Ideas – Linda Liukas

Linda Liukas writes and illustrates children’s books translated into 28 languages on code, computers and technology. Her latest project is called Love Letters to Computers, a 10-part educational YouTube series intended for primary school teachers.

Liukas is a bright new voice on global technology education policy. With her Hello Ruby books and philosophy she brings a Nordic playful perspective to the sometimes serious world of computer science. Hello Ruby started as a Kickstarter project that raised over 380,000 dollars in 2014 and has won DIA Gold, the biggest design award in China (1 million RMB 2017) and is a finalist at Dubai Expo Live 2020 (100,000 USD).

Equally at home in Forbes’ top-50 most powerful women in tech Europe listing as she is on the kindergarten floor, Liukas bridges the worlds of business, education and creativity around the globe.

Potolicchio: Your career has seen you in many different roles — from programmer, to entrepreneur, to speaker, to educator, to children’s author. How would you describe your professional self and your career trajectory thus far?

Liukas: “I am the shipwreck of my own wanderings,” said Fernando Pessoa and I wholeheartedly agree. I’m in the lucky position of having figured out quite early in life that I want to work at the intersection of childhood, technology and creativity. Now this work looks like a picture book series, but it might equally well one day be a museum exhibition, a funfair or a TV series. 

At 33, I often think that the 13-year-old version of myself was much more interesting, radiant and full of potential than me at 23. I’d tell my play-it-safe 22-year-old self that I can only become truly accomplished by finding the childlike joy and spirit I had at 13. At 23 I was still trying to fit into a more traditional career in technology. The moment I decided to step into my own possibility and curiosity I started to move ahead.

Potolicchio: Why is it so important for young people and, in particular, girls, to learn programming?

Liukas: Little girls don’t yet know they are not supposed to like computers. They are precise, they can concentrate, they are really awesome with stories and expressing themselves and asking questions like ‘what if’ and ‘why’ and ‘how,’ and they don’t know they are not supposed to like computers.

This generation of kids will be the last to remember computer as the glowing box. They will grow up in a world where computers are everywhere: from their teddy bears to their toothbrushes. That is why it’s important to guide kids to understand how to create, invent and build with a keyboard.

Potolicchio: What is your strategy for getting children interested in technology?

Liukas: Programming is such a young field that it’s still finding its voice, and we just need to encourage many different people to look for it. For me, stories have been the key. I believe stories are the most formative force of our childhood. The stories we read growing up affect the way we perceive the world as we grow up. For some reason narratives haven’t been used as part of technology education, even though a lot of research suggests that stories are the best way to understand new concepts, especially in childhood but also when adults. So for me it was a natural fit. When I started drawing Ruby’s adventures, I began to see stories and characters everywhere in the technology world.

When I talk about the poetry of coding I think of the ways we learn natural languages. I didn’t learn English by only conjugating English verbs or practicing different nouns. I learned English by speaking, writing, expressing. And even though programming languages are not natural languages, I think we should be aware of offering many different pedagogical pathways to this discipline to make sure we attract a diverse crowd of people.

Another way of looking at the poetry idea is to think of the phrase ‘Digital Native.’ It’s almost like we assume kids would learn English by virtue of just being surrounded by it all day long, listening and discussing in the language. No. We still go to much trouble to teach kids their native language by having them read literature (classic and contemporaries), write prose and poetry, learn rhetoric and so on. The same applies to technology: our kids might be surrounded by it, but it’s still up to us adults to guide and direct them.

Potolicchio: What’s a current trend that you’ve noticed taking place in the technology sector?

Liukas: I think it’s interesting to see how the discussion is moving from only learning to code or how to use a word processing program to something deeper. The dichotomy of screens vs. non-screens is also hopefully changing a bit - and we are starting to include different kinds of people with different priorities and passions to the discussion around technology education. The questions that drive me are among others:

What else is there to technology education than “Learn to code”? What do Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Nordic parents have in common when it comes to raising digital natives? If computer code is the Lego block of our time — a tool of creation — how do we teach curiosity, joy, and wonder to our kids?

Potolicchio: You’ve expressed a desire for us to move towards a more “humane” tech industry — what do you mean by this?

Liukas: I grew up with Tove Jansson’s Moomin series and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking — Scandinavian storytelling is something I look up to a lot. There’s definitely many ways in which Northern Europe has influenced me: I think our culture in technology tends to be a little bit more compassionate and open. It’s not a coincidence that so much of the open source works of the world (Linux, Git, SSH, IRC, MYSQL, PHP, Rails…) comes from our Northern latitudes.

Another big influence on my thinking has been the educational movement from Italy, Reggio Emilia. From Reggio I learned to love the idea of a hundred languages. The core idea of Reggio is that a child has hundreds of ways of expressing themselves: with clay and gestures, paint and rubber stamps. However in schools we often limit the children to only writing and reading. Reggio educators treat a computer as just one more material to learn alongside paper, ruler, pens and movement. One of the hundred.

One of the aspects I enjoyed in Reggio Emilia was the open-ended nature of projects that can take all sorts of twists and turns. Many of my own favourite exercises start with kids posing questions that interest them, like “What kind of a computer would a dolphin doctor need?”, “What is the worlds most dangerous animal?” or “ What if my paper computer could print candy?”. Throughout the process of exploring and experimenting they learn about abstraction, collaboration, media literacy, and develop a plethora of powerful ideas I would never have anticipated. That’s why most of the exercises include discussion points and very few of them have right or wrong answers. I think it’s important to give kids permission to trust themselves and allow for many right answers to a question.

I’ve always loved the idea of programming as the Lego block of language. You basically create something out of nothing: build ever more complicated worlds and structures without the need for physical components. Most children feel somewhat powerless in their lives. Someone else comes up with the rules. Not in programming — you’re the king of your own universe.

I definitely wish to see programming become one tool in a big box of self expression — along with crayons and blocks of wood and prisms and pipettes. This way we’ll have a more colorful, exciting computing culture.

Potolicchio: What role do you see governments playing in the development of the tech industry?

Liukas: If children’s book author Astrid Lindgren said politics is too important to be left for politicians, I say technology is far too important to be left for technologists. We need a radically more diverse group of people to have a voice in the discussion about what kind of problems we solve with technology.

Potolicchio: You were a pioneer in children’s computer programming education. How did you approach this challenge where the odds were against you? What is it like being a first mover?

Liukas: I was teaching myself programming three years ago and started doodling the Ruby character in my notes. Whenever I ran into a problem like what is garbage collection or how does object oriented programming work, I’d try to imagine how little Ruby would explain it. The imaginative viewpoint of a small girl soon started to pop up everywhere in the technology world and I knew I had a book in my hands. I knew pretty much nothing about illustrations, book writing or publishing at that point, but programming has taught me a lot of persistence and acceptance that all learning requires failure.

Potolicchio: What is your vision regarding children’s education? How will the education system evolve? What role will computer science play?

Liukas: Individual teachers are the key between students and programming. Students have the right to learn about computers, computing and the world of code. Primary school teaches us biology, even though not everyone will become a biologist. In the same vain not everyone will become a coder, but everyone has the right to be exposed to programming.

When I first started writing this book I knew almost nothing about pedagogy. I enjoyed programming, but mixed up Piaget and Papert, didn’t recognise computational thinking from constructivism. I just had a strong sense of the kind of world I’d like to create. For me, computing was magical, charming and imaginative — but the materials teaching it often dull and uninspiring.

I think too often we think that learning programming means sitting in front of a computer or giving away play, outdoors, social experiences etc. Playing in the woods was a huge part of my own childhood and I wouldn’t take it away from future generations. But I think we humans can be many things at the same time, we are not binary like computers. And this means the kids might play in the woods, but also wonder, What would it mean if all trees had sensors in them? Or maybe learn to model your treehouse in a CAD program?

Computational thinking concepts are more fascinating when we understand their presence all around us. Inspired by Montessori, I’ve practiced making computer science concrete, specific and understandable to the child. A computer can take a thousand forms.

Potolicchio: Why did you focus your time on children’s education to begin with? What motivated you?

Liukas: The most scalable change happens in childhood, not in Silicon Valley. The world changes when we invest in our children. That’s why I focus on children.