At school, we teach children about applicable skills using artefacts that date quickly, like MS Office. We also teach them foundational disciplines and techniques that don’t date, like physics. In IT, we’ve lost sight of the underlying discipline, resulting in focusing too much on technology and not enough on ideas. Simon wants children not to consume technology, but to be creative with it… as a parallel, to be writers of books as well as readers.
Computer scientists are viewed as geeky, but the subject should be thought of as foundational for all. Computer science is about information, computation, algorithms, re-usable skills, communication, coordination, programming, abstraction, modelling, design. All abstract words, so Simon is showing a video of children each holding a number and learning how to sort. The exercise encouraged children to ask questions about doing things better. Now about communication. Can Simon and a friend have a public conversation to agree on a private key that can be used to encode conversation and make it private to them? It’s possible online using what’s known as Diffie-Hellman key exchange.
Why computer science for every child? All children learn science, but not all will become physicists. It’s about learning about the world around us, so we become more empowered. Similarly with the digital world that we inhabit. Computer science has helped us understand the natural world too, such as distributed computation in termite nests, or how human cells decide whether to become kidneys or lungs. And computer science also provides generic applicable skills. (All subjects say they provide generic applicable skills; it just happens to be true for computer science!)
As of 2014, there will be a new school subject and curriculum in England, from primary age onwards. It is being observed around the world in other countries thinking about the same issues. The new challenge is to encourage and equip existing computer science teachers to deliver the new curriculum. Many of them don’t have enough background in computer science, so they need help from the IT sector, including anyone in the audience today. The Department of Education is consciously standing back, so this is the big society in action.
Simon chairs the Computing at School group, a grass-roots organisation, which is at the centre of the challenge of training teachers across the country. If you are an IT professional, get involved. If not, at least talk to your schools.
What are we hoping to gain for our children from this? [Simon’s talk follows well from Sonia’s] That they are engaged, curious, playful, creative, empowered, informed, and employed(!).