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.

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