Computer education in Belgium

Today (well, technically yesterday by now), the Media were reporting of an open letter by '5 belgian university professors from the IT field' without calling them by name about how Belgian primary education should introduce programming into the curriculum, starting at age 5.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go well with a majority of the Belgian populace. Arguments like "what should the school drop to make place for that, then" and "why would people ever need to learn programming" were rampant on some internet fora that I had a short look at.

That being said, though, I think these five unnamed professors are correct. Understanding how a tool works is essential to proficient usage of said tool; and while it is possible to teach particular common and popular use cases of a given tool without providing enough background, doing so will only result in confusion when the computer "is acting up"—an oxymoron if there ever was one. After all, a computer can't "act up"; it can only follow instructions. Whenever your seems to be "acting up", what's really happening is that someone (most likely, you) gave it the wrong instructions. Or, perhaps, someone evil on the Internet gave it the right instructions (for their goals, anyway) and infected your computer with a virus. But that's unlikely.

Computer education currently mostly consists of "teaching software": rather than explaining how a computer does what it does, people are taught that if you click this button, the text will be bold, or if you click that button, the printer will start buzzing. That's all nice and dandy, until the actual computer people encounter when off the school bench and at work has this other piece of software, where all the buttons are in other places and look all "wrong". Because then they get all confused about the fact that things aren't where they're supposed to be.

So, yes, it is my opinion that any computer education should help people understand how a computer does the things it does. And what better way to do that than to actually explain things to a computer, the way computer programmers do such things?

Note that programming a computer doesn't have to be hard, and it can be something which kids can understand and will find fun to do. For instance, there's this scratch thing from MIT, which was made for teaching programming in such a context.

Yes, adding programming to the primary school curriculum will require that some other things are dropped instead, and I could see that being a problem. However, in our modern world computers have become so pervasively important that we would be doing our kids a disservice not to explain them how to understand computers, as opposed to just learn how to use them...