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Compulsory coding in schools: The new Nerd Tourism

Chattering classes go mad for gap-year angle brackets

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Comment The writer Toby Young tells a story about how the modern 100m race is run in primary schools. At the starting pistol, everyone runs like mad. At the 50m point, the fastest children stop and wait for the heavier kids to catch up. Then all the youngsters walk across the finishing line together, holding hands.

I have no idea if this is true, but the media class’s newly acquired enthusiasm for teaching all children computer programming is very similar.

Speaking as a former professional programmer myself, someone who twenty years ago was at the hairy arse end of the business working with C and Unix, I can say this sudden burst of interest is staggeringly ignorant and misplaced - it's like wearing a charity ribbon to show how much you care. And it could actually end up doing far more harm than good.

I like the BBC’s tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones a lot, and by breaking and pursuing the Spinvox story he showed tons of courage and enterprise. More than I am permitted to say.

But like so many bien pensant media folk, Rory has been promoting the make-coding-compulsory campaign vigorously.

Recently he spent a day “learning to code” and blogged about it. This has earned him some stick from professional programmers on Twitter. For Rory, this criticism is “sniffiness” about “a newbie having a go”. Rory puts “real” coders in scare quotes as if there is no distinction between real and (presumably) fake programmers – whatever they are. Or fleetfooted children and gasping, wheezing, very non-athletic children.

Rory writes on Twitter: Interesting reactions to my stuff on coding - quite a lot of sniffiness from 'real' coders about a newbie having a go

But when you read Rory’s account of his day at the codeface, you can begin to see how the criticism is justified.

Firstly, Rory spent just a day on the job - a whole day. The course was taught by staff at an advertising agency. The day entailed tweaking some HTML and CSS - which he told the nation on Radio 4 are “programming languages”, resulting in “cries of pain” when the code didn’t work. Debugging involved clicking on each other’s websites. And from this Rory came away from his "day of coding exhilarated by the experience and with new insights into the development of our digital world".

Overnight I received a press release from outsourcing provider Prism IT in which its MD Gary David Smith says it would be “criminal oversight” not to make programming classes compulsory.

“I’m from a Cheshire town that has witnessed its textile businesses go bust and all the mills be turned into apartments. I, for one, do not want to watch the same thing happen to British IT businesses,” he vows. So our overcrowded prisons will be even fuller with teachers who forgot about the programming module.

What’s wrong with this picture? Several things, actually.

Prizes for all

Firstly, and most obviously, computer programming is a meritocracy. Not everyone will get a prize, and nobody should get a prize just for trying. The more mediocre programmers that you employ on an IT project, the worse the outcome will be.

This leads us to a very different educational policy goal right away. We don’t need a lot of people who know a bit about coding, but a few people who are extremely good at actually doing coding well. The better the elite are, the more productive and innovative our companies, and therefore the more our economy will benefit.

So people who will become members of this coding elite do not require a compulsory Noddy-level introduction to HTML. Economically, teaching everybody “a bit” of code is a waste of time. We’d be better off stimulating and challenging the young bright coders identified as such in schools.

This makes the compulsion part of the proposal highly questionable. Some of the most brilliant programmers I know have no academic qualifications whatsoever – they’ve proved their mettle on the job. They were able to stimulate their intellectual curiosity by taking apart Psions or Acorns, and the Raspberry Pi is undoubtedly filling an important role here in a technical curriculum.

(There’s also an argument to be made that making anything compulsory kills the pleasure: it took me a long time before I could enjoy Charles Dickens after being taught it at school, but I won’t make that argument here. Instead I'll assume for simplicity to that every teacher instils in their class the sheer wonder of learning, every time, and without fail.)

But there’s no place for this in the compulsion crusade, as this next Tweet illustrates:

Rory writes on Twitter: @GasheadAu yes, well let's tell the kids that coding is far too hard for them, and they'd better wait until they're given permission

Here Rory seems to justify the crusade because children are too fearful to think for themselves, and require official permission to try anything. They need the authority figure to appear, much like a therapist would, to tell them: “Relax, children. It’s OK. This is an angle bracket.”

Perhaps this top-down authoritarian view of the world is not a truly accurate one. If it is, then society faces worse problems than kids not being able write code. Much worse.

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