Monday, September 12, 2011

Teach our kids to code

There's a very worthy petition entitled Teach our kids to code on the DirectGov web site. It's asking that children be taught to program starting in Year 5 (that's children roughly 9 or 10 years old). I fully support that idea because I think that 'programming thinking' is an important skill that needs to be taught. Children first need to learn to be literate, then they need to learn to be numerate and finally they need to learn to be 'algorithmate' (yes, I just made that word up).

It's obvious to most people that illiteracy and innumeracy are problems to be tackled at school, but it's not obvious that we are now living in a world where logical and algorithmic thinking are very, very important.

Recently, Eric Schmidt (one-time CEO of Google) criticized Britain for throwing away our great computing heritage:
Schmidt said the country that invented the computer was "throwing away your great computer heritage" by failing to teach programming in schools. "I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools," he said. "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made."
We really do need to teach children logical thinking (since such logic underlies programming) and algorithmic thinking (the breaking down into a finite sequence of steps the solution to a problem). What we don't need is to teach a specific language. Any language will do.

Back in the 1980s Britain made great strides (and inspired a generation of programmers, of which I am one), with the BBC Computer Literacy Project project. This project wasn't about using Word or a web browser (the current focus of IT in schooling), but about how computers work, and how to make them do what you want. Making computers do what you want is fundamental and goes beyond just programming (for example, creating a Smart List of songs in iTunes requires the sort of boolean logic thinking that children could easily be taught).

Recently, there's a volunteer project called Raspberry Pi that has echoes of the BBC Micro project without any government backing. And schools could be teaching LOGO or Scratch or using Processing. And if the school can't afford even the cheapest computers, get kids programming on paper. That's how I started.

The current government is promoting an area in East London as East London Tech City: a hub for startups based around an area that has recently seen many small hitech firms choose to locate there. As part of the initiative the government has laid out plans to help start ups through changes in IP law and visas. One additional thing the government can do is ensure that there's a supply of 'algorithmate' people who can actually start and run these companies in years to come.

The petition itself is marred by a rather confused statement of its aims which seem to cover teaching children to code and doing something about the gender gap in IT. Nevertheless, I think it's important to sign it if you are British. We can't go on allowing our children to see themselves as users and not programmers.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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