What most schools don’t teach (and should)

First, watch the video above.

I learned to code at school when I was 15. No big deal? It was 1966. Learning to program a computer changed my life. Far more important than nearly everything else—facts I have long since forgotten—that I was “taught”.

Learning to code didn’t change my life because I could then make big bucks writing software—though my fourth career, as an IT consultant, was very kind to me. And the important truth of the video’s opening quote by Steve Jobs “Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer…because it teaches you how to think” isn’t the main reason my life was changed.

No. The most important lesson for me as I learned to code was that I could be creative. I discovered I had the potential to do things that no one else had done before. Programming showed me that I could make my own stuff, the way I wanted to make it.

I learned this despite the fact that this was at a time when my program was punched onto teletype paper tape, brought on public transport to a London university computer five miles away, and run through an Elliott 803 one of the world’s first semiconductor-based computers. I got to run one program a week—if it had errors, I had to wait another week before I could fix it and try again.

Elliott 803 AlgolNo one knew how to “teach programming” to fifteen year old kids at the time. Our teachers just handed us an Algol manual, and asked us to figure out what we could do with it. (The IF statement was a revelation.)

I still remember my first two programs. The first found all the prime numbers less than a thousand. A nerdy task that took several weeks to get right.

My second?

I wrote, with a friend, a program that could play chess.

That second program, of course, was never finished. Only being able to run it once a week, we didn’t get much further than code that knew the rules of chess and was able to make legal moves. But what a leap for a fifteen year-old British schoolboy—to have the freedom to choose an ambitious project that has occupied human minds for half a century now, only recently culminating in the computer Deep Blue’s defeat of World Chess Champion Kasparov in 1997.

Today, it’s simple for children to work with inexpensive computers that can do far more, far easier, than the computers of my youth. The ability to create movies, graphics, sound, writing, and games are now at our fingertips. We know how to introduce children to the potential of these incredible machines far better than my teachers did.

The immediate feedback, wonder, opportunity for self-expression, power to create—and, yes, learning how to think—are all available in the potential of this amazing device. Make algebra, geometry and calculus optional; teach programming to all children instead!

Photo attribution: Vintage ICL Computers