Shahneila Saaed’s work at UK Interactive Entertainment Association (or Ukie) over the past six years has focused on adding computational thinking to the basic reading, writing and arithmetic for younger children.
It was an idea she had started exploring 15 years ago as a schoolteacher. Now, as director of Ukie’s nationwide Digital Schoolhouse programme, she has taken her dream of inspiring and engaging educators and learners to over 100,000 children and almost 10,000 teachers since 2014.
A second-generation immigrant, Shahneila was born and raised in London in a conservative Pakistani household. She did her Bachelor’s in psychology from University of Westminster and her teaching degree from Kings College, London. Now married, she has non-identical twin girls, age nine, who are often her first ‘guinea pigs’ to experiment with her ideas.
Her new book How to Raise a Tech Genius (Hachette, Rs 599) contains astoundingly simple games and activities younger children can play to understand the basics of computing concepts. She shares her thoughts and ideas with us.
What inspired you to make a career in education?
While I was in university, I volunteered in a secondary school’s IT department. One day, the teacher asked me to sit next to a particularly disruptive girl and help her out. I soon realised that she was disruptive because she couldn’t understand what was being taught. As I helped her, she began to understand the work and her behaviour radically improved. When the teacher later asked the class a question, she shot her hand up and got the answer right. I’ll never forget the smile on her face… it warmed my heart.
That was the exact moment I realised that teaching was my profession. I wanted to help more children and to make a small difference every day.
As someone who grew up in the UK, what were the gaps in the educational system that you experienced firsthand and wanted to fix once you joined Ukie?
My computing lessons when I was 11 – 13 were one hour a week of us being left with the computers in front of us with no further instructions. We spent the hour playing games in MS DOS (yes, that’s how old I am!). Instead, I picked up a few things from an uncle who was a researcher and programmer, which I would then try out in school. I remember my computer studies teacher sitting down next to me and asking me how to do things.
College was better, I learnt a lot, but I was the only girl in the class. I was too shy to ask questions, and left feeling like I wasn’t good enough. Thirty years later there is still unconscious bias in the way we speak to students about subjects but now we have numerous schemes and initiatives to tackle these issues.
Diversity and inclusion have been big areas in tech, but so too is contextualisation. Even today, students don’t know or can’t see how studying computing can help them in their lives either on a general level, or the sheer volume of career opportunities available.
That is something I’ve been trying to tackle. It’s important that students understand the relevance of what they are studying and we can do that by linking the concepts to real-world issues that they can relate to. That also makes it more engaging and fun, and they are more likely to be motivated to continue with it. Computing is not just for the smart kids; it is a subject that should be accessible to everyone.
How has the response been in your educational community to the system you have developed?
It is a unique approach to teaching computing and not your usual run-of-the-mill lessons, so there is a natural curiosity by most people as to how this will work. But that’s the thing about play: young or old, everybody loves to play. I’ve yet to meet a person who is frightened of playdough or storybooks or playing cards. Of course, there’s a puzzled look on their face when they realise I intend to teach them programming and other computer science concepts using these same objects. But it always ends with smiles and laughter.
That’s what makes it work so well. Those objects are familiar and accessible. They make potentially intimidating and abstract concepts tangible and concrete, thereby making them easier to grasp. The unexpectedness of it is in itself a very powerful learning mechanic – it instantly dispels stereotypes about computer science and programming.
And it works with all ages too, from young children to grownups.
Our work and approach to teaching computing is also in sync with other educational research. A great source of inspiration here is Professor Paul Curzon from Queen Mary University of London; he’s been publishing CS4FN (Computer Science 4 Fun) for a long time, and it promotes a similar learning style: making difficult concepts more accessible.
Your book also talks about basic social-media hygiene that parents and kids should be aware of, and other aspects of digital living that everyone should know. Could these activities and tips be adapted for senior citizens or people who don’t have regular access to computers such as the underprivileged in developing countries?
All activities within the book are fully adaptable. I myself have used some of these to train grown-ups in industry as well as teachers. In fact underprivileged families were one of the audiences I had in mind as I wrote this book.
A lot of promotion around parents supporting their child’s learning of technology is centred around buying products. Even the Raspberry Pi, which is marketed as the world’s cheapest computer, costs over £30 for just the device, and then you’ll need add-ons like a monitor and keyboard, sensors, motors and LEDs. If your weekly food budget is £50, you’re not going to spend that same amount of money on a piece of hardware.
But does that mean that these families should miss out? Of course not. That’s why the book only uses objects that can be found around the home, taking into consideration everyday activities, such as preparing a meal or a simple pen and paper. The book is full of prompts and discussion points that parents can use with their children and adapt as they need to. It taps into the natural human instinct to play and have fun.
Your books make computational thinking extremely simple for small kids and even computer-illiterate adults. Can these systems be adapted to other countries and educational boards?
Computational thinking skills are a concept and skillset that are recognised by academics globally. When you explore the concepts in their simplest form, you find that many of us do this naturally, even as children. Teaching computational thinking and ensuring it is embedded within lessons is important but also easily done.
Algorithmic thinking, for example, is about arriving at a sequence of steps to solve a problem; abstraction is about removing unnecessary detail to help make problems easier to solve. These are all skills that any of us would find useful in our everyday lives.
The book talks about logical thinking, creativity and problem-solving as being the most essential skills of the future. But countries like India still follow mechanical rote learning as the norm and students are not encouraged to think out of the box (and even punished if they do!). How can these countries address the huge gap in their education system while also struggling with limited resources?
You don’t need expensive resources to play; you just need to play with what is in front of you. Take any concept in computer science, strip away the technical terminology (and even the incessant need to start with those complicated and intimidating words) and bring it down to the raw concept; and you’ll find that you can find lots of creative ways to apply it.
For example, my first lesson in teaching students about binary and data representation involved me walking over to the light switch in the classroom and turning it off, then back on again… and back off again. I then asked the students what was happening, and they quickly grasped onto the fact that computers have millions of switches inside that are powered by electrical currents. A switch being on is represented by a 1 and switched off is 0. That gives you the 101111000010101 binary string that we are familiar seeing.
But I have to say, I don’t agree with mechanical rote learning. That may have been appropriate several decades ago, but the world has changed. We don’t need children to memorise lists of words and numbers when I can search Google for it and get an answer instantly. With the advent of the internet, the world’s knowledge is quite literally at our fingertips.
It’s just about accessing that knowledge, in the right way, at the right time, for the right purposes. So what we need to learn is the questions. How to ask the right question that will bring up the answers I need and am looking for. If we can’t ask the right questions we won’t be able to find the answers.
This is not just about typing in specific search criteria, but it’s about the issue more broadly, of course. How do we look at the problem in front of us, and devise the right questions? How do we then use the answers that we are provided with?
This requires clear logical thought, creativity and above all problem-solving skills. We need to be able to break a problem down into easily solvable parts, focusing on only the important key details and arriving at a step-by-step solution (computational thinking).
The world is continuing to change, jobs requiring simple tasks are being automated, AI and machine learning are transforming businesses. If children are going to not just survive but thrive in tomorrow’s world, they have to learn to be able to understand, use effectively and manipulate tomorrow’s technology.
We don’t know what specific software is going to exist tomorrow, we don’t even know what jobs will exist! So, we cannot focus our teaching on training children for a specific niche skillset – because we don’t know what skillset they will need, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that it will likely change several times over the course of their lifetime.
What we instead have to do is to teach them good learning skills. By instilling within students a love for lifelong learning and a great skillset for picking up new knowledge and skills, they will be able to constantly update their knowledge as and when they need to.
So, the advice to educators? Rethink how you’re delivering your subject. Are you allowing students the opportunity to be creative? There has been a tendency to ‘teach from the front’ but shifting the focus by setting students a challenge to complete instead can go a long way to helping them develop the skills they need. Digital Schoolhouse has lots of free activities that demonstrate an alternative approach to teaching cross-curricular computing.First published in eShe magazine