I should probably state from the beginning that I am not a ‘kid’ person.
Babies look like alien potatoes and are terrible conversationalists. So, when I say that we’re failing the next generation, I want you to know that I’m speaking from a position of total objectivity.
This is because – in the words of the late, great Whitney Houston – children are our future. And, if we’re going to survive our impending robot overlords, they need to be a lot more tech-savvy than we are.
There’s been a lot of talk about ‘digital literacy’ and initiatives to get kids into coding over the last few years, which is why I was surprised to hear that a school in Gloucester is banning students from using personal devices during the day.
I can see where they’re coming from. Children, along with everyone else, are becoming addicted to tech and learning behaviours that could leave them – to coin a phrase from my nan – ‘square-eyed’ later in life.
So kudos to them for undertaking the unenviable task of prising kids’ smartphones out of their hands. They claim they saw some positive results during a ‘digital detox’ week, with pupils feeling less tired and delivering improved work.
But, as the evidence seems to overwhelmingly show that kids need to be bettered prepared for tech, is taking it off them the answer?
Protecting children from technology is important, but teaching them to proactively master it for the future is even better.
There’s lots of great stuff happening to show kids what tech can do, from Code Clubs to the BBC micro:bit and the Raspberry Pi. A year after the micro:bit’s launch, figures show that nine out of 10 students reckon it’s helped them realise that anyone can code, regardless of ability.
In 2014 ICT lessons were replaced by computing in a bid to make it more relevant, and in March a House of Lords report said digital skills needs to be a core subject along Maths and English.
On the other hand, figures from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) show only a small increase in students taking the new computer science GCSE. The British Computer Society has also warned that the number of pupils studying for a computing qualification could halve by 2020.
PhD student Benjamin Wohl wrote in the Independent that the new computing course is trying to do too much and is still not relevant to kids’ lives.
Having a standalone computing class might be good for learning tech basics, but clearly it’s still not hitting the mark. Digital has to be relevant and interesting for young people, otherwise the extent of their digital literacy will be the ability to send a really good selfie.
Something that Chelsea Slater of Liverpool Girl Geeks said at our Liverpool Skills breakfast in May stuck with me.
“IT and tech must be incorporated within every single subject,” she said.
“Geography and history need data analytics. Art needs 3D modelling. Kids aren’t getting anything at the moment that’s like the industry.”
It’s true. I can remember the names of all six of Henry VIII’s wives and how they died, but I know little about data journalism, which is a booming part of the industry I work in. Although I left school a decade ago, our editor Chris says his daughter is still having to memorise Henry’s victims.
Chelsea’s solution was that businesses need to show teachers what opportunities are out there to get kids excited about the interesting real-life applications of tech. I totally agree – but there also needs to be a focus on awareness.
When I was at Bluedot festival a couple of weeks ago one of the panels talked about the importance of showing kids that code isn’t necessarily dangerous but it is powerful – and how to wield that power.
The panel called for lessons on tech critical thinking, reasoning and ethics so that young people can make smarter, more informed decisions around tech and how they interact with it.
The people that are currently using and creating tech have mostly been brought up without having to step back and examine it, so it sometimes runs circles around us.
This doesn’t have to be the case for the next generation.