Teaching kids to think (not just program)

8553474140_c50cf08708_cThere’s been a lot of emphasis lately about teaching kids about coding and programming.  There is an entire course on Pluralsight on this topic.  There’s a viral video from Code.org featuring celebrity CEOs, engineers, and even athletes, which opens with the following quote from Steve Jobs:

Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer…because it teaches you how to think.

School districts around the country have rewritten their mission statements with more orientation towards “technical literacy” or “becoming citizens of a digital world”.  And high tech breeding grounds like MIT have produced tools like Scratch that enable kids to create online, story-based games.

As a developer myself, I find myself often thinking about my six year old and the world in which she exists. She has on-demand access (via Roku) to her favorite movies and shows.  She is drawn to our iPad like a moth to light.  She walks through the grocery store chatting on a pink toy cell phone.  Her world is awash with technology.  It’s all she has ever known.

So when I ponder the question myself of whether or not to teach my kids how to program, I think Steve Jobs got it backwards.  I don’t believe we should encourage programming in order to teach kids to think.  I believe we should teach our kids to think, and let them apply that thinking to programming.  Become a brilliant problem solver, then do it faster with the technology.  The thinking comes first, then the coding, not the other way around.

The problem with a ‘programming first’ approach is that, especially these days, the answers to the problems come way too easily.  We have the internet, for Pete’s sake, which is a repository of other people’s solutions to problems.  Programming first orients the objective around completing the program, rather than placing the proper emphasis on thinking your way through a solution.

Here are a few of the practical ways I am trying to encourage problem-based thinking around our house:

1. As much as I can, when I do a home improvement project, I invite the kids to participate.  In this context, we’ve dealt with topics like geometry, electronics, and physics.  I don’t expect them really to remember (at this age) how we used the Pythagorean theorem to check if the raised garden boxes were square, but it exposed them to a method to solve a specific problem.  If you’re really up to it, make them the stars of their own DIY video.

2.  Put problems in the way of them getting what they want.  I am in the process of planning a scavenger hunt to find clues to get the unlock code for the iPad.  If they want to open it up, they have to solve the puzzle.  The hope is that they tie together the motivation of getting what they want with the process of following the clues.

3. Talk to them about what makes the technology they love work.  I am frequently asking them questions about how they think the games they play know how to keep score, or how the episode of the cartoon du jour ends up on the TV.  Their answers will amaze you, and it creates a teachable moment to encourage them to think of their own game or create their own methods.

4. Try to not go to the Internet first when they ask a question. This one is hard, because it is so easy to just use the Google to get a quick answer.  We have lots of books in our home, and as often as I can, I try to point to non-digital sources to satisfy their curiosity.  It helps them learn to look things up, and prevents the addiction of instant gratification from taking hold.

As a parent, part of my challenge is balancing the exposure with the benefit.  We try to limit our kids to a fixed amount of TV or iPad each day, knowing that without this limit, they would undoubtedly consume it morning, noon, and night.  Yet I have to consider what worlds they would explore or create if they had unrestricted time.

Computers and coding changed my life.  They became a passion, a career, a livelihood.    They may or may not do the same for my kids.  But far more critical than them following in my chosen career path, I want them to know how to face tough problems in life, and think their way through them.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dumfstar/

About the author

derek Derek Smith is a software developer with 20 years of history developing on the Microsoft platform. He is the founder of HomeSpot HQ, and is the Director for Microsoft SharePoint Professional Services at rmsource, inc. in Raleigh, NC. Derek is on Twitter, , and Linked In

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