Coding for Kids – Why I think creative environments are the first step

Notes from my talk at last night’s Coding for Kids Barcamp at the Guardian

I’m Matthew Knight, and I’m extremely fortunate.

When I was a child, my father was a broadcast journalist, he worked on national and local BBC radio as a presenter, so I spent a great deal of my time in and around tools to make content.

At a very early age, I was editing quarter inch tape, which was at the time, a storage mechanism for broadcast audio, which you literally cut up using a razor blade, and joined together using sticky tape.

By the age of ten, I knew how to use a BBC Local Radio MKIII mixing desk, and would hang out in the redundant studio whilst my Dad was on air, making mix tapes, less about the music, more about the links between the tracks, making my own fake jingles and trails, inviting friends to call in, and recording the output.

I have hundreds of cassette tapes lying around at home of me as a kid presenting fake radio shows.

It wasn’t long before we had a computer at home, with a dial up internet connection, and whilst I cannot remember if my dad encouraged me to learn programming specifically; he had brought me up in an environment where I was surrounded by the tools for creating.

I pretty much knew I’d end up with a career in media, although at the time, there was absolutely no way of knowing what the media would look like when I was my father’s age. I thought I’d be editing clips of audio or video, rather than now splicing together entire technologies to create new things.

It is impossible to say how much my childhood, surrounded by the creative process, had an impact upon my career path, but I’m sure it did. I was brought up in an environment of creation, not consumption, so it has never seemed weird to just make something.

These days, I’m asked by people for my advice. That advice is still about making things. The people who ask my advice are usually much smarter than I am. They’re strategists, creatives and business people. I get paid to live in the future and tell the past what is going to happen, or how to make it happen.

And I’m pretty sure I’ll be discovered as a charlatan at some point this year.

Just under a year ago, after a nine month collaboration with my wife, I made something very special – my daughter. To be fair, my wife did most of the work, I provided a little bit of seed-capital, and I was there at the launch, but it has completely changed my perspective on life.

I still live in the future, but instead of pondering what the future will bring in opportunities to sell cigarettes to minors for my clients, I seem to worry myself half to death about what world my daughter will grow up in. Will there be water? Will there be political stability? Will Arrested Development have been finally made into a film?

And combine this with the recent discussions which I’m increasingly having with people, around the importance of teaching our children to use tools to create their own future, my mind is starting to be blown.

Picture this.

We’re a transitional generation that has seen so very many amazing things created by so very few.

The shift in just my short time on earth has been monumental, from holding a piece of physical tape in my hands in order to edit sound, to the completely virtual nature of projects like soundcloud.

Yet already, despite technologies like cloud computing being so very new, we already expect and demand so very much from them.

We can listen to Spotify whilst on a plane flying to Germany, but are pissed off when it buffers a little bit, or the bitrate is a little too low, despite the fact we’re flying at 30,000 feet over Europe to a piece of music we don’t own or physically have in our hands.

If we, the generation who have been gifted these amazing new technologies, both appreciate the benefits they provide and opportunities they create, but already take issue with things which are not multi-touch, endless battery life, fit in our pocket, cloud based and always on real-time streaming, what on EARTH will our children, when they are our age, or even when they are just fifteen years old, expect and demand from their technology.

Hoverboards are just the start, the rest is almost inconceivable.

And when their frustrations kick in, what will our children create to circumvent that hurdle, or to solve their problems? What will they envisage and re-appropriate? What will they be forced to do in order to connect and exist in their society?

Inspired by this dystopian and utopian question, I’m in the process of collecting the responses to this pondering from other parents.

I think parents have a unique, inspired view on the future when it comes to their own children, and I’m interested in asking that question to other technologists. It isn’t simply future gazing, but begs questions about the foundations and future opportunities we’re offering our children today.

In those responses, already some themes have started appearing, which I think could be useful context to discussions today:

Less reliance upon government, more upon society – if something doesn’t exist, don’t complain about it, create a solution.

A mindset of “Show and tell”, rather than privacy – in a world where everything is captured and shared, whether you opt-in or not, what does the content that surrounds you say about you, if you expect your future manager to google you, rather than are surprised if they do, what does this mean about your actions in life.

A shift away from device-centric computing – why do you own a device, when everyone’s device does the same thing, it’s just the content loaded on the device that matters.

A shift away from ownership – why own something when you can just access it for the period of time you need it for, physical and virtual.

Decentralisation, physically and virtually – why do you need to arrive at a defined location to do what you do? why do you need to login to a single server or a single point of potential failure?

Hyper Partial Attention – the concept of beginning, middle and end is analogue. Dipping in an out of streams of consciousness is the new method of absorbing knowledge and taking part in things.

But these are all from our own narrow little minds, with our one foot in the nostalgic memories of analogue, I cannot imagine my daughter having much interest in Lomography or Instagram, and our other foot in the business of being excited about the future, and excitement often creates things that are not there.

My daughter is already a consumer. She loves books, and will pull ‘Noisy Zoo’ and ‘Peekaboo Peter Rabbit’ off the side, demanding that I read one to her. I cannot wait until the first day that I can give her a crayon, and rather than her eating it, she scribbles on the wallpaper, and like my father did for me, hope that I can foster an environment where making things is as important, if not more, and as natural as consuming things.

There will be lots of discussion today about the role of schools and curriculum, and tools and processes to teach code, and these things are essential.

But it has never been about the code or the tools, but rather the attitude to know that tools are available to break something apart and reconfigure it, in order to understand it better, to improve upon it, or to make something entirely new.

An attitude towards it feeling entirely natural to question and create, rather than to just follow.

And our role is to foster the creative environment where this constant questioning and creation is encouraged, expected and demanded, where our children keep asking ‘why why why’ until we can no longer answer their questions, and they go off and answer it themselves.

I’d like to finish with a joke that I hope sums up tonight’s conversations:

How many children does it take to change a light bulb?
Why a light bulb?