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Kevin's latest blog: Should we stop telling kids they're good at computers?


The other day in class, my professor said something that I thought was interesting: "the new generation of undergraduate students knows less about computers, because they think they know more."

He mentioned it in sort of passing, and it wasn't intended to be insulting or even very meaningful, but it got me thinking. Previous generations of computer science majors had to take an active interest in the subject. Computers used to be a niche thing that only dedicated people took an interest in- I mean, if I had to learn how to program by manually copying machine language from a magazine, would I have become a programmer? Compare that to now, when everybody has a more powerful computer than the one that got us to the moon in their pocket. I would say that that's mostly a good thing- but it also means that modern students know less about programming and computers, even though they use them much more than students in the past.

I saw this a lot when I was in college: people who became Computer Science majors because they "liked computers" but who hadn't even programmed a Hello World. Most of these types of people changed their majors or dropped out pretty quickly. Would they have been more successful if they hadn't been head-patted their whole lives? Are we doing kids a disservice by telling them they're "good at computers" just because they look at facebook all day? Are we filling their heads up with false confidence, when we should be helping them explore all the stuff they don't know about computers instead?

As Ryan Henson Creighton puts it in his Ted Talk:

When we see kids using tablet computers, I mean, they're just using them.. We say, "oh my gosh it's amazing how well they've taken to technology", and we clap our hands together, and we call them digital natives. Folks, these devices have a touch controlled interface and one button. If we're amazed our kids can use these devices, we're not expecting enough of our kids.

And I think it might be a little more insidious than that. Computer Science suffers from a pretty infamous lack of diversity. Movements like Code.org are working to get more females and minorities into computer science, but I think part of the problem might be our tendency to overstate the "you're good at computers" aspect of kids who we see as "traditionally" computer science-y (nerdy white boys). So by the time they (we?) get to college, even if they've never written a line of code, they've already got a lifetime of "I'm good at computers" confidence built up. So then when a "non-traditional" computer science student comes into a room full of this type of person, it's no wonder they suffer from impostor syndrome.

That's just a theory, and I don't have any numbers to back it up. It's just something I've been thinking about. Instead of saying "wow, it's amazing how kids take to technology" just because a kid plays Angry Birds, would it be better if we took that as an opportunity to show that kid how to create her own game?

I also wonder if this over-praise will naturally go away, as more "digital natives" become parents themselves. I hope that we can learn how to stop rewarding consumers, and start encouraging creators instead. And I think part of that will come from stopping the "you're so good at computers" over-rewarding we do to kids.

Anyway, I don't really have a point, I've just been thinking about that all week. What do you guys think?


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