The Bandwagon of the Year in Britain this year may well be “coding”. Jeremy Paxman on BBC2 Newsnight last night was exceptionally (and perhaps deliberately) obtuse on this subject whilst conducting an interview on the merits of learning to code with a bright young celebrity who says she doesn’t actually know how to write computer code but is nevertheless very enthusiastic about learning to do it, which she is convinced we can all do in about an hour if we really try hard.
Evidently she’d heard this from someone who knows about these things, and needless to say the interview shed very little light on this important subject. So much for the Beeb’s drive towards more infotainment. (See also a classic of this genre on Eddie Mair’s PM programme on Radio 4 yesterday. Who knew that Nigel Havers is a part-time political guru? Obviously a self-styled conservative alternative to Russell Brand.)
The BBC’s listeners and viewers are being increasingly prompted to wake up to the coding revolution. Some of us remember the BBC’s efforts many years ago to drag us into the new age of computers through producing and marketing its very own microcomputer. A few lucky individuals even got to use these pioneering machines in a classroom or at home. A very small number of us actually learned the basics of coding on one. Most of us didn’t, and most of us were simply ushered into becoming consumers of Microsoft’s many products.
Are teachers ready for the coding revolution?
There’s a revolution coming to schools across England, one designed to transform a new generation’s prospects in the digital age. Come September, a change to the curriculum means the study of computing – and specifically coding – will be mandatory across all state primary and secondary schools.
That also means that something like 16,000 ICT teachers in secondary schools and more than 160,000 primary school teachers face a huge challenge – getting ready to teach the new discipline in time.
So why the great rush? Maybe the penny has finally dropped. We should have cottoned on to the power of coding and microcomputers 30 years ago because this is potentially about a lot more than writing your own computer games and building your own websites.
In 1980 Seymour Papert, who was then professor of applied maths and director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, published a book called Mindstorms. In this country it was largely ignored. Papert wrote the book to explain why microcomputers were the harbingers of a revolution in learning that would transform our planet and take us all into a new digital age. If only we’d been willing to pay attention, and willing to invest properly in his ideas. Extracts:
The computer is the Proteus of machines. It can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions. It can appeal to a thousand tastes.
The public has come to accept the reality of the personal computer, small and inexpensive enough to take its place in every living room or even in every breast pocket.
This book poses the question of what will be done with personal computers.
This book is about how computers can be carriers of powerful ideas and carriers of the seeds of cultural change, how they can help people form new relationships with knowledge that cut across the traditional lines separating humanities from sciences and knowledge of the self from both of these.
It is about using computers to challenge current beliefs about who can understand what and at what age. It is about using computers to question standard assumptions in developmental psychology and in the psychology of aptitudes and attitudes.
There is a world of difference between what computers can do and what society will choose to do with them. Society has many ways to resist fundamental and threatening change. Thus, this book is about facing choices that are ultimately political. It looks at some of the forces of change and reaction to those forces that are called into play as the computer presence begins to enter the politically charged world of education.
In many schools today, the phrase “computer-aided instruction” means making the computer teach the child. One might say the computer is being used to program the child. In my vision, the child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.
Learning languages is one of the things children do best. Every normal child learns to talk. Why then should a child not learn to “talk” to a computer?
The real reason Britain’s children didn’t learn to talk to computers back in the 1980s is that at the very moment when some of our teachers were becoming enthusiastic about teaching children to use programmable ‘floor turtles’ and to write computer code with Papert’s ‘Logo’ they were effectively told to stop doing it and to concentrate on teaching to the newly devised National Curriculum – which of course didn’t include any element of coding.
Papert’s warnings about “the politically charged world of education” were entirely precient. He seemed to see very clearly that the political establishment would engage in a counterrevolution against the new forms of knowledge and new forms of learning which were branded as “progressive”. He seemed to understand that politicians who had benefited from the old systems that took them to power via traditional subjects, high stakes exams and high status universities would cling to them like babies cling to their parents.
As Papert said, our choices in education are ultimately political, and “society has many ways to resist fundamental and threatening change”.
For more thoughts on this subject, and more Papert quotes on coding and constructivism, please link to this post we wrote almost a year ago –
The Future of Teaching
You can read more extracts from Mindstorms here: