When I was 9 years old, my father brought a Commodore Vic 20 computer home for Christmas. It came with 3k memory. It had a keyboard, a tape drive and it connected to a TV. I still remember sitting in my pyjamas and turning it on. As a child with nobody to tell me how I should or shouldn’t program, my first attempt was a paragraph in english describing a game. I was surprised when I reached the end, hit the return key and: “Syntax Error”.
The Vic 20 came with 2 books “Learn to Program BASIC I” and “Learn to Program BASIC II”. I went through these books by the end of January. It was more fun writing my own games than playing the ones that came with the computer.
I learnt maths because I needed binary to create sprite graphics. I learnt quadratic equations to solve for collisions in games. I learnt basic physics to create realistic missile flight. Maths in school was easy because I had already learnt it to serve my computer programming hobby.
Computer Programming saved me from boring school lessons
I never paid too much attention at school. It was generally boring. I spent a lot of time daydreaming. I would think through which of Superman’s superpowers would be most useful to escape the boredom of school. It was always a toss up between flying and laser eyes.
I was lucky. The traditional school environment was built for my style of learning. Exams tend to bring out my best performances. I was never good at the sustained effort. I am best in the hurried sprint to deadlines.
I used to read a lot. I had read the entire SciFi section of my local library before I was 10. I would take out my full quota of 6 books and read them in a week. I had whole collections of Dungeons and Dragons books. I loved Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (all 7 or 8 books). I loved Tolkien (LOTR, Hobbit).
Reading is great, but it is not an activity that allows the development of mastery. You can’t get “better” at reading after a certain point. You might be able to get a bit faster, but you don’t develop beyond basic reading in any significant way.
I loved sports, but was always a bit small so got pushed off the ball in football or relegated to wing when playing rugby. My younger brother was superb at any game with a ball, and there is nothing more painful to an older boy than being beaten by a younger boy in sport – even more painful when it is a brother… and the gap is 5 years.
Computer programming was my first world of mastery.
Computing is taught poorly in schools. We need a change in the role of computing and style of learning supported by computers in schools.
The Failure of Computing as taught in our Schools
Most school systems teach children how to use Microsoft Office. They teach students to be users of computers, not creators with computers.
A computer is not a car. We need people to know what is under the hood as well as knowing what the pedals do.
Programming computers is a wonderful environment for children to explore, test, trial, experiment, hypothesize, fail, succeed…
Programming taught me Important skills.
Any programming language is essentially the same. Java, PHP, C++, Basic, Python, Lisp… even Fortran, Cobol or Assembly code. Master one, you will quickly learn any other.
It teaches you to be clear. It teaches you how to trace and remove errors. It teaches you how to test. It teaches you how to think about systematically solving problems – not one-offs, but full systematic reproducible solutions.
As you grow you learn about building code that scales. Efficient use of memory. Efficient looping.
As you collaborate you learn to write code that can be easily understood by others. One half is good commenting, but the other half is using the clearest code to achieve the given outcome.
You learn how to isolate specific parts of the code to test for correct function.
You learn how to describe solutions to other people.
You learn how difficult it is to predict human behaviour. You learn that human beings will tend to do the unexpected. You learn that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.
Everyone must learn to code
I do truly believe that I learnt more in my own self-guided programming of computers than in any classroom. The social stuff I learnt in the playground and through sports.
What were the teachers doing?
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