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Teach our kids to code

April 9, 2012

One of my day jobs is being an active non-executive director at Cake Solutions,, we’re an enterprise software development business, experts in Java, Scala and Spring.  Our motto is ‘talent makes technology dance’, we’re like surfers, we watch the ocean, figure out where the big waves are breaking and adjust accordingly. We don’t have a beach view from either of our offices in Stockport or Oxford, but we look out to the horizon, strive to be thought leaders, never stop exploring the possibilities and art of software development.

The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on software innovation. It was a mantra that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to grow and make everything better and better. This of course was accompanied by some stuff being given away as free, a totally new concept, and genuine technology breakthroughs in how we live our lives – iTunes for me, being the most astonishing.

We are the children of a technological age. We have found streamlined ways of doing much of our routine work. Printing is no longer the only way of reproducing books, reading them, however, has not changed. As each wave of technology is released, consumers update their ways of thinking, always questioning their understanding of the world. Going back to old ways, old technology is forbidden. There is no past, no present, only an endless future of innovation: smartphones, the kindle, the Cloud, NFC and mobile payments, HTML5 – and the whole raft of social media that intrude on our privacy and solitude.

When I was a kid I used to disappear into the woods all day. Now I can’t walk around my back garden without wasting my valuable time with some message bleeping to a device. As I hike along to the shed for my hedge trimmers I can call anyone in the world, schedule an appointment, take a picture of me standing next to a tree and then send the photo to a contact with a location map so he or she can join me there. Solitude has been snuffed out.

Then again, the number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative, it lets people be productive, it lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.

But think about this: We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. Our technology is an expression of our intelligence and creativity, so the limitations of our technology are a reflection of our own limitations. We can’t fundamentally advance technology until we fundamentally advance ourselves – Christian Cantrell  – so how do we capture and release the potential and fundamentally advance ourselves? I think the answer was bagged by John Naughton’s article in The Guardian on Saturday, calling for all our kids to be taught how to code in school. Music to our ears at Cake!

There is a growing consensus that the way children in schools are being taught information technology is in need of a radical overhaul. John Naughton explained the problem and offered some thoughts for revolutionary action – his starting point is that what’s missing from teaching computing in schools is a big vision.

A vigorous debate has begun about what should be done about ICT in the school curriculum. Various bodies have published reports aimed at ministers and the Department for Education whilst Michael Gove, the education secretary, made an enigmatic speech at the recent BETT technology conference indicating that a rethink is under way in Whitehall. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, there are some astonishing developments happening – such as the fact that more than a million people have already placed orders for Raspberry Pi, the cheap, credit-card-sized computer developed by to provide access to software development and the joys of code

Universities want to reverse the decline in applicants for computer science courses, Gaming companies want more programmers, and the Government wants more high-tech start-ups. Manufacturers want trainees who can design embedded systems. Head teachers want bigger budgets for even more computer labs – and so on. What’s missing from all this is a big vision, here’s John Naughton’s view:

Starting in primary school, children from all backgrounds and every part of the UK should have the opportunity to: learn some of the key ideas of computer science; understand computational thinking; learn to program; and have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence in these activities.

Naughton’s view is that almost everything we have done over the last two decades in the area of ICT education in British schools has been misguided – instead of educating children about the most revolutionary technology of their young lifetimes, we have focused on training them to use software products. We made the mistake of thinking that learning about computing is like learning to drive a car, and since a knowledge of internal combustion technology is not essential for becoming a proficient driver, it followed that an understanding of how computers work was not important for our children.

What we forgot was that cars don’t monitor our communications, power our mobile phones, manage our bank accounts, keep our diaries, mediate our social relationships, but networked computers do all of these things, and a lot more besides.

We have to replace the current curriculum focused on using software and applications with a subject that is relevant, intellectually sustaining and life-enhancing for students. For want of a better name, call it computer science. This is an umbrella term that covers two distinct areas. First a set of key concepts that are essential if children are to understand the networked world in which they are growing up. And second, computer science involves a new way of thinking about problem-solving: it’s called computational thinking, and it’s about thinking recursively, being alert to the need for prevention, detection and protection against risks, using abstraction and decomposition when tackling large tasks, and deploying mathematical heuristic reasoning, iteration and search to discover solutions to complex problems. Surely there’s room for this alongside drama, art and media studies…..?

Ok, so I’m biased with a love of mathematics and adventures in numberland, and with my Cake hat on, the need for the UK to create better coders, but kids need to know about: algorithms (the mathematical recipes that make up programs); cryptography (how confidential information is protected on the net); machine intelligence (how services such as YouTube, NetFlix, Google and Amazon predict your preferences); search (how we find needles in a billion haystacks); recursion (a method where the solution to a problem depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem); and heuristics (experience-based techniques for problem-solving, learning, and discovery). They have to understand the technology and software they’re living with day-to-day, not just how to use the applications.

We seem to be living in a culture that has systematically blindsided most kids coming out of education to such ideas for generations, CP Snow’s Two Cultures – that the sciences and the humanities are so polarised – are alive and well and living in the UK. Teaching kids to write computer programs has to be an integral part of a new computer science curriculum. The reason is that there’s no better way of helping someone to understand ideas such as recursion or algorithms than by getting them to write the code that will implement those concepts.

Code is not the new Latin, Latin is an intriguing, but dead, language whereas computer code is the lingo of networked life. Another misconception is that the primary rationale for it is economic. Not so, we need more kids to understand this stuff because our creative and digital industries need an inflow of recruits who can write code, which in turn implies our universities need a constant inflow of kids who are turned on by computers. That’s true, of course, but they’re turned on in terms of an addiction to hours of constant Xbox games, there is no curiosity or intrigues as to how does this work?

At the same time, researchers are claiming that cloud technology, mobile devices and growing acceptance by universities have made 2012 a breakout year for distance learning. Reports on the 2011 studies measuring the effects of technology on higher education yield an unequivocal consensus: distance education at the college and university levels will become the new norm in 2012. This news, according to the latest Horizon Report, that the evolution of cloud computing and revolutionary growth of technology have finally taken distance learning out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Other studies concur with these findings, as a tough global economy has changed the way people work their educational goals into time and money management challenges. More students than ever before are working full time and depend on flexible class and study schedules to earn their degree or continuing education credits.

US students anywhere can earn a degree or continue their education from a choice of accredited online schools in the privacy of their home, or workplace. That means a student in Florida can take a course from UCLA without being in California.

The ability to tele-educate opens up a world of possibilities for students who otherwise may not live near a college or university, can’t afford to quit working and study full time, or simply need to be able to study at their own pace. By earning a degree online, the worries of balancing school with family, work, and other responsibilities is greatly diminished.

But step back to the playground of the 10 year-old. The biggest justification for change is not economic but moral. It is that if we don’t act now we will be short-changing our children. They live in a world that is shaped by software and so we must help them to understand these things, even more so in the years ahead, and if they don’t have a deeper understanding of this stuff then they will effectively be intellectually crippled. They will grow up as passive consumers of closed devices and services, leading lives that are increasingly circumscribed by technologies created by elites working for huge corporations such as Google, Facebook and the like. We will, in effect, be breeding generations of hamsters for the glittering wheels of cages built by Mark Zuckerberg and his kind. Is that what we want? Of course not. So let’s get on with it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lee Wedgbrow permalink
    April 9, 2012 10:31 pm

    With the Raspberry Pi being only £21.60, once they actually manage to deliver machines that is, there is no reason why every child in the country can’t have access to a device designed to let kids code. In order to succeed though we need teachers and parents to drive that curiosity in their children so they want to find out how things work.

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