When careers don't last much longer than primary school, play is the new training

Drag and drop tools that teach through experimentation have a place beyond the classroom

As we move into the mid-21st century - what historians will probably note as the Dawn of the Connected Era - our emphasis on what’s important to teach children has changed. Where once we tried to cram kids heads full of facts, these days we tend to favor the capacity to find an answer.

That’s only viable because those kids (and all of the rest of us) are stuck well into a knowledge culture that’s barely more than a decade old, and which provides an answer to almost any question at almost any time almost anywhere. It’s not perfect: people quickly get lost in the bush when they go out of range and their maps app fails them, because we’re so used to having the facts at hand, when we need them.

Not everyone thinks this is a good thing. Within education, forces of conservatism want to preserve a sit-down-shut-up-and-learn-what-I-say style of teaching, even though that really doesn’t produce the kind of mind that’s in any way capable of dealing with a civilisation now evolving at speed. For these folks, technology is an distraction and must be banned from the classroom.

In earlier days, conservative educators said the same things about girls in the classroom. And before, that books.

For a hundred years there’s been a counter argument - one based on the obviously insane methodology of studying how children learn. When the educator shuts up and sits back, what they quickly discover is that children are, in fact, equipped with a scientific mindset, running all sorts of experiments on the world - both physical and behavioural - to learn the shape and limits of reality.

That school of thought - Constructivism - insists that we really only learn by doing, and, specifically, learn through a process of discovery when we’re thrust into an environment we don’t fully understand.

You can draw a line from the discoveries of Constructivism through to the Logo programming language, Lego’s MINDSTORMS, and the Scratch programming language. We learned how kids learn, then boffins built tools that matched this understanding, to help kids learn how to use computers.

By and large, it’s worked incredibly well. Millions of children learned Logo programming - with its cute graphical ‘Turtle’ - back in the 70s and 80s. From the late 90s MINDSTORMs have been a core component in any robotics education for kids.

Scratch - which was developed from MINDSTORMS’ drag-and-drop programming environment – is very successful. By this point it’s reasonable to believe that a hundred million kids - mostly in year three or four - have learned how to write Scratch programs.

It’s not just kids who need to learn new things.

In 1970, when my grandfather retired, he hadn’t had to learn much over the course of his forty-year career. My father retrained himself twice before retirement. I’ve had a succession of careers - from software engineer to entrepreneur to educator to author to broadcaster to speaker. Every time I begin again, I’ve to learn the basics. Within my core field (connected technologies) I’ve seen nearly continuous change since I started working, thirty-four years ago.

The average adult in the average job has nearly the same learning needs as an average kid in primary school. While we have resources - you can always google for some sort of answer - we’re ignoring the lessons we’ve learned about how kids learn.

That became clear to me recently when doing some research work on the Blockchain - which, as you’ve probably heard, is a new technology for creating networks of distributed trust and authority. Blockchain has a lot of uses - particularly in banking and finance - and a lot of people are quite interested in how it all works.

When discussing blockchain, it’s easy to get lost in a thicket of cryptography, hashes, Merkle trees and other arcane mathematics. Most people just bounce off at that point, putting it into the “too hard” basket, leaving it to the boffins.

But it needn’t be that way.

Some of the weirdest and most exciting bits of all this Blockchain work have to do with “smart contracts” - bits of legalese that act more like code than words written on a page. Imagine an escrow that automatically pays out when a signature is given to a delivery person, and you have the essence of what a smart contract can do. Writing those smart contracts requires the the skills of both a lawyer and a programmer.

Unless, you use EtherScripter.

This cute little tool takes all of the complexity of a smart contract and hides it behind an interface that looks exactly like a Scratch program. Drag, drop, connect components, set a few variables and voila! you have a real, verifiable smart contract ready for use in any business - one that could be written by a nine year-old.

It’s not simply that EtherScripter makes it easy to write a smart contract, but that it creates a playground for the creation of smart contracts. Try something out - if it doesn’t work, tear it apart, see what’s broken, fix it, and try it again. And again. And again - until it’s just right.

That playfulness is the essence of Constructivism, the core of how kids learn - and probably the only way we’ll be able to keep up with a world increasingly connected, increasingly intelligent, and deeply programmable. Scratch may be child’s play, but EtherScripter shows that we have a lot to learn about how to learn - from kids. ®

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