An interview with Dr. Oren Zuckerman, chief academic advisor for Tekkie Uni
A young girl uses a sensor and a simple app she’s coded to make sure her little brother stays out of her room when she’s not home. A group of children playing hide and seek create a digital device, that lets the hiders communicate with each other so they can collectively outwit the seeker. A child, who can’t go outside at night because it’s after their bedtime, writes a program that records sounds overnight so that in the morning, they can hear what the world sounds like when they’re sleeping.
In all of these situations, children used coding and digital skills to express themselves in the digital world.
Digital technology is everywhere in our daily lives. From apps to the Internet of Things, technology is part of our children’s world. Knowing how to code is essential when it comes to understanding that world.
“I think coding is important for children because it’s a language,” says Dr. Oren Zuckerman, chief academic advisor for Tekkie Uni. “It’s a language that helps them understand the world around them, just like any other language.”
Zuckerman earned his Masters and Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, where he studied and contributed to the development of Scratch, a block-based programming language designed especially for kids. He believes all children should learn digital skills, even if they don’t aspire to become software engineers.
“We don’t expect children to become the best programmers ever. Many children may only learn coding in school and not do anything with it, which is totally fine,” he said. “The reason to learn code is to develop new mental models that are essential for children to understand the world around them.”
All kids can benefit from coding
Any child with any set of interests can, and should, try coding, according to Zuckerman.
His research has focused on the impact of technology on human behavior, including learning through physical-digital interaction and digital outdoor play. In that research, he’s seen kids apply digital skills to many different activities, including traditional games
Take the example of one of the children mentioned above, a girl facing a timeless childhood dilemma: she doesn’t want her brother to come into her room without her permission. She might use her knowledge of code to design a program connecting a light sensor near the entrance of her room to an email account. Whenever someone walks past the light sensor and enters her room, she’ll get an email that someone was in her room.
“Kids are very creative in the way they connect code and physical activities,” said Zuckerman. “It’s not hard for them to make that bridge.”
For many children, coding also helps them connect with friends. Contrary to what adults might believe, kids don’t see coding as a solitary activity. When children make something in a coding course, their first impulse is to show their friends, said Zuckerman, either in person or online.
In fact, kids learn code more easily when they have a supportive group of peers learning with them.
“Learning is social,” said Zuckerman. “Children should learn with other children, as well as with adults. We want to think about how to leverage coding classes to promote social interaction and social learning.”
How parents can support their coding kids
Sometimes, when parents enroll their children in a course, they have inflated expectations. They may feel that their child is heading toward a career in software development. That’s not the case. Just as every kid on a soccer team won’t play in the World Cup, not every kid in a coding course will establish a start-up company.
Parents may also assume that children can pick up coding quickly and easily, simply because they’re young and growing up in a digital world. Zuckerman cautions against that – while children do learn to consume technology quickly — learning how to create digitally is a challenge, and it’s perfectly normal for kids to get frustrated while they’re learning.
“Learning a new language — all of us as adults understand how hard that is. That’s basically what kids are doing when they learn coding. So just appreciate the effort,” said Zuckerman. “Motivate them, tell them ‘This is not going to be easy, but you can do it.’
The best way to support your child during a coding class is simple. Rather than pushing them, simply take an interest in what they’re doing. Let them show you what they’ve made and let them progress at their own pace.
“Be a little more like a peer than a teacher,” said Zuckerman. “Just be interested. Ask the child to show you what they’re working on. Ask what happens here and what happens there, not to check their knowledge, but more like an interested peer who just wants to check it out.
From consumers to digital creators
Any child can and should learn how to code, but in the appropriate way and with the appropriate support. Older children with good writing skills can be taught traditional text-based code. Younger children or children who aren’t writers can learn block-based coding, in which students sequence, loop and remix existing blocks of code to create a program. Even kindergarteners can learn to code using specially-designed shape-based coding, which uses no text at all, but at such a young age, coding should be introduced only with a trained educator.
It’s much like reading and writing, says Zuckerman. Children develop fluency over time, eventually gaining an ability to understand and contribute to the world around them.
The goal is not to become expert writers – or coders — but to gain an initial understanding of the new language. But, like children who have just learned to read and write, children who have learned how to code have gained a little more control over their world. Rather than being a passive consumer of digital media, they’re now creators.
He’s seen it in the workshops he’s taught; 10 minutes in, once kids get a small win, they become excited and want to build something that reflects their interests.
“That’s very empowering,” he said. “Suddenly, they see they can contribute to the digital world around them.”