Thoughts on Being Able to Code

I've been going through some of my old posts recently, and I stumbled across one that was rather relevant considering the recent headlines grabbed by the Raspberry Pi, the £25 computer designed to let kids get back to writing code on simpler computers.

In a previous post, I asked who would write tomorrow's code and decided that I thought more non-programmers would write code, by using visual tools or predefined code blocks to cobble together working apps.  To an extent those tools already exist (you can build iPhone Apps with zero code).

The Beeb also asked the question of whether kids want to learn to code, and the reaction seems very mixed (understandably so, not everyone will go on to do jobs in the programming sector, I'd argue being able to code in some way is sneaking in everywhere, from search terms to Excel formulas).
In a survey of 100 pupils, the school reporters found mixed feelings about the changes. Thirty-five percent disagreed with Mr Gove's view of ICT as "dull", while 28% thought it was a good idea to make changes. The rest were undecided.

In part it is down to the fact that Lampton [School] has embraced ICT. While nationally only about a third of ICT teachers are trained specialists, at Lampton all four are.

I'd argue that the fundamentals of programming -- variables, functions, conditional statements, loops, etc -- are a lot like maths.  They're concepts that are independent of the language and are the fundamental building blocks for any environment in the same way functions like addition and multiplication are.

I also happened to pick up a story in Slate about a journalist who was teaching herself to code.  She talks about the Little Coders Predicament, something mentioned by a Ruby evangelist called _why.
In the 1980s, you could look up from your Commodore 64, hours after purchasing it, with a glossy feeling of empowerment, achieved by the pattern of notes spewing from the speaker grille in an endless loop. You were part of the movement to help machines sing! You were a programmer! The Atari 800 people had BASIC. They know what I'm talking about. And the TI-994A guys don't need to say a word, because the TI could say it for them!

The rest is worth a read too, and that was written in 2003.  He built Hackety Hack to help introduce kids to coding.  Sounds a lot like the aims of the Pi Foundation.

One thing very few people seem to be discussing is that we can provide the tools, but it's up to the kids to use them and there are programming tools already available for those who want to look.  The Pi on its own won't solve the problems it has set out in its goals, but hopefully there will be some projects to inspire them and the removal of barriers to let them get on and actually code.  Once they do, some of them will find it addictive (I do), especially when they can see what they can do (that's why I think the Pi as a platform is a much more exciting prospect).


  1. Sarah Dodgson

    I replied on this subject quite a few months ago about the situation in my son's north London Comp. You thanked me for news from the frontline, where the kids who could already code were bored stiff by IT lessons in the first three years. Years 7-9 appeared to be directed at end-use only. The good news is that from Sept 2012 the school is offering GCSE Computing (as well as GCSE IT). This requires a standard to have been achieved (6b in Maths) which is interestingly hard, but it is definitely a step in the right direction and signs of your campaign working. But neither IT nor Computing appear on the English Bac. The EB is qualification consisting of English, Maths, a foreign language, a humanity and a science at GCSE and good comps seem to make this compulsory. This seems to be intended to bring UK education into line with the rest of Europe and be recogniseable for those wishing to study on the continent where it is cheaper to go to university. Whatever you think about the future of coding at this level, I'd be interested in your views on IT as part of the English Bac?

  2. Lee (author)

    Tough question, education isn't my specialty and I don't have kids so lack that perspective. Originally I assumed the lack of it from the English Baccalaureate (EB) is, as you suggest, to bring us into line with the rest of Europe and therefore it needs to match up otherwise you can't compare apples with apples. Having had to look up what it was (no kids, remember) it looks like the reason for the EB is/was to boost falling foreign language and science study while providing yet another way to measure performance. I'm not sure Computing deserves a place there yet, first we need a proper subject, a recognised curriculum, then we can worry about measuring it. In terms of policy, I think it deserves to be ranked next to Maths and Science and given far greater weight than it has so far been given.

    On a related note, from what I hear about the frontlines it seems that the standard education isn't doing enough and parents (the more engaged ones) are doing a lot more off the roster education, whether that be via tutors or other initiatives. The old problems of class sizes and different rates of learning are still there and it makes it hard for any child to get what they need. I wonder if greater personalisation is the way forward in general. Maybe something like Google's 20% time where the child can pick what they want to study. The problem is, no two children are the same and so measuring them is never going to work.

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