Friday, April 25, 2014

So Many Myths About Teens and Computing

For the last year and a half I have been back in the classroom as a full-time teacher. It’s a lot of fun working with the students. It’s been a bit eye-opening though about what young people can and cannot do with computers. They are not the wizards that so many people seem to think they are. Digital natives? Not hardly.

Oh they can find and play games. But doing productive work? Not as much. Even things us oldsters take for granted like moving files, creating and navigating through folders can be new to more students than you might think. They don’t experiment as much as you’d think either. We’ve largely raised a generation that wants step by step instructions for everything. Well except for games. Why they expect to have to figure out games but have everything else explained I don’t know.

And of course we all know that boys are the experts and girls are not. Ha! I see girls helping boys out with things like Word and Excel more than the other way around. In my programming classes girls seldom go to boys for help if there is a girl in the class they can ask. Boys ask boys mostly but seem more than willing to ask a girl for help. It seems like the girls are better at a little skill called “paying attention.” Imagine that.

Also girls and boys are both interested in programming if you give them projects that are interesting to them. The boys may like games better but not always. The girls like projects that manipulate or create images. Girls seem to get very creative when I introduce programming for the first time using turtle graphics in TouchDevelop for example. Boys like it as well though. Stereotypes don’t work well with teens. They work less well with pre-teens by the way.

Both middle school boys and girls love using programming techniques to tell stories. (My wife does a lot of that in her middle school.)

I’m more and more convinced that projects that give students a chance to be creative are the best ones for learning. Sometimes it takes a bit to push them away from the idea of having everything spelled out with cookie cutter ideas of write and wrong for results though. It’s like we have to reteach a bit of creativity that I know they had as pre-schoolers and in the early grades. It sure is worth it though.

Kids are still smart. Kids are still creative. You should hear their creative interpretations of rules! Taking advantage of the creativity lets them exercise the “smarts” more. And then the fun really begins for everyone!


Garth said...

I have found that most of my students are tech idiots. File management, virus issues, malware, troubleshooting connection issues or anything that is not a regularly used app is well beyond their skill or even interest to solve for themselves. Something as simple as removing a paper jam from a printer implies wizardry. In a high school of 180 I have one that really knows his stuff and can do whatever he wants with a computer. An uber-geek. I have maybe four more that I would consider capable. The rest are pretty much tech sheep and have to go get help if something is not working as planned. If this 180 is a good sample (private school so it may not be) then the tech world is in a major hurt-locker. A good thing is they do seem to learn what they need quickly. Looking at an equivalent sized population of adults I think the skill would be worse and the ability to learn would be worse. The tech generation is far from techie, most learn the minimum to survive and how to play the games they like and that is it.

Mike Zamansky said...

Back in the day, if a kid wanted to do something on line or even on their computer they HAD to know how to do things.

Back then, if a kid wanted a web presence they had to not only figure out HTML (and maybe more) but also how to run a web server or get the site hosted somewhere.

Same with pictures and then eventually audio.

Now with Facebook, Tumblr, etc, they don't have to actually figure anything out.

Also, back then, CS was more of a niche subject so it was more likely be more "hardcore" kids for lack of a better word took the classes.

As CS becomes more popular and more kids take it, we see less technical kids.

I noticed this when my offerings went from AP to AP + an intro class and then even more when the intro class became a requirement.

Michael S. Kirkpatrick said...

I have college sophomores and juniors that still don't understand the basics of FTP, files, and folders.... Sigh...

"And of course we all know that boys are the experts and girls are not. Ha!" My university has a valedictorian (I have no idea how GPA tie breakers among the thousands of graduates are handled...) that speaks at graduation. This year's valedictorian? One of our female CS graduates. Oh, and two years ago? Another female CS graduate. We don't get nearly as many female CS students as we'd like, but the ones that we do get are phenomenal.

"They don't experiment as much as you'd think either." I can't tell you how many times I've had students come up to me and ask what the code that they wrote does. My first question is, "Did you compile and run it?" The answer to that is, "No," far too often.

As you point out, students ARE creative, but their creativity is often not aligned with educational outcomes. They seem to exert a vast amount of effort to avoid having to learn and engage with tough questions. Is it their parenting? Is it the compulsory nature of school? Is it the influence of pop culture? I really don't know. But so many students arrive at college with very ingrained habits toward NOT asking questions and being inquisitive.

Garth said...

To add to Michael’s comment. A friend of mine teaches CS at the local university. I asked him what I should be teaching my high school CS kids to prepare them for college level CS. I was thinking in the way of languages or particular CS skills. His answer was problem solving skills. He said he will teach them the language he wants and can teach any other specific skills they need but he does not have time to start at the beginning with problem solving skills. If they cannot problem solve or understand the basics of troubleshooting, be it code or hardware or whatever, they just cannot succeed in CS.

Michael S. Kirkpatrick said...

Garth, yes, I absolutely agree with your friend. Here's the most valuable lesson you could give your students: Give them code in whatever language they are learning, but make sure the code doesn't work. If it's a compiled language, make it not compile. If it's interpreted, make it do something illegal. Their assignment is to fix the program and make it do what it is supposed to.