“Why our kids need to learn code” (hint: it’s not to churn out more ICT’ers)

There seems to be wide agreement: our kids should learn code. But why? For Julien Dorra and his friends not to churn out more computer scientists and ICT professionals in ten years. It’s a reason, but not a good one, he says.

Dorra: “A very bad reason to teach kids code would be because we want to create computer engineers in drove. There is a lot of talk of teaching computer programming because big companies needs more programmers. That’s a very narrow view. But a very good reason is: because the kids want to, they are curious about it! Code is all around us, and kids know that. Also, because it’s fun, because it’s creative, because it’s a new way to express themselves – and, finally, because we want to share all this with our kids.”

So the Coding Goûter that they organise every month is not organised as a class, but more as a family activity.

Dorra: “We do a couple of things differently that the other code education workshops or groups.

Coding Goûter is not a class, and as such there is no lesson plan, and no teachers. The kids and the adults discover and learn together, from each others. We mix age groups, and usually have kids from 5 to 14. And we take our time: a typical Coding Goûter last for more than 3 hours. And we eat cakes and candies (laughs) – goûter is the french for an afternoon kids party with snacks. ”

“An interesting thing is that we constantly have slightly more girls than boys. I think it’s pretty much unique in mixed gender computer programming activities for kids. It’s a side effect of how we organize Coding Goûter, and we sure want to keep it that way.”

The idea for Coding Goûter came when Jonathan Perret, a friend of Julien’s, saw that his daughter loved command lines – she saw it as a way to talk to the computer, says Dorra.

Dorra: “Jonathan was intrigued to discover that the command line, when you talk to the computer by writing command in the terminal, could amaze his daughter, who immediately saw it as an interactive way of having a conversation with the computer.”

“Also we were inspired by the hackathons, game jam, coding dojos, code retreats, that professional adult developers set up to have fun coding, share between themselves and create new things. So at some point Jonathan said, let’s do a kids party where kids code and eat sugary things at the same time, he launched the invitation, and we joined him with our kids.”

Why do you think your approach is good?

Dorra: “What is good is to have many learning opportunities and weave them in the life of kids and parents alike. Workshops on creating games are good. Having girls-only programming class for teenage girls is especially essential, too. And computer science curriculum in school can also be good if done in a creative and inspiring way.”

“At the same time, there is a strong need to un-school computer programming learning. You probably didn’t started to draw in a formal class. You started by scribbling, trying things, obsessing on a single thing for hours, then exploring more. That’s exactly how we learned code as kids, when we were 9 or 12 or 14… by the way, that’s also how many adults learn it today, thanks to internet and the web.”

“Most workshops or classes let the initial creative direction in the hand of the adults, «today we are going to build a shooter video game with Scratch», but not every kid wants to build a video game. Not every 10 years old wants to use Scratch. Some are much more advanced than that.”

“We learned by copying code, hacking around, experimenting, exploring, we draw from these experiences to recreate an environment where learning happens organically. That’s why it’s key for us to let the kids show us the creative direction, and also why we don’t necessarily stick to a single tool.”

So: no points, badges or gamification in Coding Goûter, says Dorra. “Instead we focus on dedicated demo times during the session – we call them the “shows, “spectacles” in french.”

Coding Goûter is also dedicated family time, outside of the usual weekend activities, he says. Parents are around, helping their kids, but also learning from them. “It’s a time set aside to share the creativity of code with our kids. It’s not easy to do that at home, because there is always something to do, it’s hard to focus for a long time.”

“It’s like going to the museum, or to the swimming pool with you kids. You will (all) learn a thing or two, and play together. It wouldn’t make sense if parents didn’t join and participate.

[Coding Goûter was spotted for Whiteboard by @stefania_druga ][Photo: Paul Clarke, Flickr]

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Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).