Today’s school children - tomorrow’s developers

When my wife asked me if I’d go into the school where she works and teach her children programming I was sceptical. On the face of it, organising 32 eight year olds, some Macbooks and a day’s software development seemed like a daunting task. However, peer (wife) pressure prevailed and before I could refuse I was booked in for one day in the last week of term.

We didn’t have to look far for inspiration or resources and soon settled on the format for the day. We would use Scratch and get the children to create a maze game. They could work in pairs and use a kanban board to track their progress as they completed their tasks.

Setting foot in the school was like entering a different world. Staff scurrying along the corridors, parents dropping their children off and the chitter chatter of excited children discussing which classes they were going to be in next year.

Like a duck swimming on a pond, my calm, composed exterior belied a frantic rising panic about the day ahead. This was an alien world, with different rules, different faces and a bell which promptly marked the start of the school day.

I started the day by explaining that I am a software developer and spend all day every day coding. Given my nervous state at this point I was relieved to see that the children were somewhat impressed by this revelation. When they found out they were going to spend the day coding using Scratch there was audible excitement in the room with several exclaiming “Yes!” and fist pumps all round.
A good start then. With the practicalities out of the way (blackboard set up as a kanban board, Macbooks out and the children divided up into pairs) we began the first task. It was about now that I realised this was going to be a good day.

In the book “Born Digital” John Palfrey and Urs Gasser coin the term Digital Natives.

All of them are “Digital Natives.” They were all born after 1980, when social digital technologies, such as Usenet and bulletin board systems, came online. They all have access to networked digital technologies. And they all have the skills to use those technologies.

Where bulletin boards and Usenet have been replaced with Twitter and Facebook, this generation are so intertwined with technology they use a laptop like previous generations use pen and paper.

The natural ability of these children to find their way around software cannot be understated. Without exception, the children (who were working in pairs at this point) were able to import a crab sprite into their project and animate it so that it’s claws opened and shut.From here, the complexity of each task increased but every pair managed to complete the tasks and build their maze games. We kept a few more complicated tasks back for anyone who got that far (and several did).

Every time we introduced a new concept we brought the children back to sit in a circle and used an interactive whiteboard to show them what they were going to do next. We then sent them back (in their pairs) to their Macbooks to complete the task whilst we went around and helped them.

Probably the most impressive skill which emerged from this exercise was the ability of the children to solve their own problems. In several cases where I was asked for help, I found that the children would spot their own bugs (logic errors etc) often before I even worked out what the issue was. The core software development skills of applying logic, re-creating and solving problems are abundant in these children.

We concluded the day with the children playing each others’ games. There were giggles and exclamations as the children discovered bugs in their peer’s work. For example one of the mazes had a corridor so narrow that you couldn’t physically get past it without having to start again. However the results were impressive with plenty of creativity on show in the different maze designs and the games generally working as expected.

Reflecting on this day in the intervening weeks it strikes me that a lot of today’s school children are going to become software developers in the future. On the evidence of this day I would say the future of software development is in good hands. Lets just hope the education system doesn’t knock the natural ability and enthusiasm out of them before they reach their potential. One day they will embark on a rewarding career in software development and create software that none of us can possibly imagine which changes the world around us (hopefully for the better).

On a personal note, it is regrettable that I may have to trust my wife’s instincts on these matters in the future and agree to anything she says. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.


By: Codeweavers - 05/08/15

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