Coding is the new Latin – so what have our kids been doing in ICT for the last 20 years FFS?

The BBC, in this breathless puff piece, lets us all know that apparently they’re now going to start teaching kids coding (=computer programming) at school in ICT. And apparently “Google, Microsoft and other leading technology names” think that’s a Very Good Thing.

Well, yes, I do agree, but then my beady little eyes narrowed somewhat as I pondered the question

So what the bloody hell have we been teaching kids in ICT for that last 20 years then?

One of the advantages of being an ermine is that you can’t see white hairs in a white pelt. So let me share a story of how, as a young ermine at a London grammar school, we all crowded in a cubby hole as the Physics teacher told us that it was now possible to play with a computer.

In the cubby hole was a large grey teletypewriter with attached paper tape reader/writer and a wooden box that opened up to display a lovely purple velour receptacle into which you could plunge the receiver (that’s the separate microphone and earpiece of a land-line telephone) of a standard 746 GPO telephone into. You’d dial a number and when you heard the whistle you’d stick the receiver into this box, close the lid and STFU so that your chatter didn’t corrupt the signal.

This was an acoustic modem – you weren’t allowed to electrically connect to the telephone network in those days so the box had a speaker and microphone to connect to the phone network. At the other end was a timesharing mainframe from the North East London Polytechnic.

Then it was time to share with the class the mysteries of BASIC, and line numers with steps of 10 so you could add things later, and variables and decision loops and all that sort of stuff. I couldn’t type at the time, and so all my half-hour slot was dedicated to pecking at the keys like a hen to enter 10 lines of code. I could see one of the other guys actually got all his program in because he could type, so I resolved to learn to type, borrowing a Pitman book from the library. My Dad got me an old manual typewriter from a skip and cleaned it up (people had moved on to electric typewriters in the late 1970s so there were a lot of these old beaters about, I could just about lift it!)

In two weekends I learned enough to be able to type in a program to calculate basic electrical circuits and optimise the biasing of a transistor. Something you could do with a slide rule(!) and pencil and paper in about 10 minutes, but I learned how to program from there on, using library books and other people’s experience.

So what do modern teachers teach kids about computers these days?

How to use Microsoft Office and word processors, FFS!!!!!

And we wonder why all the frickin’ jobs are going to Asia? Maybe it’s because they teach their kids to Do Original Stuff in computer class rather than how to search Google?  I mean, really? Here is the ICT curriculum, it seems to  boil down to “mess about with computers, class”.

Any damn fool can learn how to drive Microsoft Office. Sit them on their own, with the computer in front of them and give a high-level description of what Word and Excel do and then tell them to have at it. You don’t need ICT classes to do that. These are kids, for chrissake, they learn how to use their smartphones on their own well enough! So why have we been wasting our children’s time teaching them to be glorified data entry operators when our grammar schools taught previous generations the basics of programming with kit that had a computing power vastly exceeded by a modern battery charger?

The BBC are right in that teaching the principles of programming is like teaching Latin, in that almost all modern computer languages are derived from variants on the same principles. Once you’ve learned one, and once you have learned the elements of competent programming, you can adapt to most. Although I learned the elements of programming and did it for a while, at university and then even some while working for the BBC, it was only when I did my MSc that they taught me how to program competently and avoid some of the bad habits of spaghetti coding and the nasty untyped nature of Basic. But that’s fair enough – I had never worked as a software developer up to then, and I tracked the general state of the art as it improved. Some of those skills on how to create algorithms applied just as much to programming in low-level assembler code as higher level  c and web-based Perl, php, java and web client javascript.

I can’t believe they don’t teach kids programming in ICT nowadays. Once you understand how to design simple algorithms you can do so much more in the modern world. Even now at work I regularly see people trying to misue Excel for jobs that would be far better done in a database, but persumably Access doesn’t come in the educational version of Office. As a peripheral skill programming that helped me in electronics engineering, in management, in running my own company accounts, in putting databases of stuff online, all sorts of stuff.

The actual programing language use will be obsolete before the child leaves school, indeed we may not be programming with text editors and lines of code, though people have been saying that for the last 20 years without it really happening. That doesn’t matter, what does matter is learning how to map a real-world problem with a mind-world algortithm that captures enough of the real world to be useful without needing to capture so much that it’s uneconomic to implement.

It is a general problem with how things are taught in the modern world – people are taught process, not principles. It is easier to teach process, but so much more useful to teach people the principles. Just as you feed a man for a day if you give him a fish, but for a lifetime if you teach him how to fish.

So let’s teach our kids a bit of the why in schools as well as the how, OK? So that they have an outside chance of competing economically, and also have a bit of intellectual challenge. I’m really glad to see that they are going to start teaching programming in ICT. It’s only thirty years too late, guys!