How to teach tech to non-techies

With education minister Huw Lewis announcing a new framework for school students in Wales to learn digital skills, some thoughts on teaching tech may be useful and timely.

They come from the frontline of fyi network workshops, Software Alliance Workshops and STEM ambassador experience, with adults and children.

Tech means lots of different things

From how iPads function, to different types of software, to heavy lift coding.

A useful question may be the following: How do you inspire confidence and a desire to explore in those who teach digital skills?’

It’s not unusual to visit a school for a workshop that’s heavily provisioned with Macs and iPads but where class teachers may be unable to link these devices to the internet. And a ‘How does the school connect to the internet?’ can get answered by ’Not a concern at my pay grade!’

Use big ideas and reengineer the learning

Those of us who make digital products know the most effective and efficient design process works when we re-engineer back from the big idea that grabs people.

So in making the Stay Calm and Stay Cool apps, we started off with the big idea that these apps would give users pocket control over mood. Then we worked out more detailed aims: how ongoing evidence of efficacy would work and finally design and content.

When I asked classes of 11 and 12 year olds in Merthyr how many of them would like to work in technology, the ratio of boys to girls was 12 to 1.

But the girls are online every available moment, looking at fashion and beauty You Tube videos and blogs.

So they’re much more likely to be receptive to the idea of creating their own fashion YouTube channel or blog platform because of the big idea and then learning tech skills as a means to this end than learning how to code on Scratch in what may seem like a vacuum.

Producing anything worthwhile in digital usually involves both technical and creative problem solving, and a lot of it. It’s an outcome of value to others and ourselves that’ll keep us going. What we make may make us friends and help us influence people.

Use visuals, metaphors and immersion

Some super smart people have come up with inventive ways to teach digital skills.

The Head First approach from O’Reilly media is based on learning theory. Ivelin Demirov has just funded a KickStarter campaign to create a new book, based on his accelerated learning approach to code teaching.

Some of us have a strong need to make ongoing sense of a subject as we learn. So we won’t suit coding workshops where we have to code along at breakneck speed with the trainer, and can’t stop to ask ‘Why are we doing this?’ or ‘What is the underlying principle here?’ (And it’s all a bit macho, anyway).

We’re more likely to grasp technique when we understand more about context and connection, though use of metaphor. When Jamie, web teacher at Ffotogallery, Chapter, Cardiff told us that web building was like architecture, and a website was usefully viewed as an arrangement of cardboard boxes, with different capabilities, then clarity struck here…

Whether you like your learning to be social or otherwise, there are vast resources available, many free or reasonably priced, to immerse ourselves totally in whatever tech learning we want. Here’s a guide to Learn To Code In Wales: Why And How, with thanks to Cardiff Start and its Facebook community for crowdsourced suggestions.

And maybe coding isn’t the thing?

When people talk glibly about digital literacy, what do they mean? Here’s a long and powerfully argued case for not pushing coding skills, but modelling as a most desirable mental skill. And the great news is, this starts with playing with lego.

Here’s another interesting and complementary post in support of us thinking like engineers. These look to me like ideas that could be implemented early on in the school curriculum.

This week, Huw Lewis has suggested that digital skills need to go across all subjects, which is so sound. Is there any subject which isn’t digitalised to some extent, today?

And hopefully for those of us who are older to say ‘Oooo, no I’m not very techie’ will become taboo and tantamount to saying ‘Oh look, I really don’t engage with how much of the world works’.

Unless, of course – like Greta Garbo or Howard Hughes – you’ve decided to live in rarified isolation.

Philippa is a business psychologist and edits at FYI Network. She tweets on @philippada.

Image credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr