I spent yesterday at a robotics boot camp for kids in Years 5 and 6. The kids had fun, to be sure; but the basic theme which seemed to be to challenge the kids to work things out for themselves taught them very little about robotics. They may, or may not, have learnt some useful life skills; but ultimately they did not learn much about conceiving, building, or programming robots.
Having a chat with the kids’ regular teacher and the specialist robotics teacher I once again advanced one of my favourite hobby-horses. It largely fell on deaf ears but now I’m going to share it with you.
Kids computing education is currently entirely misconceived. They are teaching our kids how to create a document in Microsoft Word or a Powerpoint presentation. These are NOT LIFE SKILLS. Now I would argue, and often do, that the useful life skill that ought to be taught is basic programming. That allows the kids to understand that the machines on which they depend for so much of their education and entertainment are not magic, but are the output of another human’s conception of logic applied to a clearly enunciated set of rules. If you learn the rules of programming and the get the idea that someone utilised them in a particular way you can navigate your way through any digital situations.
Why don’t schools teach programming? Because teachers don’t have the training or the skills. I understand that. Which in turn leads me to the main point. There is one they can do. One life skill that can and should be taught early. One thing that makes using a computer for programming, for doing an assignment, for filling in a form, for anything, easier: TEACH THEM TO TOUCH TYPE.
While I’m not arguing that we should give up on teaching our kids how to write with a pen, just think of the amount of time invested in teaching them to hold a pen correctly and form cursive letters. And then consider how much time is spent writing that way these days as an adult. In contrast we all spend our lives at a keyboard but absolutely no time is invested in teaching kids how to use it effectively. And does it matter? Yes it does. Typing ought to be done automatically, without thinking. Achieve that and you can focus on the words, on the ideas, not on where our fingers are. The minute you hunt-and-peck you are using brainpower on finding keys instead of crafting words.
I have to admit I can’t touch type. I use four or five fingers and all too often have to look at the keyboard. I’ve tried to learn several times but it’s much harder to have to unlearn and replace my self-taught method than it would be to learn the correct way from the beginning. The kids should be taught to type properly from the second year of school. By the time they get to year 4 or 5, most would be proficient enough to be able to use the computer sensibly to do the assignments that they are given.
There are so many learn-to-type programs around, and it is ultimately a mechanical process, that there is no real issue with teachers not being able to do it themselves in order to teach others. So this would be easy to introduce.
And it is all about teaching. As with the robotics boot camp I attended yesterday. There are some things that just need to be taught, the kids will not effectively work it out for themselves. You don’t learn effective typing techniques from playing Club Penguin or Minecraft; you just learn to get by. Perfect typing technique should not be the goal. But being able to type at a reasonable thinking speed without looking at the keyboard, that’s an outcome to aim for, and to teach to.
This shouldn’t be an issue dealt with at the school level. It ought to be in the curriculum for all schools. Teach a kid to use Microsoft Word and you are giving them a fish; teach them to touch type and you are teaching them to catch fish.
Teach them to program and you’re teaching them to make the rod, bend the hook and breed the fish – but that’s a battle for another day.