6 Feb 2014

Lottie Dexter (Year of Code) and Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight 5 Feb 2014

Okay, just finished watching this debacle and want to reel off some thoughts. Venty venty.

I guess it must be true for any skilled worker that when journalists cover your area of expertise, your hackles rise and you begin to wonder what basic stuff is being misunderstood and misrepresented by those journalists in all the other articles you've ever read on other subjects. Fair enough, journalists are generalists - they can't be expert in everything. However, the computer industry must be one of the last ones where a journalist can describe your passion and life's work as "baffling ... gobbledegook" and then dismiss it with a "it doesn't mean anything!". Both of those conclusions were drawn by Jeremy Paxman and Zoe Conway on Newsnight tonight regarding what they termed "code", as they were discussing the current "Year of Code" initiative. I'm surprised they can be so clueless and dismissive regarding computer code; would they take a cursory glance at the work of physicists, doctors and mathematicians and dismiss it simply because they don't understand it?

On the other hand, in many ways you'd be right to be dismissive regarding the basic premise being purported by Lottie Dexter, director of the Year of Code initiative. She did a very bad job of explaining either "code" or why and how it should be taught to young people. Most baffling of all is why she continued the lie that computer programming is something you can learn quickly ("in a day"!), while also admitting that she doesn't know how to program at all herself. Facepalm.

Regarding the "why teach code to 5 year olds" question, I'm not surprised that she had a hard time answering questions. My answer would be "don't". People who code tend to be natural problem solvers who enjoy working with abstract concepts (some people think strong mathematics ability is a requirement but that's not necessarily true). I'm of the opinion that *most* people don't fit that profile. But also, the article kept stressing that in the future we will all need to code to be useful in the knowledge economy. You could have made that point twenty years ago, but people today don't need to code on a daily basis. Hell, I wouldn't need to write software if it wasn't my actual job - why does everyone suddenly need to start writing javascript?

We don't teach Mandarin, Chemistry or A-level maths to five year olds because we realise that a) they're hard subjects, and b) not everyone will need those skills. Computer programming is in the same league. We save these skills to be taught later when people start to become aware of their strengths and interests. So I'm all in favour of teaching good coding skills in schools, but only to the students that want to learn. Teaching coding across the board just seems bizarre.

Watching the segment again on iPlayer (link - starts at 17:50), the implications of this "coding" requirement entering the curriculum in primary schools from Sept 2014 began to sink in. Teachers will surely need a lot of support in getting up to speed with this, and kids aren't going to be able to learn "code" without using a computer directly - most primary schools I know only have one computer per class. I agree with Clive in the comments below that we could be teaching broad problem solving concepts without a computer. However this initiative whiffs of sophistry and lip service from the government. I sincerely hope these lessons won't be rote "copy out the code block into the box and press RUN" exercises, but I expect to be disappointed...


  1. Anonymous1:23 am

    The word 'coding' is a red herring. It's a nonsense media bullshit term born of misunderstanding.

    We *Homo sapiens* are natural problem solvers. We are curious about our world and how we can interact with it. That's why COMPUTING (not 'coding') is exciting, creative and useful and should be taught to everyone.

    We don't teach music at school to churn out armies of concert pianists. We don't say, "Grade 8 piano is really hard, so let's only teach music to the kids who "want to learn" (Damn! There's a slippery slope right there! What's 'wanting to learn' go to do with formal education? ;)) And we don't teach art to force everyone to paint oils or work in marble. And so on...

    We teach these things to provide a rich and broad education, to expose young people to every possible subject and positive life experience that we can so that they can be inspired and make choices.

    Programming can be hard, yes. So can maths. So can PE. But computing can be as easy as making a jam butty or planning your route to school. Or bouncing a cat around in Scratch. Young kids suck it up. You don't even need to go near a computer to teach it. As a teacher I'm not interested in "good coding skills" really. I'm interested in creativity and problem solving using abstraction; analysis; algorithms; logic etc.

    So let's ban the word "coding" when discussing the new Computing Programme of Study. Let's start to use words like problem solving, creativity, experimenting, hacking. And "fun" :)


  2. Anonymous2:27 am

    " I agree with Clive in the comments below that we could be teaching broad problem solving concepts without a computer. However this initiative whiffs of sophistry and lip service from the government."

    Do you have any basis for this comment apart from your own prejudices? I speak from ten years' experience of teaching computing and ICT in the classroom. Check out e.g. CS Unplugged and/or come to one of my teacher CPD sessions before you decide that we are kissing the government's arse ;) And at the very least read the 2014 computing programme of study and you will see that your comment is both ill-informed and offensive to the thousands of teachers who have been doing this stuff for years (despite Gove's tirades against ICT).

    I said: "let's ban the word "coding" when discussing the new Computing Programme of Study. Let's start to use words like problem solving, creativity, experimenting, hacking. And "fun" :) "

    One reason is that the word "coding" has become a lazy shortcut for the media and politicians to refer to computing and computer science (which they don't understand so they use a single word as a placeholder). They conflate coding with computing, it's really not useful. The other reason is that this word is not mentioned *once* in the KS1-KS4 computing programme of study 2014 (you have read it, yes? It's important for context). It talks about 'programming' but always in context (because the people who wrote it know that coding for the sake of it is pointless). For example, at KS1 pupils should be taught to "use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs". This could mean working out that your cat will bounce off the edge of the screen in Scratch.

    Putting the word "coding" in quotes in the last edited paragraph doesn't solve anything. So I'll make it simple: screw "coding", it's a red herring, bullshit, weasel word ;)


    Ref: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-computing-programmes-of-study

  3. Anonymous3:11 am

    "I speak from ten years' experience of teaching computing and ICT in the classroom. "

    I speak from the point of being a professional programmer for over ten years and currently partaking in ITT for computing. ICT which was not part of the core curriculum and for the most part was just a "How to use Office" lesson makes me sick.

    You can teach the theory and explain concepts at the level your audience will comprehend but to truly understand you need to programme and programme a lot. This includes teachers, who I have witnessed being pathetic and unable to solve a simple syntax error. Programming, programming and then some more programming yet taught by computer scientists and not business rejects.

  4. What a way to dismiss an entire profession! Have you never been flummoxed by a syntax error message? Never in your life ended up Googling a runtime error? I certainly have and I've got a Comp Sci degree and 20 years of coding under my belt. I've also got kids at junior school and am continually impressed with the work that the vast majority of their teachers do.

    Why not join others in our industry who are doing something positive, rather than sniping from the sidelines e.g. get involved with something like Computing at School http://www.computingatschool.org.uk or Code Club?

  5. Thanks for your comments Clive; it's true I was responding off the cuff to some clearly clue-lacking talking heads on the telly, and I hadn't actually heard of the new KS1-4 computing programme of study until that point, so I will look into it.

  6. Anonymous2:37 pm

    Angela yes I have use a search engine to identify errors, and the only way to understand these errors is to make many of them over a long period of time. I am not trying to dismiss an entire profession and you seem to be missing the point. As it stands ICT teachers who have little to no programming experience don't know programming well enough for their own needs never mind trying to teach it, and what they do teach is full of bad programming practices. Yes children of the modern era do impress me with their ability to understand concepts, knowledge and what they want to achieve but let us not loose their interest and fail them.

    As for "snipping from the sidelines", you seem to have missed the part where I am training to be become a NQT in computing, in addition I already run code clubs and provide private tuition. I want to help with the new curriculum and provide an understanding and interest in my subject. My problem is that students who will be effected by the poor subject knowledge of teachers in the coming years.

    I understand that ICT teachers could have many years of teaching experience which is invaluable but not to teach this subject, where as I have many years of industry experience yet currently my teaching may not be up to scratch. Schools should seek the help of professionals to provide this subject and draw on the talent pool of STEM organisations. It is completely incorrect in my eyes to keep repeating the line of the government that the teachers will have the knowledge come September.

  7. ITT is an acronym that I wasn't familiar with, and searching without context wasn't very fruitful.

    I do hope that your teacher training helps you understand that labelling people as "pathetic" or "business rejects" isn't necessarily conducive to their learning.


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