka “Google dorking”) are in there, as well as demonstrating “a basic understanding of addressing schemes (e.g., IP addresses, DHCP, DNS.” Fine.

So what’s the problem? First: too many of the State’s benchmarks in these standards are skills that don’t really need to be taught. The use of search engines, skills for navigating a graphical interface, using word processing programs and adapting to new devices are skills that most young people - digital natives - absorb naturally, without the aid of an instructor. We could just as easily add “walking upright” and “speaking” to the Kindergarten benchmarks, but there’s no need - kids already learn those things before they arrive at school. Re-teaching skills to students in 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th grade that they mastered in third grade just creates bored and disinterested students, right? If you have doubts, ask a teenager.

In my opinion, what we need are benchmarks that take into account a student population of digital natives, and that will push students not just to consume technology, but to truly harness it and shape it to their own needs. In short: kids need to code - and have fun doing it. The question is: should schools be in the business of teaching students how to program? You’d think “yes,” but new research says “maybe not.”

In a presentation this month at a conference for SIGSCE (The Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education), researchers at The University of California, San Diego presented a study of 40 girls (ages 10 to 12). The researchers created a game - CodeSpells - designed to teach Java programming. Students were asked to play the game in a “non -institutional” setting (that is: not a classroom), with a goal of engendering “the sense of sustained, playful, creative exploration driven entirely by the learner.”

Their findings? The girls mastered the basics of Javascript after just an hour playing CodeSpells. Of the six groups of girls observed, 90% of their time was spent exploring the 3D world and/or 10290928_sediting code (as opposed to, say, chatting amongst themselves). “Subjects did not ask “What am I supposed to be doing?”, nor did they seem at a loss for activities to engage in. The simple directive to “do interesting things” was sufficient for inspiring subjects to give structure and shape to their own activities. In other words a “learner structured” mentality developed within the lab in which the acquisition of knowledge was driven by student interest, not the curriculum or the instructor.

The researchers say that their work has implications for the growing field of educational coding, including kid-centered development frameworks (or IDEs) like Scratch (from MIT) and Alice. In other words - we need to teach kids to code - to be technology creators, not just consumers. The problem is, school probably isn’t the best setting to do it in. That’s food for thought.

About Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts is an experienced technology writer and editor that has spent the last decade covering hacking, cyber threats, and information technology security, including senior positions as a writer, editor and industry analyst. His work has appeared on NPR’s Marketplace Tech Report, The Boston Globe, Salon.com, Fortune Small Business, as well as ZDNet, Computerworld, InfoWorld, eWeek, CIO , CSO and ITWorld.com. He was, yes, a guest on The Oprah Show — but that’s a long story. You can follow Paul on Twitter here or visit his website The Security Ledger.

Comments (9)

fglynn | April 11, 2013 2:04 pm

Very interesting Paul. I agree with your views here. I came across an article in an Irish newspaper this morning about a young kid that taught himself programming when he was just nine, purchasing a book about computer languages. By age 10, he was programming in Java, HTML and CSS http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/technology/schoolboy-entrepreneur-makes-his-mark-on-world-of-gaming-1.1356147/schoolboy-entrepreneur-makes-his-mark-on-world-of-gaming-1.1356147

jlavery | April 11, 2013 2:22 pm

Great points, Paul. We should depend on ambitious students to teach themselves how to code. Aside from the fact this probably contributes to insecure coding practices, it does nothing to foster an interest in technology in other students. An interest in almost any subject has to be fostered and encouraged. If our schools aren't helping kids become interested in technology careers, we have to hope they decide they are interested on their own. And that probably won't happen.

Chris | April 11, 2013 2:50 pm

An interesting counter-argument to your view was posted by Jeff Atwood a while ago. It was titled: Please Don't Learn To Code

Granted you are advocating more for kids to learn coding at an early age, rather than later in life, Jeff still makes several good points. I think one of the biggest issues with programming is having the background to do it professionally in the first place. It takes people years to really master the concepts and ideas necessary to write solid code that accomplishes a problem without overcomplicating it or creating more problems.

I suppose if you really dedicate yourself and start earlier in life, this should be less of a burden. Nevertheless, no matter how early you start, you cannot possibly get exposed to all the programming concepts (in depth) that you will inevitably need to draw upon later in your life.

Karl | April 11, 2013 6:02 pm

My favorite stab at this problem is the TEALS program:


Basically, there are a lot of professional developers interested in teaching kids to code but not interested in being full time teachers. The program works by having partner schools offer CS as a first period class. A group* of volunteer developers teaches the class 4 days out of the week while the teacher provides support, learns the material with the class, does the grading, and covers the last day. This works out because hours for most developers are reasonably flexible so you can roll in at 10:30 AM and do a full day's work and nobody really minds. It's a fairly serious commitment for the volunteers since there's training/lesson planning but it's something that can be done now and provides a (IMO sane) place to start.

* In NYC where the program is starting up next year it looks like 2 teachers/2 TA volunteers per class, commitment for any one person is 2 days/week.

gasstationwithoutpumps | April 12, 2013 11:57 am

I think that you are falling for the "digital native" myth:
"The use of search engines, skills for navigating a graphical interface, using word processing programs and adapting to new devices are skills that most young people – digital natives – absorb naturally, without the aid of an instructor. "

My experience with current college students in engineering fields is that few of them are effective at using Google and that the Word users have trouble putting page numbers on their pages, doing citations with EndNote, getting page breaks right, or doing cross-references. They know how to type, and sometimes can do italics, but their ability to use their tools is at about a 7th grade level. They don't pick up this stuff on their own, because they don't even know that they ought to.

fglynn | April 12, 2013 1:15 pm

another good article on this topic I just saw today - http://venturebeat.com/2013/04/12/why-your-8-year-old-should-be-coding/

Paul | April 12, 2013 2:41 pm

Interesting. The site mentioned in that Venturebeat article (tynker.com) looks an awful lot like the Scratch IDE from MIT. Not sure if they just rolled their own version of it?

I think the core points are the same, though: we should be starting early and putting this type of literacy on par with reading, writing and math.

Teaching kids to "code" isnt synonymous with "getting them hired." That's 1990s talk. This is an integral skill that they'll have to apply in both their personal and professional lives. To that end, we should get creative about how we do it. We should no more focus on syntax and formal coding discipline than we would stop kids from tackling paragraphs until they could get their sentences and spelling to be grammatically flawless, or forbid language students to try to have a conversation until they'd mastered all the vocabulary and irregular verb tenses.

At a basic level, coding is about problem solving, and a way of thinking logically and breaking down complex events and actions into their constituent parts. Introducing these ideas to young, plastic minds gives students all the more chance to have those lessons take root. And, if we can get kids doing that in a way that's enjoyable and not dull and abstract and frustrating (as, say, learning BASIC was when I was in middle school), then - great!

Brad | April 13, 2013 7:32 pm

BTW, Java and Javascript are two entirely different languages.

Jen | November 4, 2013 2:27 pm

"you’d also want to produce students who aren’t merely technology consumers (“I buy Angry Birds and play it on my iPad”) but technology creators (“I wrote a game that’s better than Angry Birds, and sold it on the AppStore.”) This isn’t a crazy idea."
- No, this is not a crazy idea at all! Public and private schools have a very difficult time providing meaningful and advanced instruction on how to code and create video games, etc. The good news is that there are other outlets that do provide students with this opportunity!
Consider sending your kids and teens to <a href="http://www.idtech.com/locations/massachusetts-summer-camps/" rel="nofollow">iD Tech Camps</a>! Our campers learn to develop a mobile app, learn to code in C++/Java/iOS, create a video game, mod in Minecraft, build and program robots, or make a movie with special effects. Imaginations soar as ages 7-17 transform interests into projects of their own. Weeklong day and overnight STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) summer programs held at over 80 prestigious universities in 28 states including MIT, Harvard, Bentley, Merrimack, Amherst and others. Fun, project-based learning for beginner to advanced students in small classes (8:1 student to instructor ratio, guaranteed). Year-round learning with iD Tech 365. Also, 2-week, teen-only iD Tech Academies for ages 13-18. Visit www.iDTech.com or call 1-888-709-TECH (8324).

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