I am a nearly-50 year old curmudgeon: Kids today are like kids yesterday

July 7, 2009 at 8:08 pm 3 comments

Despite the fact that my wife and I work on the same campus, we don’t often get the chance to travel in together.  She’s got off-campus work (like visiting high school teachers), and our schedules don’t always align, and there are the activities of three kids to juggle. This morning we did get to drive in together, and I exposed my curmudgeon-ness.

“I think there is something to the claim that this generation is different.  They’re more into immediate feedback, like Twitter. They’re less interested in more complex activities that require sustained effort and are sometimes tedious.”  My wife then went on to explain, in great detail, all the ways that kids today do engage in complex and even tedious actitivies.

  • Our son is in his high school’s marching band and orchestra.  Over 1/3 of the school is in the music program–public high school, and that’s not really that unusual (at least around Atlanta).  Learning to play an instrument well is really complex, requires sustained effort, and is frequently painfully tedious.  Yet, lots of kids do it, and from watching the marching bands around here, they’re really putting in the time.
  • The Harry Potter books are long and are the best-selling book series ever.  Kids today don’t read?
  • Ever watched kids playing video games?  Talk about complex!  Ever seen a kid decide to beat a game?  Starting and restarting the game, making the same mistakes over and over.  Tedious, complex, and sustained effort.
  • How do kids text so fast on those normal numeric-keyboard cellphones?  That’s a serious study in tediousness.  Typing semi-colons in Java is childs play in comparison!

“Then,” I asked, “how do you explain the decline of interest in the Western world in science, mathematics, engineering, and computing?”  “Fads,” she replied.  Our parents thought that we were uninterested in tedious, complex, sustained effort, too — just because we weren’t interested in their activities.  We had our own activities.  Our kid’s have their own.  Things become popular, and less popular.  Motivation rises and falls.  In the end, getting more kids into STEM disciplines is about motivating them, showing them why these fields are valuable, interesting, and worth the effort.

Good teaching helps.  Our daughter is a natural scientist.  She is forever “trying this out,” and even setting up comparison cases.  Her bedroom is filled with dead bugs, rocks, and solutions that I pitch out when I find them.  Yet, she claims that she “hates science.”  Science for her is filling out worksheets.  The teachers aren’t comfortable doing any of the real experiments, the real science, that are in the textbook.  The teachers don’t like science, so they teach it poorly.

Computing is fading from students’ interests because, in the end, it’s about student interests.  No, they may not be our “customers,” but they are certainly our “audience.”  Gaining and sustaining student interest is a critical factor in students pursuing computing education and careers, and good teaching by teachers who themselves like and know computing is a critical factor in gaining and sustaining student interest.

I’ve got a really smart wife.  I need to ride in with her more often.  And I probably need to be less of a curmudgeon.

(I’m doing two posts today because I won’t be able to post for the next week or so.  I’m giving a plenary talk at the Microsoft Research faculty summit next Monday.)

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , .

Aligning Computer Science with Mathematics by Felleisen and Krishnamurthi Point/Counterpoint: CS Education headed in wrong direction?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  July 7, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    It sounds like what you and your wife talked about has a lot to do with the fundamental questions of teaching. When I was in science classes I really liked the experiments. I looked forward to them. I wanted to see things happen. I was not so interested in the textbooks, and I was only interested in the applied math as a tool for figuring things out in the experiments (I was less interested in deriving formulas).

    As I read the part about your daughter I thought, “Get your kid out of that class!” The teachers are uncomfortable with the scientific experiments? What the heck do they think they’re teaching? There are some aspects of scientific pedagogy that are valuable and don’t directly involve experiments, but are rather about “thinking like a scientist”, reasoning about the experiments. Otherwise I’d say let the students experiment as much as possible. It will engage them in the pursuit of science and they’ll learn something about what real science is about.

  • 2. Michael Orr  |  July 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    If you want a really great look into the rising Millenial Generation and what has influenced their thinking and the way they respond to reward and failure differently from previous generations, take a look at Neil Howe’s book “Millenials Rising” http://www.amazon.com/Millennials-Rising-Next-Great-Generation/dp/0375707190/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247162440&sr=1-2

    It is a great study on the factors that influence cultural behavior of a generation including society, global events, their view of previous generations, etc.

    It is a great read for anyone who deals with young people on a daily basis, especially those in the academic world.

  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  July 14, 2009 at 9:29 am

    I am a firm believer that pasion for the subject is a very important quality in a teacher. That and subject knowledge are the key things above all that make or break a teacher. And their students. It is impossible to instill interest let along passion for a subject that one does not feel strongly about themselves.


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