Archives for category: Thinking

In response to feedback from lots of you, I have now extended my experiment on computer programming and the brain to include 12 and 17 year olds. I’m still recruiting, so if you can code and fit into one of these categories, please sign up to get involved.

  • 8-12 year olds who have been coding regularly for at least 6 months
  • 14-17 year olds who have been coding for at least 3 years
  • 21-25 year old professionals who have been coding for 5 years or more

Taking part will take around half an hour, and I’ll do my best to find times and places that suit you.

I need a total of at least 10 people in each age group, but the more the merrier, so if you know people who’d be interested, please send them my way. Thanks :)

Hannah

Are computer languages really languages? Apparently, in the 70s and 80s, various universities appeared to think so, as they allowed computer programming to count for the foreign language entry requirement.

According to Hulit and Howard (1993), languages must 1) convey meaning, through the words and the relationships between the words; 2) include concepts of different times and space, like yesterday or somewhere else; and 3) be “productive”, in that they allow us to say things that have never been said before. Kent L Norman’s book Cyberpsychology points out that these things are technically present in programming languages, which involve similar concepts of grammar and meaning. However, the structure of these languages are highly structured, and the communication is, essentially, one-way.

Of course, another difference is that talking to a computer doesn’t usually involve much actually talking or listening – it’s a reading and writing kind of conversation. But this recent neuroimaging study suggests that reading and writing ability is embedded in the language system, and processed in brain regions that were previously thought to specialise in spoken language only, so perhaps that’s not such a big deal.

So why does it matter whether or not the brain treats code as language? Well, Dr Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues have been conducting some very interesting research into the cognitive benefits of bilingualism which suggests that regularly switching between two different languages changes the structure and function of the brain. Bilingualism seems to improve executive function in the brain, delay age-related cognitive decline and may even protect against the onset of dementia.

What’s more, the Education Secretary recently promised to “pull every lever” to get young kids learning languages (warning: link contains large picture of Michael Gove). Why? He said:

“It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter. The neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning.”

So it seems to me that if learning to code has the same cognitive benefits as learning languages, the implications could be pretty interesting for primary education and the Coding for Kids campaign.

And that’s what I’m hoping to find out.

As so many people seem to have an opinion on the subject, and any combination of the words children and computers seems to spark ever more doom-laden Daily Mail headlines, I’m interested in what neuroscience has to say about when children should start learning about technology. So I jumped at the chance to hear the latest research on the brain’s readiness to learn at different ages at last night’s When to learn what? policy seminar.

Are there key moments in childhood after which the opportunity to learn is gone? For Prof. Michael Thomas (director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience), the answer for skills such as literacy, numeracy, and science is: “It’s never too late to learn but all things being equal, earlier is better.” Broadly speaking, getting older doesn’t mean I can’t learn new skills, but may mean that I won’t be as good at that skill as if I’d learnt when I was younger.

A quick show of hands at a Coding for Kids event showed that all of the programmers present learnt to code before the age of ten. Are they better than people who learnt to code as adults? I’m not sure I’d like to get in the middle of that debate, but what is interesting is that they probably learnt in a very different way. Child learners favour exploration, can deal with many tasks at once, learn by natural exposure and can extract trends from lots of data. Sounds like a coding brain to me! Adult learners will learn explicit rules more easily than a child, but needs intense training, few distractions and more cognitive resource.

Different for girls?

It’s clear that, while you do find excellent girl programmers, the world of coding is overwhelmingly male. Could neuroscience tell us why? Not right now, it seems, though a slide from Prof. Sarah-Jane Blakemore caught my attention. Whilst it’s common lore that girls grow up faster than boys, it seems that a neuroimaging study has shown real differences in brain development around puberty.

Here’s the thing. Learning doesn’t get you more brain cells – but what it does is build and strengthen the connections between brain cells (called synapses), increasing the volume of grey matter in your brain. Young children grow these connections at an astonishing rate and the number keeps increasing to a peak around the age of puberty. After that, the trend is reversed, as your brain starts to reorganise itself, maintaining important connections and and pruning away at the rest. It turns out that this peak happens 1-2 years earlier in girls than boys.

And that’s not all. A study by McGivern and colleagues found evidence that, at the onset of puberty (which happens earlier for girls than boys), performance in test of working memory (the ability to hold information in your head for a short time while you manipulate it) and decision-making tasks gets 10-20% worse before it gets better. (This and other interesting studies about the adolescent brain studies are summarised here). This effect lasts for a few years, until excess synapses are pruned. Now according to a great paper I found, coding:

“…comprised of a large number of abilities that interrelate with the organization of the learner’s knowledge base, memory and processing capacities, repertoire of comprehension strategies, and general problem-solving abilities such as comprehension monitoring, inferencing, and hypothesis generation.”

[p144, emphasis added]

Rewired State’s Emma Mulqueeny raised the problem in a much-commented-on blog post, and suggested that teaching programming earlier – from Year 5, before the self-consciousness of puberty kicks in – could help to attract more girls to the game. But if it turns out that the skills needed to code are better before puberty than during it, maybe both girls and boys would take to coding better if it took place at primary school? There isn’t enough evidence to say this for sure, but I reckon it’s definitely worth investigating.

I hate not understanding things. One of the things I don’t understand is what goes on in the brains of computer programmers, so I have decided to try to find out. Not in a metaphorical way. What I mean is that I want to understand how the brain learns and uses computer programming languages, and how learning and using programming languages affects the brain.

This isn’t as random as it sounds. I used to manage website developments for youth charities, but I recently threw in the towel to study developmental psychology full-time. I can’t code myself but I’ve spent a fair bit of time with people who do – and the more I learn about psychology, the more I wonder things like:

  • Does the brain learn and store programming languages in the same way as spoken languages?
  • Are certain kinds of people with certain traits drawn to programming, or does coding influence the way people think and feel?
  • Does learning to code improve children’s skills in other subjects or affect their ability to learn?
  • And is there an optimum age to start teaching kids to code?

The last question was prompted by a post from Emma Mulqueeny, of Young Rewired State. In it, she calls for coding to be part of the curriculum by Year 5, backed by a petition which argues that Year 8 is too late.

Recent criticism of computer science – or rather the lack of it – in the UK education system on the economic costs of a future, unskilled workforce. For example, Google CEO Eric Schmidt has accused the UK of “throwing away [its] great computer heritage”.

My interest is in whether there are wider cognitive benefits to teaching kids to code, and if so, whether there’s an optimal time to learn. As educational neuroscience is starting to shed light on how and when children’s most easily learn everything from language to morality, I’m interested in whether any of the existing evidence can inform the debate.

I recently attended the rather brilliant Coding for Kids barcamp, and pledged to do a piece of research on coding and cognition – which I’m just starting to plan.

In the meantime, the idea of this blog is to track down and share relevant research with a wider audience (research papers can be pretty heavy going and are often stuck behind paywalls). I hope that this will help to link people who code, and people who teach, with some interesting ideas coming from psychology and neuroscience.

I’ll be learning as I go along, so please feel free to challenge anything you read here – I don’t claim to have all of the questions, let alone the answers! Any ideas or feedback would be very welcome.

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