Open-Source Living: Kids These Days

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Our series of discussions with Douglas Rushkoff on how we navigate the media landscape continues. This week we find out how kids went from being taught how to program to being at the mercy of interactive technology. Is the online world more dangerous for kids than the real world? What can be taught in schools?


Douglas Rushkoff

Comments [24]

figa from Brooklyn

I'm a working programmer with a computer science degree, and, like Rushkoff, I wish programming was taught at the grade school level along with math and writing. However, I didn't learn programming that way, and I imagine most programmers didn't. I learned BASIC from a book my parents gave me when they borrowed a TRS-80 from work. I was about 9, and the book was written for kids and beginners.

What I'm finding, now that my older daughter is 10, is that there are almost no introductory programming books written for kids. I've spent quite a bit of time searching for something suitable, and I even attempted to find the TRS-80 manual I used.

I settled on the "Head First" series from O'Reilly books. They're written for adults, so I'll have to do some explaining, but they at least have the spirit of the manuals from the dawn of computing. The best fit will probably be "Head First Programming", which is due out in May and teaches Python. In the meantime, I'm going to start my daughter with the Head First HTML and JavaScript books.

Mar. 14 2008 12:19 PM
Joanne from Westchester

Kids may be more technology-savy than their parents, but most parents know way more about human nature than their kids do (and are more likely to pick up on the fact that someone is trying a very old con job with new technology). Their kids might actually be impressed when a parent tells them that the person sending the e-mail they just got is trying to rope them in with a story that was old when the pyramids were young.

Mar. 13 2008 10:47 PM
Jennifer from Connecticut

Suzanne, I don't necessarily have a gripe with teaching how to use applications, but rather how and why it's done. I've heard too frequently that a school will choose to teach Word and Excel because these are the tools of the office world. The problem with this is that these tools will not look the same by the time the student reaches the office world. I have no problem teaching students to use as much of these tools that will benefit them in the here-and-now, but it's unrealistic to believe that the software will be pretty much the same in 10 years. Worse, I've often seen schools inadvertently teach the limitations or models of specific tools as limitations or models of software in general.

et, I think getting into programming today can be a daunting task, since there are so many areas that one can specialize in. If there are user groups in your area, it can be very helpful to go to a meeting. If you are good at self education, the web is a fantastic resource.

The system you are using and what you'd like to get your computer to do greatly influences what toolsets are worthwhile. In general, Java ( can be an interesting tool to pursue. If you go that route, I'd recommend using Eclipse or a similar programming environment. If that's intimidating, you may want to try PHP ( Some people like Ruby, but it's not my cup of tea (

Mar. 13 2008 12:00 PM

I started righting this in response to the a Governor who can not read but it seams a more relevant posting here

I am basically functionally illiterate my definition being
• Unable to dash off a quick email
• Use instant messaging
• Read any technical book or article in a reasonable time frame (with understanding)
There is a vast wealth of talent that is wasted due to the emphasis that is placed on literacy above thinking skills. I worked doing computer support a literary agency were my users were shocked if the watched me as I wrote on the computer. Yet I regarded as being good at my job
As we know have theses wonderful science fiction like machine of my youth that can write and spell for us. (I was 32 when the Macintosh computer was launched) We are going to have to change what we regard as educated and there for what is education as righting & spelling are become less relevant to education due to computers in the same way that drawing that used to be regarded as prerequisite for being a educated person. Drawing has now become something that is removed from many schools curriculum as no longer necessary due to the invention of photography.
Best Regards

Mar. 13 2008 11:33 AM
erin from brooklyn

I think that though your guest gets caught up in the specifics of wanting kids to learn computer programming, his ideas are in the right place. It is important to teach kids how to explore things independently, and to be curious about the inner workings of things both structurally and conceptually, whether it is the news or physics or computers or music or art.

What education should do is teach people that being passive and disinterested is unacceptable. So much of education today rewards kids for keeping their heads down and doing what they are told.

Mar. 13 2008 11:27 AM
Michael from Brooklyn (not Jersey City)

I didn't feel as though I expressed myself well on the air. Learning to make software, rather than use it can be liberating and empowering for some children. It can be frustrating and dispiriting for others. People like Seymour Papert have gotten amazing results, but not every teacher is Seymour Papert.

My personal experience in this area has been both good and bad. Some of the bad experiences have, IMO, resulted partly from the attitude advocates that suffered from 'new media triumphalism' which underestimated the many daunting obstacles for novices, and tended to paint a self-deceptively optimistic picture of experiments that yielded doubtful results. I don't mean to accuse Mr. Rushkoff of this, but I did not feel his comments painted a completely realistic picture, which took the very real difficulties into account.

Mar. 13 2008 11:22 AM
Suzanne from New York City

The novice has a VERY hard time. Today, I'd start with plain, simple HTML, VIA NOTEPAD, not some complicated scripting tool. Then add the scripting tool, then learn Java, JavaScript, and other web-type delivery methods. We are rolling back into centralized mainframe-type server control of screens ... we will come back to individual control, but not for a while (there is ebb / flow to individual vs. group control of stuff ... think one-room schoolhouse to age/grade separation ... then back to "self-contained" classroom ... everything waxes and wanes ... point is not simply balance, but to watch what the current trends are and take the best.

Mar. 13 2008 11:21 AM
Suzanne from New York City

Jennifer ... I can STILL program Bat files - you are very right ... learning the fine points of XL may not apply by time one graduates. HOWEVER ... I FIRMLY BELIEVE one should learn HOW TO LEARN those fine points ... just like driving a rental car .. when you get in, you look for where are the controls ... you can expect wipers, but the wiper controls are placed inconsistently. One brand of car may "suit" (s-ooo-t, not "suite" sweet) any given person bettern than another, and some need handicap controls ... but the point is still to drive.

Mar. 13 2008 11:19 AM
ben from brooklyn

Why lament the embrace of the relatively limited Facebook/Myspace/blog platforms over true "programming" or "hacking" when the majority of the kids building pages on these social networking sites would probably not even have interacted with computers at all, had social networking sites not existed?

A very small percentage of the population is going to read Ulysses, but isn't reading John Grisham better than wasting away in front of the TV all day?

Mar. 13 2008 11:08 AM
et from here

Does anyone know what the easiest and most relevant programming path is?
Everything from my novice point of view is so terribly complicated and strewn with competing flavors and languages.

Is .NET the big thing now and for a while?

What about apple and its UNIX matrix?


Mar. 13 2008 11:03 AM
Peter in Park Slope

Back in the bad old days of DOS, we PC users used to be putdown by Mac users, but I for one am really glad to have had the experience of having to "look under the hood." I never bothered to learn programming (beyond writing BAT files), but I have a pretty solid idea of how programs work and I'm not afraid to crack open the case to add things and pull things out, something about which Mac (and since the advent of Windows, PC users as well) are pretty much clueless.

Mar. 13 2008 11:00 AM
Jennifer from Connecticut

I've been programming since I was a kid in the 80s. I've been a web programmer for about 10 years. One observation I've had about computer education has been how inconsistent it is and how little understanding there has been by the implementors, from teachers to state standards.

One pet peeve of mine is that teaching specific applications somehow passes as teaching a skill. Applications change frequently, so learning how to use the finer points of Excel today is not necessarily a valuable skill by the time a student graudates. A better use of time would be to teach how to use various tools to be creative and productive.

Nevertheless, it would be useful to teach computer science as an extension of math for those students who find the subject suites them, to give them grounding in the basics. I know I'm a better programmer for having to had to learn assembly.

Mar. 13 2008 11:00 AM
Rob Levine from NY, NY

I think your guest doesn't see the bigger picture. While there is nothing run with learning to program, the more salient skill is to learn how to leverage software to be more efficient and effective in your field.

Incidentally, I am a computer professional and make over 200k per year helping businesses use financial software. I don't write the software (and couldn't) but I help businesses improve their bottom line by implementing and configuring software.

Mar. 13 2008 10:59 AM
Paul Blank from NYC Metro

"Hacking" is not always breaking into systems. It also means general curiosity about the world and finding new ways of looking at things. I believe the roots of the word have to do with staying up all night (and that kind of thing) to figure things out.

Mar. 13 2008 10:58 AM
John from NYC

This topic reminds me of a book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman which has a 20th Anniversary edition by his son Andrew. Just wondering if this technology is being utilized for education purposes?

Mar. 13 2008 10:57 AM
Susan Schneider from Chatham NJ

The progress of modern science and math could not continue without researchers being able to program and make the computer do calculations there were no pre-made programs for. Chaos theory, for example, grew and fed on concepts proven and suggested when theoretical physicists experimented within their knowledge of programming.

Mar. 13 2008 10:56 AM

Wrong headed again.

Web 2.0 -- the exploitation of user interface in order to make the web more useful in real life -- took off because of a tipping point of the number of inexpensive programmers. Previously the imagination of internet tools was limited to those who seemed to take their pride in "Coding."

Now I can come up with an idea and have someone bang it out in Transylvania, Latvia or India in two days flat for under a grand.

Mar. 13 2008 10:56 AM
Derek Tutschulte from Brooklyn

What better example of the importance of understanding software than billionair kids.

Mar. 13 2008 10:54 AM
Derek Tutschulte from Brooklyn

One laptop per child (OLPC) actually also embraces the idea of students hacking the device in order to become more computer literate.

Mar. 13 2008 10:53 AM
Suzanne from New York City

Programming computers is such a packed euphemism. It's like the early days of medicine. No longer is being a GP a good thing ... BUT having GP-type knowledge at the core of specialized work is a VERY good thing!!!

Mar. 13 2008 10:52 AM
Suzanne from New York City

As a 25+ year "computer person" with a nearly 13-yo daughter whose grown up with a ma and pa who BOTH are "computer professionals" ... I know restriction is not the answer. I was there in the early days of support via CompuServe forums. MUCH BETTER to TEACH a child how to "learn" a piece of software ... how to get help, how to adjust settings, WHY to adjust settings, what affects what.

I've been struggling with a virus on my home PC (that my daughter uses) and so our "at home" internet use has been VERY restricted lately ... this has been a security learning experience for her (the virus is not destructive, just annoying).

Doing HTML code "faster" is NOT the point!!!!!

Mar. 13 2008 10:51 AM
Derek Tutschulte from Brooklyn

Is his argument similar to calls to educate young people re: personal finance, mass media, deconstructing politics? Why will his effort succeed when these others have failed?

Mar. 13 2008 10:48 AM
Talia from New Jersey

Doug - don't mean to be "nitpicky" but programming computers is creating software. Hardware includes all physical components of the computer. Kids who are learning Microsoft Excel in school are not learning software. They are learning how to use software. What you learned in school was how to create it.

Mar. 13 2008 10:46 AM
Derek Tutschulte from Brooklyn

How about the popularity of "Make" magazine? It encourages people to understand and deconstruct mechanisms. Also, it is usually very young people that hack everything from the Pentagon to the iPhone.

Mar. 13 2008 10:45 AM

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