Sunday, 16 February 2014

Shut up and code

You'll have been on a desert island if you haven't seen something of the flak surrounding the UK government's initiative to introduce programming into the school curriculum: the Year of Code. Rory CJ on the BBC web site, gives a good background to what's been going on including such hot topics as whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes for a good front man on the web site and whether the admission by the project's head that she does not know how to code herself is actually an issue. I'm not going to retread that flooded pasture here but I do have some thoughts.

There's a whole generation of programmers, mostly games, who grew up with the 1980s BBC Computer Literacy Project. At this time the UK government subsidised hardware for schools, with the famed BBC Micro and computers from Sinclair and Research Machines being the choice. RM is still going and still in education.

The idea was just like the one espoused by the Year of Code: how do computers work and how do you make them work?, rather than the usually disparaging comments about being taught to use Powerpoint. It worked then and so could well work now.

Is programming (now apparently called coding) on a par with being able to read, write and 'do maths'? In the old project, much was made of teaching BASIC but that would be totally inappropriate now and in any event the really keen people got into the guts of the computers and wrote in machine code. You could teach something like Objective C, so pupils can program apps for their phones, but would that be useful in the long term? Perhaps there should be an emphasis on task analysis and algorithms. Great as a way of abstracting the learning from current technology but, I have to admit, probably not much fun; and you do learn more by doing something useful rather than working with abstractions. Plus, learning how to write any kind of computer program, from machine code to (even) HTML and CSS, teaches you to think logically. The computer is a very fast, literal idiot. It only does what you tell it and the skill is in telling it the right thing.

Back in the Computer Literacy Project days I was asked what a computer could do and I responded by saying that it's rather like a pencil. It's not what it does ... it's what you do with it that matters. Don't underestimate the potential here - it could make or break the UK for the future.

The final question may actually be the most important. It is not just what you teach, it is how will the content be structured, presented, and assessed and over what period: and just who is there to do this?

[Later] More views in this interesting article in Computer Weekly.

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