Adam Stacoviak and Jerod Santo talk with Tim Bell, the founder and creator of CS Unplugged, a collection of free teaching material that teaches computer science through engaging games and puzzles. They talk to him about where this program came from him, the need for computer science in today’s K-12 education programs, how CS Unplugged fits in, and how you can get involved.
Airbrake – Airbrake is an exception reporting service, currently providing error monitoring for 50,000 applications with support for 18 programming languages.
DigitalOcean – DigitalOcean is simplicity at scale. Whether your business is running one virtual machine or ten thousand, DigitalOcean gets out of your way so your team can build, deploy, and scale faster and more efficiently. New accounts get $100 in credit to use in your first 60 days.
GoCD – GoCD is an on-premise open source continuous delivery server created by ThoughtWorks that lets you automate and streamline your build-test-release cycle for reliable, continuous delivery of your product.
- CS Unplugged
- University of Canterbury Computer Science Education Research
- Tim Bell - Academic Staff - People - Computer Science and Software Engineering - University of Canterbury - New Zealand
- Tim Bell (computer scientist) - Wikipedia
- Modems Unplugged - Computer Science Unplugged
- Data Representation - Computer Science Field Guide
- uccser/cs-unplugged: CS Unplugged is a collection of free teaching material that teaches Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and lots of running around.
- uccser/cs-field-guide: An online interactive resource/textbook for high school students learning about computer science.
- Three ways to get started with computer science and computational thinking
- Topics - CS Unplugged
- Computer Science Education Research Group | University of Canterbury
Tim, I think the way to start this might be one day we were in what I would consider an after show; we were recording a podcast, it was over, we were all chatting afterwards, and the conversation came to be, essentially, how do we share software development, programming, computer science with kids, and I was like “I don’t know where to send people.” And someone linked up csunplugged.org, and I was like “Wow…” So I immediately was like “We’ve gotta talk to whomever is involved in this.” We e-mailed, and you responded back, now here we are… So that’s essentially how I found out about this awesome thing you’re doing. Your story goes kind of far back, so maybe tee up what this program is and who you are.
Okay, cool. Basically, it started because I had exactly the same question, but for me it was when my son was five years old, which was back in ‘92… Which many of your listeners might remember – in 1992 he was five, they were having parents along to their classes just to talk about what we did for a living… At the time, I was - and I still am - a computer science researcher and lecturer… But the week before me they’d had a cop along, who’d brought a cop car; the kids got to play off the sirens and all that kind of stuff… And before that, they had had a nurse I’d heard from my son, and she’d brought along fake blood and bandages, and the kids got all wrapped up, and all that stuff…
[00:03:49.13] Yeah, and the kids were raving about it, and it was really fun. Then the next week the parent to come along was me, a computer scientist. At the time and for a long time after, my main research area was data compression; how to make data smaller, and all that sort of thing. And I thought “How do you explain this to kids?” They don’t even know what data is, they didn’t own a computer… Nothing like a data projector in the room or anything to demonstrate things… So I don’t know why, but I just had this idea “Well, let’s not worry about the computer at all, let’s try and get to the heart of what I think about, what I care about when I’m solving problems, when I’m trying to develop a new program for something.”
So I sort of peeled things back and I thought, well, what are the key ideas that we’re looking at? I just looked at a whole lot of topics that exercised my mind as a researcher in computer science, and I tried to think “Well, how could that be transferred into a game, or an activity, or something like that?” I came up with three or four activities, went along into the class… I was using nothing but cards and paper and string and chalk and things like that, and we had a great time with the class. In fact, it went so well that they invited me back, which was a very pleasant surprise, because I thought it might have been one of the least interesting talks that the kids might have had. So I ended up going back regularly, and developed a whole series of these things.
And back then I came across a colleague on the internet who had been doing the same thing in Canada, Mike Fellows. Mike and I pooled ideas, we put them together and we said “Oh, we should get together.” I went over to Canada for a month, and we sort of tried to put it all together in a book, and came up with about 20 activities like this. It seemed really good, so we sent it off to some publishers and said “Here’s something a bit different… What do you think?”
It was rejected 27 times by publishers, which is the best thing to happen… The reason was that they couldn’t place it, so we sent it to a computer publishing place, and they said “Well, you’re not using computers. It looks really cool, and by the way, can I keep a copy to do with my kids? …but we can’t publish it in a computer book. Why don’t you send it to our education department?”
So I sent it to them, and they’d go “Well, it’s obviously about computers. It’s got ‘computer’ in the title.” Anyway, we got sent around in circles, and we got more rejections than Harry Potter, which I’m very proud of. But the cool thing about that is that in the end we thought – because back in the ‘90s, open source and publishing into that wasn’t a big thing… In fact, the web was really just starting to become a thing, and the public didn’t really have access, or teachers and so on… But we put it up in the form of the web, and just said “Well, help yourselves, everyone. It’s free, and we think it’s a good idea.”
And it just sat there for probably about a decade. A bunch of people around the world started using it and came across it one way or the other, but around about – I think it was 2003 at the ACM, which is the national body of computer scientists that set curricula, and things like that, started looking at K12 curriculum… And kind of almost unknown to me – they’d probably e-mailed and asked me about it, but they published a thing about it saying “We think there should be a K12 curriculum for schools, and by the way, here’s some examples of what to do” and about two thirds of their examples were straight out of our material… So suddenly, everyone was contacting us and saying “Oh, tell us about this method, tell us about your philosophies”, and so on.
Of course, at the time, we’d just gone back to our day jobs and we weren’t particularly working on this… So the thing suddenly started taking off, and then even more so I guess in the last eight years or so, because all around the world countries are starting to say “Well, how do we introduce computer science or computational thinking into schools?” and this became a really easy touchpoint for that. Because of not using computers – it took us a while to realize exactly what we’d done, but it means that it’s using things that teachers are familiar with. So when you say “Put this on the card and draw this on the ground” and all that kind of stuff, they go “Well, I can do that.”
[00:08:23.27] But if you say “Oh, you’re gonna teach computer science”, particularly if you think about primary school teachers, elementary school teachers, they go “Well, hang on, I haven’t been trained on this. It’s probably all this thing called ‘coding’, which sounds really mysterious… I’ll probably have to install something on a computer, and when I install it, it probably won’t work, because then I’ll have to install something else and reboot, and then I’ll need permission from the school to install it… Nah, I can’t be bothered.” But when you say “Just print out these three cards and start doing stuff with them”, it sort of becomes a very easy entry point.
So it sort of evolved from an outreach thing for academics like me to go into a school and just talk to our kids, or try and drum up a bit of interest, to something that is being offered for teachers, who have been told “This is now part of your curriculum.”
This is basically an accident.
It is, yes.
Intentional, but kind of an accident to how you got to be where you’re at. Since you mentioned Mike Fellows, the quote that from what I understand was a breakthrough quote to get teachers and administrators to kind of understand what you were doing… Like you said, there’s no computers involved - “No computers required.” The quote was “Computer science is as much about programming as astronomy is about telescopes.” I think that makes complete sense, because you don’t really need a computer to do this. You can just simply have the printable materials and different stuff like that to hand to educators and reduce all those barriers. I think that’s such a happy accident, honestly.
Yeah, and I think Mike’s quote has been a really useful one for helping people understand what we’re on about. And by the way, probably some of your listeners are thinking “Hang on, didn’t Dijkstra say that?” Because it’s quite often attributed to Dijkstra… So just as a little side thing - Dijkstra did say it, but he had actually met Mike quite early on, and had that discussion. Dijkstra never claimed it was his own quote or anything, but when you’re famous and you say something, they’re gonna attribute it to you. That’s kind of the history of that quote…
And Mike, his analogy as he went through it, he said “It’s as much as chemistry is about test tubes, or cooking is about stoves”, and things like that. But yeah, I often draw that out, because if you think about astronomers, they’re always using telescopes, they’re buying telescopes, they want money for telescopes, they become experts in telescopes, and they have to be good at telescopes; that’s really, really important. But it’s probably not why they’re astronomers. They might be the odd telescope geek who goes “Oh, I have to do these star charts just so I get to use a telescope?”, but suspect that most of them are in it because they want to explore the Universe.
It’s the same with computer science. Of course we do programming all the time, and programming is how we put wheels on the great ideas that people have. In those couple of decades since we started doing this, there have been all sorts of great ideas that have happened… You know, search engines that search billions of pages in a fraction of a second, or sites that store any video that anyone wants, and social networks that let people communicate anywhere around the world, and podcasts… You know, just so many things that people have come up with. But the things that make them work - sure, you need a program that’s actually making it happen, but if you do it the wrong way, then it won’t be a thing.
A good example is the most popular website in the world, which is Google - it’s just a text box and a button. So from a programming point of view, that’s not very hard to implement. But we know that what’s behind it, the computer science - how do you search billions of things in a fraction of a second? You need to start thinking about different algorithms and processes, you need to think about communication protocols, security, how do you stop people trying to bring your site down or trying to make their website the most popular one on the search engine, and things like that… And so suddenly, there’s a huge amount of stuff that you need to know that you’re going to program.
[00:12:29.06] Yeah, so the telescope analogy, for the general public I think often helps quite a bit there. And it’s not to say that it’s anti-programming or anything like that, but it’s simply – I think traditionally, for computer science, we’ve used programming as the gateway to computer science. So enroll for computer science and you’ll learn a whole year of programming, and then we’ll start showing you some cool stuff you can do with it… It would be a little bit like saying “This thing called astronomy - you probably don’t know what it’s about, but trust me, it’s really cool. But first of all, learn about telescopes for a year or two, and then we’ll tell you what it’s actually about.”
What I’ve come to realize that Unplugged does is it kind of skips that and it says “Let’s have a look at some stars, let’s have a look at what’s really going on. Is that cool? Okay, now you’re gonna have to suck it in and learn how to use a telescope or learn how to program to really make stuff happen.”
I think one of the important social things there is that with the traditional view of “Well, learn coding, learn programming first, and then we’ll show you some good stuff” is that it blocks out a lot of people who can’t see the point of programming or coding… Whereas if you can show them the point, then they go “Okay, this is worth learning.”
It makes the journey worth it, and you can kind of like deal with the pain because you’ve got some sort of motivator.
Yeah, and also I think one of the things that we get a lot is the gender difference, and also cultural differences and who gets involved in this, and we tend to filter out the people who aren’t so interested in the machine and aren’t so interested in programming… And one of the mantras that I try to push, particularly with teachers, is that we don’t write programs for computers, we write programs for people, on computers. So the people who will write good programs are the people who understand people. Then that suddenly changes some of the stereotypes a wee bit. Because the assumption is that if you love computers and you’re really good at programming, then you’ll write great programs, but in actual effect, they might be terrible for people to use, because you haven’t thought about the person. You need people who are good at both.
So that’s a big story coming out of the telescopes, but it is a very useful analogy.
Highly relevant, though. It makes sense, because you remove 1) a huge cost burden, especially if you’re targeting primary, like you said, K12, or bringing it to a younger audience, or that kind of thing… You remove a ton of - I’m assuming, at least - cost…
…because computers cost a lot of money to buy and maintain. That’s a lot of expense.
No computer required, yeah.
That’s right, and I think especially with coming into school curricula – someone told me this, there’s 50 countries around the world that are introducing this into their grade school curriculum… And when I talk to people who are doing it, they go “Oh, now we’re gonna have to buy a computer for every kid” and so on. Now, again, you do need a computer; I mean, in the end, if you’re not writing programs, then you haven’t quite got your fingers dirty and you’re not really getting the whole thing, but…
[00:15:46.25] One interesting bit of research that came out recently is that they tried – I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think it was something like a series of about eight weeks on programming for young kids, using a language called Scratch, which is really popular for younger kids (a block-based language). And they tried two variations - one was to spend the full time doing nothing but teaching them how to do things in Scratch, and the other variation is they spent about a third of the time doing nothing but Unplugged material, and then the remaining two-thirds teaching them about Scratch and programming.
And at the end, they found that both groups were equally good at programming, but the group that had done Unplugged first used a wider range of blocks or commands from the system, and had a much better understanding of just some of the deeper elements of what they were doing… Which actually was, again, not an intentional thing, but it kind of makes sense, because the Unplugged thing gets people thinking about “What’s the big purpose? What are we trying to achieve here?” and I think often when kids get put in front of a computer, they just go “Okay, tell me what I have to type. Show me the model. I’ll copy it onto the thing, and it’s finished, and I’ve done what I’m required, and I’ll move on.” But by getting them away from the computer, you’re actually getting them to think about the big ideas.
I think one of the key things with Unplugged too is that – people go “Oh, it will be so cool. One kid could be the CPU and one kid could be the input/output unit, and they could pass this onto their –” and that is so boring. Being a computer is quite boring; I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s quite a repetitious sort of job… So the Unplugged stuff really turns things inside out; it will be a magic trick, or… It’s things where there’s an intriguing puzzle, and very simple instructions too, which is one of the really important points.
For binary numbers we just say “Here’s some cards. They can either be up one way or the other. You can’t have them half-way up. Now I want you to show me this.” That’s the entire instruction set. So it’s a relatively simple puzzle, but it gives the students a lot to think about as they work through it.
Searching is probably another good example, since I mentioned search engines before. One of the ways that we’ve done that is we get a bunch of caps (paper caps, or something) and we put numbers underneath them. Then we basically lay out about 30 caps on the table and just say “Okay, I want you to find the cap that’s got number 83 underneath it.” And of course, if the caps are in random order, the kids lose a point; in fact, sometimes we give them a candy that they have to pay for each one they look at… And they go “Oh, we’ll never find it… There’s 30 there, and you’ve only given me four candies to buy a view underneath a cap.” That shows the frustration of a linear search.
Then we simply say “Okay, here’s another set of caps. The smallest ones are on the left, the largest ones are on the right. They’re in order. Here’s your four candies. Are you feeling lucky?” And we don’t say anything else, we don’t tell them how to do it, or anything like that. Some kids will start at the left hand side and they’ll go “Oh, it’s number 3, it’s number 6… Oh, hang on a minute…” Then they realize that if they’re looking for 83, maybe they should look more towards one end than the other. But very often, particularly with kids around 8 to 10 years old, they’ll go “Oh, hang on, the middle one would be a really good one”, and they look at that and physically they really they’ve just eliminated half of the caps at the cost of one candy. Then they get to divide it in half in their way, but they have invented the algorithm themselves. I mean, it’s a well-known algorithm, but suddenly they see the power of it.
[00:19:56.21] And the next question is, “Well, that was 30 caps. What if I’d given you 60 caps?” They go “Oh, that’d be twice as hard.” And then they think about it; the very first candy reduces the 60 caps down to 30. So then we start looking at that exponential growth, or actually, technically, logarithmic power of a binary search… “What if I give you 1,000 caps?” “Oh, that’s… Oh, hang on a minute!” and then they start to realize that that’s only 10 candies, and a million caps is only 20, and suddenly, a billion… And there’s a lot of humor here, as well; like, imagine a billion caps… It’s quite a lot, but it doesn’t take too much to reason that you just need to look under 30 of them and you’ve found something. And now we’re suddenly showing how you can search a billion things, like a billion web pages - it’s not quite that simple, but you could search a billion things by only looking at 30 of them… And you suddenly realize that this is quite a different kind of thing to just doing a linear search or having to go through every single one… And the kids have come up with the idea.
I think a lot of the point of it is that these systems seem magic too, and especially through the early 2000’s, people were kind of locked out of knowing about things. You know, shiny gadgets came out - iPods and iPhones and things like that, that if you looked inside, it would void the warranty, and I think with a lot of them you couldn’t even write your own program for them without getting it approved by Apple. So they were kind of saying “Just trust me, there’s magic in here. You’re not allowed to look, you’re not allowed to change it. We’ll sort it out for you” and it sort of turned people into users, instead of developers… Whereas back in the ‘80s, if you bought a computer, you switch it on and it says “Type a command.” It’s the first thing you have to do, and it’s quite a different kind of invitation.
So we end up with these devices that seem like magic. I mean, they are kind of magic, but if we can undo some of that magic and kids look inside and go “Oh, I can understand how that works”, then that gives them some of the insight. And I think especially for teachers too, because more likely as teachers get into it, they go “Well, this stuff is a great mystery. Only a few very clever people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs understand it, and they’re out of the business now anyway, so all the magic is locked up”, whereas it’s actually “No, it’s stuff that lots of people can understand at some level.”
First of all, I love the angle of the starting with no computers, and these cards and puzzles… Not just because it gets the kids excited, but because it actually reduces the anxiety on the teachers to feel like they have to be computer scientists in order to teach this stuff. That’s awesome.
Thinking about what you said there, starting with the fun, the intrigue, the excitement, and really getting people engaged into the ideas of thinking in these ways, before you get to the programming languages and those kinds of things. There’s been a lot of efforts - not just with kids, but also with adults or young adults, trying to get them into coding, and a lot of times, when we start with the computer, there’s two things that we normally try, because we’re also trying to get that fun, that immediate feedback, like the early wins, to get them hooked… And the two things that usually are used, with varying levels of success, is games - actually creating video games - which gets everybody excited until they realize that’s actually really hard to do without much skills… So it’s difficult, right? There’s a high level of entry there.
And the other one is the web, and one that I’ve seen a lot of success with is just allowing people to see – you pull up their favorite website and then you show them how they can actually manipulate it themselves, by opening up the DevTools, or creating something very quickly and putting it up on the internet, and they have something that they built before.
So those are ways I’m just trying to think of like how you would bridge - from a child’s perspective - this same way of going about teaching, to an adult perspective… And I guess all that is a long way for me to say this is obviously focused on teaching kids computer science, or the foundations of it… Could we take the same methodology – maybe take out the puzzles and the crayons; Well, maybe leave the puzzles in, take the crayons out; but could we use this, broaden it and teach adults in the same manner that CS Unplugged teaches kids?
Absolutely. Although it was written for kids, it’s been a big surprise to me how valuable it is for adults, particularly for teachers… I mean, it’s essentially change management, or it’s a psychological process for a teacher when they’re told – “You know, I signed up here to help kids read and write and maybe do some math, and now I have to do this thing called computer science or computational thinking.” It’s very scary for them… So it’s useful there, but one of my favorite audiences for this is senior citizens.
I don’t know if you have that over there, but in New Zealand there are some very popular literary series for senior citizens where they get people from universities to come in and just talk about anything - the environment, politics, or whatever - from an academic point of view. And it’s a wonderful audience, because these are clever people, who have achieved a lot in their lives and so on, but know nothing about this… And it’s very empowering for them too, because often they end up finding out stuff that their grandkids don’t know about. Often, people say “Oh, young kids, they know all about computers…” and you feel like saying “Well, ask them what algorithm Google uses to find something amongst a billion pages, or ask them what is the security that’s used when you do online shopping, or something like that.”
Yeah… It’s more like saying these people understand microwaves, because they grew up with microwaves, so they can control a microwave. But that doesn’t mean they understand, right? That doesn’t mean they get computers, just because they can use an iPhone and they can use Snapchat. There’s a big difference there.
There is. There’s time on task, which is a big part of it… And actually, the time on task then kind of takes me back to what you were talking about with programming. There’s some wonderful sites that give kids a positive experience with programming in a very short time. The most famous would be Hour of Code. In one hour you get to write a program, you get some insight into what a program actually is, but of course, you can’t learn all about programming in an hour.
[00:27:54.16] It’s a bit like with music - I could teach a kid to play a simple tune in an hour, and if they were eight years old and they turned up to their parents and played that simple tune, the parents would go “Oh, that’s wonderful! You’re a musician, you’re a pianist! I’m really impressed.” But if they continued doing that and became a concert pianist playing that same tune that they learned in one hour, then they’re not gonna do terribly well. We know that there’s thousands of hours of practice and learning and work to become a great musician, and there’s thousands of hours of practice and work to become a great programmer.
So one of the risk with anything, whether it’s Unplugged, or programming, or whatever, is that, you know, we say “Well, you’ve done an hour or two on this. You’re doing great!” and sometimes students can see through that and they go “Well, I can’t possibly be – well, either if it’s that simple, what are we all missing? Or maybe I’m not doing that great. Maybe I’m just getting started.”
I think we really need to emphasize that we’re just lifting the lid back a bit and we’re showing you what it is, but we have to be realistic - there’s hours and hours and hours of work to do to really get good at this stuff. Although, again, when it gets into schools, into primary schools… If you think of an analogy with maths, or something like that, what a 10-year-old can do in math is, as far as someone who has to do math all the time for a living, is pretty basic. But on the other hand, they are gradually building up those skills over a period of time, and we know where the destination is, even though a lot of kids and possibly even some teachers can’t see the point of it… So a lot of it is to try and keep the end goal in mind with this teaching, no matter how you’re doing it. So there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.
You’re not trying to make computer scientists with this curriculum. This is an approachable curriculum for a certain level, introductory to it. You’re not gonna come out at the end of it with a degree and start programming; you’re gonna come out with at least some curiosity, maybe some familiarity to get you to the next step.
Exactly. And of course, the original thing was actually analogous with science shows that you get, where people will explode a balloon and smash a banana, and things like that, just saying “Look, there’s stuff going on… Maybe there’s some surprises in here you didn’t expect” and so on, and “This is my passion.” I think a lot of it, originally, is just for someone to come in and say “I’m passionate about this. This is really interesting.” Two months later, all a kid is going to remember is “Some person came in, they were called a computer scientist, and I think it was kind of cool what happened. I can’t remember what it was exactly. Something about cards, or numbers, or something.” Realistically, that’s probably what the case is gonna be. But as kids get more experiences, and as they get deeper and deeper learning, they start to discover their own passion.
And of course, the other side of it too, particularly with school, is that the goal is not that everyone becomes a programmer or a computer scientist, but simply that people get the opportunity to find out what it really is. Again, this is kind of retro-fitted, but over the years what I’ve discovered is that as a university lecturer, particularly the women who get through our courses, at the end of it talking to them over and over I hear this story that they got in by accident… They say “Look, all through high school there’s no way I wanted to be seen dead with computer scientists. Everyone knew that it was a social suicide to be a computer scientist, and so on.” And then they accidentally got into it and they said “It is so cool! Why didn’t someone tell me how cool this is?!”
So the question is “How do you communicate this to young people that, for some of them, it’s so cool?” And also vice-versa, because I think some kids get into computer science because it’s got ‘computer’ in the name, or programming because it uses computers… And they love computers; they love playing games, they love watching stuff on computers and so on… And we get this - they turn up and they go “So when do we start writing games?” by which they mean “When do we start playing computer games?”
[00:32:08.27] And we go, “Well, we’ll teach you a whole other stuff so you can write secure online games, with multi-users, and all that sort of stuff, sure” and they go “Well, that’s not really what I signed up for.”
I’m personally quite happy if it actually helps a few people to go “Oh, maybe it’s not quite my thing. Maybe I should get a job as a game tester, or something different.” But just to help people find their way. I think a lot of the point of education is just to help kids find their passion, figure out what they really want to do in life, rather than just fill their heads with lots of information, as well.
Maybe a topic that – this is something that came up actually in this post-conversation that started my journey to understand CS Unplugged… It was this concern of children, or young adults or anybody 18 or younger getting into computers too soon, because “You’ll spend the rest of your life on one; that’s the way of our world. Eventually, you’ll have this.” Obviously, they’re gonna have iPhones these days, but essentially saying “Let’s not get them in there too early.” What are your thoughts on that, Tim? Is it too early? Obviously, you’re going with the Unplugged version, so you’re not requiring a computer, but it certainly would eventually lead to one, which might just be getting them onto a computer, onto a device sooner rather than maybe later?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, we do sort of see the Unplugged stuff is kind of a gateway drug… But I think a lot of it is about balance. Parents are rightly concerned about screen time, but again, we have to think “Are kids on computers consuming and being a user, or are they there creating and thinking, and so on?” And even with programming, if a kid is writing programs and creating things, there’s quite different things happening in their minds than if they’re sitting there watching stuff or playing things and so on.
That’s one of the things about computers - the same device can be so many different things to different people… So that’s one element of it. But I think because it does take time on task, and also, you know, when I was talking about trying to get kids – the main thing about getting pre-teens involved is that once they become teenagers, the hormones kick in, and particularly with young women, their opinions in general will depend a little bit more on what their friends think than what they actually think is cool. So they might actually quite enjoy something, but friends have a lot of influence through the teen years. Whereas with pre-adolescent kids, if it’s cool, it’s cool. They just get in and do it. That’s one of the reasons that we do wanna start young.
But absolutely, there needs to be a balance. And of course, there’s physical issues - posture… Sitting in a bean bag, typing all the time is probably not great for your bone system, so kids need to learn about those sort of balances. But I think one of the things with Unplugged is – and by the way, I think it’s best used in schools alternated with stuff on the screen; it’s not like “Do five years of Unplugged and then finally get onto the screen.” It would be “Do a bit of stuff Unplugged, and a little bit of stuff on the screen”, and so on. It’s just keeping it in balance.
A lot of our activities do involve a lot of running around, like physically running around on the playground, if you can; we mark up big things with chalk, and following lines, and that sort of stuff. And I thought that once you do it once, that’s enough, but kids love doing this stuff over and over, and we’ve come up with lots of variations and different ways it can be used.
[00:35:53.11] So the kids actually come in out of breath, sort of blood flowing through their system, and their brain is operating, and then we say “Right, now get on the computer and do this.” And so just physically, it actually seems a lot better anyway, but also, you’ve really gotta get that balance between what are you using the computer for… I think more and more the computer of course is being used for education as well, not matter what you’re teaching. If you’re teaching math, or English, or science, or whatever, it’s very tempting to say “We’ll just go on the computer and work through these exercises, or watch these videos, or look through this website.” Sort of ironically, it’s probably not the computer science classes that are giving kids all the screen time, but it actually may be other ones.
There are schools around the place who have gone paperless. Every kid has a device, and they can do everything, and it’s the way of the future, and maybe that’s okay, but the whole point is how do we balance physical activity, social activity and the so-called screentime, which I think needs to be broken down into different types of screen time.
Yeah, screen time is a big deal… Do you get involved with – I mean, since you’re a professor and you’re an educator… Very schooled, basically, is what I’m saying; you’re a very smart person… Have you ever gotten into or dabbled in any research around brain neuroplasticity, neurobiology in your studies? Do you ever do it for fun, or just read a book?
Not seriously at all, but it’s obviously a concern that comes up. I think a lot of the science around that is still not well understood, and obviously, there are very passionate advocates in both directions as well, in terms of whether it’s good or bad, and so on. And I think, like a lot of things, we’ll eventually figure out that it’s about moderation, and doing things sensibly, and all that kind of stuff.
And of course, there are concerns from the past about the fact that if it was an actual CRT screen, then you’ve actually got radiation directected straight at you and that sort of stuff. There’s a whole lot of concerns. I think even Wi-Fi, for example - that’s a strong radio signal that’s floating around, and there’s a lot of it…
That’s true, and you can’t avoid it. It is there.
It’s surging through my body as we speak, right now.
I like the fact that you’ve got all this activity though, which is certainly great. I was just curious, since your focus is on the younger generation with this particular thing, if you had ever looked at the ramifications on the brain. That’s obviously the thing that controls us. Brain science folks - they are really big on screen time and the limitations of it, and how our society and brains have actually changed because of being a far more technological, screen time society… I was just curious.
Maybe the more important thing to kind of dive into would be – rewinding back at your story with not getting published, and it kind of stagnated for a bit, then got picked up… The idea of K12 schools using this - what’s the state of that? Is this widespread? Is this curriculum being used in places? What’s the state of this actually in school systems?
Unplugged in particular - we always see it as a supplement, or as a pedagogical technique. It’s a part of it, so it’s not a curriculum in itself. It’s a bit like peer programming, or using Python, or something like that. You wouldn’t say, “Okay, our entire curriculum is built around – we’re gonna teach Java.” And in fact, that’s one of the important things - we don’t teach Java; hopefully, we teach programming using Java, or using Python, or using Scratch, or whatever it is.
[00:39:57.27] “So what are you trying to teach?” Well, we’re trying to teach programming, we’re trying to teach computational thinking. “And how are you gonna do it?” Well, one of the tools is Unplugged, one of the tools is writing programs… And there’s other tools: watching videos of people, and all sorts of things like that, and using a mixture of those.
It seems to have become quite popular in that kind of role. It’s been translated into about 25 languages. There was a period where just about every month I’d get an e-mail from a different country saying “Can I translate it?” The answer is “Yeah, it’s Creative Commons, you can do anything you want with it, actually”, although we usually provide a bit of support. So it’s very widely used around the world, and I what I’ve found is that as curricula appear in schools, people very quickly latch onto this for the reasons we’re talking about it… It helps the teachers to get involved. And once people start using it, they actually see the engagement of the kids.
One of my favorite quotes is from a teacher in Japan who said “Now I see the children’s faces, instead of the back of their computer screens.” It’s a way to really get kids thinking.
I’ve found when I get invited into a school - a couple of times I’ve been invited in and people have said “Oh, the computer guy is coming in”, so they’ve put me in a computer lab, which is about the worst space for doing the Unplugged stuff, because you need lots of empty space, and get kids thinking.
Whenever I’ve been put in a lab with students, it’s like there’s rubber bands from their fingers to the keyboard. They come in, and the model they have is “This guy from the university is gonna say something boring for ten minutes, so we’ll ignore that, and then he’s gonna give us something we have to type, so we’ll type that and then we’ll be done.” And it’s so hard to get – you say “Okay, everyone, what do you think is happening up here?” and they’re kind of going “Yeah, I’m just busy ignoring you… What do we have to type? Come on…”
So it’s actually a great thing to do out of the normal setting, which actually also means that it’s quite good for improvising. It’s also great when the data projector dies – I don’t know how many seminars you’ve been to where people spend ten minutes trying to get the data projector going, or something… [laughter] For me, that’s actually a big bonus, because I just go “Well, actually this makes my point. Alright, everyone, I want some volunteers… Let’s try this.”
In terms of how it’s used around the place, it does seem to have been quite useful for getting teachers on board, and officials, actually… A couple of times, including – I had this experience myself, actually. I was speaking in Wellington, our capital city, to a group of officials. And one of the things I tend to do is I like to do stuff and then talk about it, so rather than saying “We should be teaching our students about algorithms and programming, and things like that” and the officials are going “Yeah, yeah. They’re big words, they must be important.” I actually just jump in and say “Okay, I’d like some of you to pretend to be eight-year-olds. Could you stand up in the front and do this with me?” Then they sit down and we say “Okay, that was an algorithm” or “That was data.” People talk about digital technology, and you say “Those were the digits. That’s what digital technology is - just digits being manipulated”, and you can see the light go on.
One time I was doing this, and almost randomly our minister of education turned up unexpectedly. She volunteered and got up the front and did these things and so on, and afterwards she was saying “That’s really cool! We should be teaching this in schools.” Certain officials gloss over the surface and they say “The businesses are telling us we should do this” or “The teachers are telling us we should do it, so maybe we’ll do it one day”, but in five minutes you can actually do some computer science with them that’s meaningful, and they can see the education in it, and they can see the thought processes, and they can see it’s appropriate for kids, and all that.
[00:44:13.07] Several times I’ve either had a first-hand experience or heard other people who have actually had officials get quite excited when they realized it’s something understandable, rather than something mysterious that could be done to kids.
Tim, we talked a little bit about one of the algorithms, the searching algorithm lesson with the cups… I have tons of questions. I have children of my own and I’m trying to teach them certain things; I’m trying to get them into computer science, and I’ve the Hour of Code and I’ve done a few things, and nothing has quite stuck yet, mostly because they wanna make video games, and that’s really hard. But this looks awesome for them; they love puzzles, and games, and lots of stuff… But I struggle to even just describe certain things to them. I feel like I’m too close to it, or maybe I’m just too bad at describing these things.
I’ve had the question “What is data, dad?” and I’m just like “Um, okay… What do we do here?” and I start talking about music, or pictures that you’ve made… Anyways. I won’t tell you how I describe it, because it’s not very good, but help us out with – in addition to how to search things, what are the other aspects of the topics that CS Unplugged has in its curriculum that you think are foundational to teaching kids computer science, and maybe give some examples of how it goes about teaching those things… And then, how do you describe data to kids?
There’s kind of two ways. One is that the Unplugged thing kind of dives in heard first and covers a lot of broad areas of computer science that you might not think you’d expose kids to. One of the things Mike Fellows was doing is he’d just say “What are my post-grad students doing? I’ll go and do that with 6-year-olds, but I’ll try and think of a way to explain it to them.” So we have things like finite-state automata, formal languages, a lot of computational problems that are intractable, just to get the idea there’s stuff that computers can’t do, that sort of thing.
But when it comes down to it, and we’ve had to think about this hard when we’re designing curricula for school, is that computers really only do a couple of things - they store data, as you pointed out, and they apply algorithms to your data, and the way you apply an algorithm is you write a program to implement the algorithm. Essentially, you can boil it down into understanding algorithms, data and programming. We’re a bit more focused on algorithms and data.
[00:48:06.23] Of course, the simplest form of data is binary numbers. And again, people will say “Kids don’t really need to know binary numbers” and in fact, if you ask anyone involved in technical computing, they probably haven’t converted a binary number for years, but they do need to know the difference between a 16-bit and an 8-bit representation, or 1024-bit security and the fact that a 1025-bit security would be twice as good, and things like that when we’re dealing with binary numbers. So it’s the patterns in them that matter more than just knowing how to convert numbers… But it is kind of fun.
One of the activities - one of the early ones that was developed, and it’s a real hit - is, to get kids engaged with binary numbers, get about five cards and put dots on the cards. So the first card has one dot on one side, the next one has two dots, and the next one has four dots; it corresponds to the binary digits. And the rule is simply the card is either upside down and you can see the dot, or you can see the dot.
So you lay these out on the table, and the challenge to the student is I want exactly 11 dots visible. You might need to basically say “So this card with the 16 dots - do you want that visible?” and they’ll say “No, because it’s too many.” The one with 8 - they’ll look at it and they’ll go “Well, should I take the 8 dots?” If they look at the rest of them, they’ll see that there’s only seven left. “I wanted 11 dots, so yup, I’ll have to take the 8.” “Do you want the one with the 4 dots?” “No, that would be too many.” “Do you want the one with 2?” “Yes.” “The 1?” “Yes.”
And then just to point out to the student - what they’ve said is “No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes”, which is communicating a number only by saying yes and no. And that’s the whole point of binary, of course; we only need to store two different values. And why do we do it? Is it because people are just geeky, or it’s a secret code, or something like that? Well, the reason is much simpler - it’s just easy to build stuff that stores two values.
Sometimes I’ll ask them to do the multiplication table; you know zero times zero, zero times one, one times zero, one times one, and we stop there and we say “That is the entire binary multiplication table.” Often, kids will go “Oh, can we just use that one? That’s so much better than the one we have to memorize…” [laughter] But it kind of makes the point about why it would be easier to build a machine that works in binary.
But the activity itself is just full of questions you can then ask, like “What’s the lowest number?” and the kids will yell out “Oh, one.” Then they’ll think about it and go “No, it’s zero!” The fact that most programming languages count from zero kind of ties back to the fact that the easiest number to represent is zero, the lowest number.
And what’s the biggest number, and there’s all sorts of patterns there, like it’s one less than the next bit, and all sorts of things like that… And adding one bit doubles the range, and whatnot.
There’s endless follow-up activities, but the other one is to use different representations… Kids can use sound - high and low notes, which of course ends up basically being a modem… And by the way, on the website, if you dig deep enough, we’ve actually got some songs that have got high and low notes in them, and if you decode them, they’ve got messages hidden in them…
The point is, if you’re only allowed two things, you can represent anything. Quite often I’ll say “Look, I’ll tell you what month I was born in” and it’s “No. Yes. No. Yes. No.” They think about it, and they go “Oh, it was October” and suddenly they realize that I’ve actually represented a month of the year. Then we can represent a letter of the alphabet as a number, and so on. Here might jump in and try and use ASCII code, but it’s actually better that they come up with the code… Because the point is nobody needs to know ASCII or Unicode or something like that particularly. Many people have memorized it, but… It’s just the idea that as long as I’ve got a number for every letter, then I can represent letters of the alphabet. Then you can ask them “How would you represent a color, or a sound?” and so on. It goes on endlessly.
So that’s an example of one of the activities where with just basically five cards with a few dots on them we’ve suddenly explained a lot of very fundamental stuff that’s going on within a computer.
[00:52:33.05] Absolutely. And at even a more basic level, for certain kids, depending on the age - as I see, on binary numbers that age is 5 to 10… So definitely at this point even introducing them to the thought that they are non ten-based number systems is hugely mind-expanding. I remember when I was a kid, and where I first learned there were negative numbers I had like a breakdown… Like, a good breakdown. I was like “Holy cow!” My whole world just expanded.
So kind of going back to the idea of teaching this computational thinking and really the advantage of having this in school rooms for everybody, not just for people who are going to be programmers, is that you’re expanding their mind and teaching them brand new ways of thinking, right?
Yeah, and I think that’s a great example of engaging kids who might not have otherwise wanted to be engaged in this whole thing - they start seeing these patterns, and so on. And certainly, learning another number system - it’s like learning a second language; you learn so much about your first language when you learn a second language. So just trying to get kids to think about things differently…
I think also the other thing I found with binary - particularly for adults - the word “binary” is often that mysterious thing that only the elite could possibly ever know. They see it as used in the context of “The super secret stuff that I could never understand” and when ten minutes playing with a few cards and they completely get it and they completely see the power of it and so on - it kind of just shatters all of those walls that might have been between people and getting involved in this stuff, particularly for teachers and for senior citizens I’ve worked with, and so on… They just go “Oh, is that all it is? It’s something that a human can understand!” [laughter]
Versus a superhuman… Yeah, I’m not sure exactly what it is that is the intimidation, but there’s definitely an intimidation of “That’s just for somebody that’s super smart, was somehow born with this knowledge and they get it”, and that’s just not the case. In a lot of cases, it’s curiosity and unraveling the onion, you know, by a career. You spend your whole career doing that, not just a little bit of time and suddenly you’re an expert. You’re always chiseling away at being an expert. You never really – I guess you probably are at some point, but the point is that you’re always learning.
Exactly, and I think a lot of it is time on task… Again, sometimes the people who become experts are simply the people who have been attracted to it one way or the other, and get drawn into it and spend a lot of time on it, and they don’t notice the time going past; they don’t realize how much they’ve learned about it. So drawing people in I think is a key part of it.
This reminds me of a funny story from when I was at university, with regard to number systems. I had a computer science professor who was, let’s just say, harsh… Kind of scary. I learned a lot from him, so I don’t begrudge him in this, but he had office hours and everybody was very intimidated to go in and ask questions, because he would be very hard on you. One time I had finally got the guts to take my question – because you wanted to make sure your question was good before you asked it, and I was like “I’m pretty sure I’m stuck and I can’t get through this; I’m gonna go ask him a thought. I’ve tried all the obvious stuff.”
[00:56:06.16] I’m walking up to his office, and there was a student in there before me, and the door was cracked, so I could hear what was happening. There was a loud smash as a book hit the wall, and I heard him say “If you can’t think in base-8, you can’t be a programmer!” [laughs] The kid walked out (well, kid - he was the same age as me)… The young person walked out completely defeated, and I was sitting in the chair to go in next, and I’m thinking “I don’t know how to think in base-8. I can’t be a programmer…” and I just turned around and left.
What a bummer, dude…
It was… He was kind of perpetuating that myth, of like “You have to be this brilliant – be able to just change the way you think about numbers in your head, or you can’t be a programmer.” I guess I’m still a programmer to this day… I still can’t think in base-8, so I think he was wrong.
Good job, Jerod.
One of the gurus in computer education, Seymour Papert, talks about a low floor and a high ceiling. So you want a low floor when kids turn up… That professor was sitting at a very high floor; you have to be, at least to this point, before–
And I guess a lot of what we’re talking about here, whether it’s a programming language for kids or whatever, is that low floor where they get some instant achievement, and it’s not hours and hours of study before they even see the point of it. But the high ceiling says “By the way, we can keep pushing this as far as you want. It’s not just a little one-off activity that can’t go anywhere.”
So in terms of topics, there’s binary numbers that you talked about, you talked about searching algorithms… We’ll just list a few more - you have kid bots, and there’s 50 different challenges in that. Sorting, error detection and correction… You all have put lots of time in this, and if you check out the website, there’s a classic version, and this new version… As you said, these are things that you’ve been honing and changing and optimizing over the years. Tell us about CS Unplugged in the meta sense. Who’s working on it with you, what have you been doing through the years? And we already asked a little bit, like what primary schools are – has this gotten into schools? It sounds like it has, but maybe not in like a formalized way. Like, we use the CS Unplugged curriculum because, like you said, it’s more of an adjunct or an attachment to other things… But tell us how you’re interacting with educators and making CS Unplugged better for them?
You mentioned the classic site, and that’s the one that we had up to about a year ago. It was aimed more at people who were already involved in the industry, or academics, and so on, and assumed that you kind of knew what it was about… But it said “This is how you could break it down for kids.” And it’s got quite a few activities on it, covering a big range of computer science.
Has it got into schools? We were really fortunate to get funding actually from Google and Microsoft. Both independently approached us and said “Look, this seems to be widely used. We’d like to see it grow. It’s great that it’s open source. Can we just support your?” I actually got an e-mail from Microsoft saying “Hey, congratulations. We’ve decided to give you some money”, which I almost deleted, of course… [laughter] But it was for real.
Like one of those forwards where Bill Gates is gonna give away his fortune? One of those things that people used to forward around…
Exactly. So there’s a branch of Microsoft called Microsoft Philanthropies; they actually support a lot of organizations, reaching out to kids in all sorts of different situations all around the world, and they had found that a lot of people were reporting to them that they were using Unplugged.
One of the troubles with Unplugged - you don’t go online and use it. You download it, print it out and then you never go back. We don’t get to see who’s using it, although one of the best ways we’ve discovered recently is just the Twitter feed, #CSUnplugged. Following that, just every day, a different language or a different country, someone pops up saying “I’ve been using this.” It’s a good way of tracking it.
[01:00:12.02] But until a couple years ago, Unplugged was me and a couple of students who happened to be doing projects on it, or something like that… But we’ve actually now grown to probably 3 or 4 full-time people who are working on different aspects of it, although a lot of this is now sort of driven towards creating – you’d think we’d be creating more and more new activities, but actually people want the same thing repackaged differently for primary schools. Then there’s a version of it which is not totally Unplugged, but it’s called The Computer Science Field Guide, which is aimed more at high schools, and it’s aimed but at the students.
The Unplugged stuff is written for the teacher, it says “This is how you could teach it”, with lesson plans and so on. The Computer Science Field Guide is aimed more at the student, saying “You’re a teenager. Here’s some stuff that will help you understand some of the big ideas in computer science.” There’s video, there’s stuff to read, there’s examples and online stuff that they can interact with. If any of your listeners want a quick taste of that, one of the fun things to go into - we were talking about data before - there’s a chat room in the Field Guide on data representation, and it’s got an interactive element where you can drop your own photo and zoom in, but instead of sort of blurring it or limiting it when you zoom in, it actually goes right down to the pixels and shows you the numbers that represent those pixels, the RGB values.
It sounds quite simple, but it’s quite an a-ha moment for a lot of people, where they go “Hang on, that’s a digital photograph… It’s made of digits! Who would have thought…?” So it’s got lots of interactives like that, and we’re busy preparing those sort of things… But a lot of introductory stuff, just explaining to teachers what this is about, why they should care about it, how it affects the real world.
So we have quite a reasonable-sized group working on that, and then within New Zealand we’ve got a new curriculum in schools for this stuff, and we are also doing a lot of work to support local teachers. We’ve got tens of thousands of primary school teachers in New Zealand that we are helping to get up to speed with this new curriculum, and so on.
It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a big job and it’s just for one country. We’re equivalent to the size of one state of the U.S. There’s a lot of work to be done around the place, and helping people get up to speed in this area.
So you mentioned these independent sponsorships - Google, Microsoft, and then the U.C. Computer Science Education… Is that the university that you work at?
Yeah. In fact, that’s the name of my research group.
While we have the people that develop it, there’s actually a lot of volunteers contributing to it as well. Until not long ago, it was entirely voluntary… But even to this day, of course, a lot of students who work on it are effectively paying us to work on it, because they’re doing it as part of their study, and so on. So over the years, there have been dozens and dozens of people who have contributed to it in one way or another.
Do those sponsorships come with any strings attached? Do you have to write reports back, or are those just completely – like, the funds are up for you to use however you see fit, or how does that work?
They’re very open, and one of the key things is that all of the material that we develop is Creative Commons, it’s available for people to use. They help us with a little bit of a direction, because obviously – I mean, their goal is not to advertise the company in particular, but simply to grow the expertise. Of course, at the moment we have a desperate shortage of people who have this expertise, and we know that there are people who would be good at it who are missing out because they don’t get involved, so… It makes sense just to support schools and to support the system.
[01:04:09.11] The Creative Commons license also just really frees things up for teachers a lot, because they’re not worried that they’ll get a bill for it, or that they’ll get a copyright infringement, or something like that. They can just download it, they can copy it, they can republish it on the school’s website if they want, print it out, they can edit it if they want to change things…
Recently, we even removed the non-commercial restriction, because we’ve found a lot of people were coming to us and saying “Well, I run an after-school class and parents pay $10/session to come along, and I’m using your material and I’m making money out of it. Is that fair? Is that in the spirit of the license?” and so on. Or people would be putting together kits of equipment ready to go, and selling it… Anyway, we thought long and hard about it, but we removed the non-commercial restriction, which means, theoretically, people could sell it for whatever they want, but of course, given that it’s available for free online, your reputation wouldn’t be so good.
It’s not a good business model.
No, no. But it does just make everything a lot easier. In some countries, teachers much prefer to buy a published book than download something off the web and things like that, so it frees it up that someone could translate it and publish it as a book, and that’s fine… And often, when people have done that, they’ve given us donations back to support the work that we’re doing. It all works out really well.
How much of your time goes into this? The forty you work each week - if you work forty, how much goes into this?
Probably about 45 hours.
Out of forty… [laughs]
I do have a day job, I do teach as well, but at the moment, with all the curriculum change happening around the world, there’s a huge amount of interest, so I’m spending a lot of time traveling around New Zealand and just working with people in New Zealand on this… But also, I guess over the last five years, there’s been a lot of international interest, and as people have developed curricula, I get an e-mail saying “Hey, would you fly over and talk to us about this, and help us to work out what we should be doing locally, and so on?” So it’s actually involved quite a bit of travel as well, which I quite enjoy, so that’s fine…
We’re just at a point in history, I think, where – you know, 20 years ago when we were developing this, Mike Fellows especially would go to schools and they’d just shake their heads and say “This is never gonna happen”, and now we finally got to this point where schools all over the world, and school systems, and countries are saying “How do we do this? This is really important. We have to get into it.” So it’s kind of been a 20-year dream, and finally we’re at a point that we didn’t even imagine that we would be at sometimes… So it’s kind of neat that it’s all happening at the moment.
I think in a few years hopefully everything will settle down and people will know what they’re doing, and it will just be a natural part of society, and education, and all that sort of thing. Not so much Unplugged, but just the whole idea that we actually empower kids to get involved in the whole area of computing, digital technologies, computational thinking. At that point - yeah, I’ll take a day off.
We can’t close this show without closing the loop on this one thing that you mentioned early in the show that it was the motivation for you to do this - I’m not even sure what year it was, but you mentioned…
Okay, 1992… Your son was seven, I believe, or five. You did this because your motivation was your children, I’m assuming - your son, and potentially others, but… What’s their status in computer science?
So in general we don’t get a lot of feedback, but actually a few students have come up to me and said “You know, ten years ago I went to this thing, and that changed my direction”, which is amazing.
[01:08:12.20] I have two sons who have grown up with this entire thing happening around them all the time. The 31-year-old basically runs the recording studio; his entire life is digital, of course… He just produces bits and puts them on the web, but he has ended up doing a lot programming and stuff, it’s what he does, but his career is in music, which is fantastic. My wife is a music teacher, so as he went through and did a music degree and so on, she kind of put a little “1-0” on the refrigerator.
Then our second son went through and he did a music degree as well, so it was sort of 2-0 at one state, but at the end of it – and I think one of the problems… You know, children of people who do a particular area, they make a decision “I don’t wanna be like that. Just because my dad does it, I shouldn’t have to do it…”, but he ended up doing a little bit of programming at the end of his music degree and got so interested in it (finally) that he did an entire computer science degree and now he works as a software engineer… So it’s actually now 1-0.
So it was worth it…
Right? I mean, you’re changing the world obviously outside of your own family, but to see the dividends pay direct - that’s awesome.
It has been good, but the thing that really means a lot to me is when I particularly see kids that would have been excluded, and I’m particularly thinking of women and people from other cultures who don’t see themselves as part of that - when they get really engaged and are really enjoying it…
And then they close the loop, because they go “I need to help you with this stuff, because we need to get into schools and get more girls involved, and get more people like me involved”, and it’s just neat seeing that feedback loop happening, and that it’s just so genuine. It’s like “This is a cool career, and I really want to share it with other people.”
Let me give you this one here too, because a part of that conversation that spurred me learning about this in the first place was because I was concerned how I can share this with my daughter and my niece, who I very much care for, and they’re both very smart in this direction, they just need that a-ha moment, the spark… And I’m like “How do I…?” I don’t even know the things that I need to know. I’m that would-be teacher, to some degree, so I was like “What kind of resources are for me to hand to or guide through my daughter and my niece?” That was my motivation.
My son could do it as well, and that’s part of it too, but my thoughts were on those two, because they’re so skilled with it, but there’s no clear on-ramp for young girls.
Yeah. And of course, the other thing that’s I think is really important – I mean, we don’t want everyone to become a computer programmer, it would be a very boring world, but it’s important that young people understand this digital world that they’re growing up in, and there’s gonna be more and more happening to them and around them, with AI and privacy, and all the algorithms that make decisions for us and things like that, where even just a little bit of understanding of what these things might actually be, rather than just something mysterious that the technocrats have to sort out for us, then that’s empowering them as a member of society to function well anyway.
[01:11:31.08] So I’m perfectly happy if people learn this stuff and either go “Well, that may be useful when I’m campaigning against some particular thing or for some particular thing”, or even “Well, I’m glad I know what it is, because I definitely don’t like it.” [laughs] But hopefully, more and more we are getting people to go “Actually, that’s a lot more interesting. There’s a place for me at this table.”
Any words of advice to the educators? Let’s say someone’s listening to this and they’re thinking “Man, I’m not an educator, but I know somebody; I’ve got kids I wanna influence” - any advice or any first steps for them to take with using Unplugged, or even the Field Guide?
I think the key thing is to let the kids do the thinking. Remember, the goal isn’t - particularly for younger kids - that they know all this stuff, the goal is that they engage with it. It’s called constructivism, where the kids construct the knowledge themselves. So you just say “Okay, here’s a small challenge. How would you do this? What’s happening here? How’s that working?” and give them time to think about it; let them give the wrong answers, let them reflect on the wrong answers, let them come to the right answer with a bit of help. It’s very much about letting them explore it, so that they’re kind of empowered to go “Oh, I actually worked out how that works”, rather than “Okay, I’ve been given a whole lesson of exactly what to do, and now I can do the thing they wanted me to be able to do.”
Tim, it’s been fun going on this lane with you. I’m very appreciative of your motivation for your sons, and obviously, the payout for the rest of the world as part of it. This 20-year journey for you, and Mike, and the rest of the team I’m sure is just profound, because you know, it was a happy accident at first, and now it’s just lighting things on fire, so people are excited about it.
Thank you for your work, and your motivations toward this, and obviously, sharing it freely, and even allowing people money if they need to to do the work to educate children.
You’re very welcome. Thanks for the chance to share.
Thank you, Tim.
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚