Educating Rory: Are BBC reporters unteachable?

Some says it's a lost cause. Others disagree

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Mailbag Rory Cellan-Jones yesterday returned to the scene of the crime after his piece last week detailing the day he spent in Silicon Roundabout "learning computer programming".

Rory had spent a day learning HTML – "a programming language", we were told – and returned humbled, as truly humbled as Uriah Heep, at the awesomeness of it all. He wrote last week that he had been "exhilarated by the experience and with new insights into the development of our digital world".

Wow. Maybe HTML has made the world move like that for you, too. Even for the BBC, which has "patronising the plebs" encoded in its DNA, this was a jaw-droppingly condescending bit of reporting. And I said so here.

We must correct him one on point. In yesterday's article, Rory writes:

The picture Mr Orlowski paints of weeping children being frog-marched into compulsory coding classes owes more to his overheated imagination than reality.

Which implies compulsory coding is made up. If it is, then it is not just me who has an overheated imagination. It's also the BBC Radio 4 Today programme producers, who trailed Rory's report like this:

How Radio 4 trailed Rory's report

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when learn HTML coding for the first time. As the inventor of TCP/IP, Donald Knuth, once said*.

We have invited legendary Silicon Roundabout VC investor Steve Bong to weigh in – and tomorrow we will hear the case for more coding in schools from the activists who've helped change the curriculum. And there are plenty of choice comments on last week's story.

I particularly liked this one from John Fielder:

The best way to get teenagers really into coding would be to ban it from IT lessons. They would then sneak some coding into every lesson just to break the rules.

For now, here are some of your views.

Your article struck a chord with me. It seems, from what I've seen, that this whole question of computing in schools - and where the next generation of computing pioneers is going to come from - has fallen largely into the hands of people who don't really understand it (e.g., mainstream journalists, academics, politicians, business leaders, enthusiastic amateurs).

Reading about the course Rory Cellan-Jones attended on their web site, they seem to me to be giving the impression that you really are learning to program in three languages in a day. It's not even a whole day, as half of it seems to be taken up with learning about the history of the Web. Rory recounts the copying & pasting and tweaking of JavaScript code borrowed from other web sites, and triumphantly tweeted "I built an app" (or words to that effect) at the end.

When I read the comments from execs who'd also attended the course, my heart sank. Some of them really do think they've learned programming basics. And it's not their fault. How are they supposed to know that they haven't? How are they supposed to known that two of the "programming languages" they learned about are actually nothing of the sort?   Don't get me wrong, I'm all for people learning to program. Just as long as they actually are learning to program. I would support someone like Rory 100 per cent if he said "I'm going to buy a copy of Learn To Program and worked through the exercises." I'd help him for free.

To me, this is like asking someone to lay the last brick and then telling them "look, you built a house!" It's potentially very misleading.

What's angered me is that, when people like me who actually do have more than 10,000 hours programming experience pointed this out, we were accused of being "sniffy". I didn't take kindly to the use of " 'real' coders", either. As if we're only pretending to know better than people who've been doing it for all of 3 hours to make ourselves look good or protect our dead-easy jobs.

But if it's just executives paying for the course, then no real harm done. What does bother me is these outfits, with similar "learn to code in a day" (or "learn to teach others how to code in a day") quick fixes, aimed at teachers and schools.

My worry is that the lure of a quick fix could win out against more substantial offerings, especially from the voluntary sector (eg, Computing At School and the BCS) and that a large chunk of the budget set aside for ICT next year could be swallowed up by these cynical and/or misguided schemes.

I also think you're dead right that programming isn't going to be for everyone. It's only going to be a small percentage who find they have a real aptitude for it (though anyone can learn the very basics, given a chance - and I think most kids should be exposed to it at least one, otherwise they may never know), and only a percentage of those will actually enjoy it enough to pursue it to a career. It might only be 1/1,000 kids who really get computing, but that could add up to 1,000 kids a year eventually entering the industry and slowly tipping the balance towards software developers who are well-trained and really care about their work. General ICT is important, of course. But in our industry, we need to focus on discovering and nurturing those 1/1,000 from the youngest ages (7+) all the way through to a grown-up career and lifelong learning.

My hope is that those 1/1000 nascent Tim Berners-Lees and Martin Fowlers don't end up being taught by someone who learned HTML, CSS and JavaScript in an afternoon or Python in a day.

John G.

Dear Andrew,

I'm a member of Computing at School and that group - along with others - are trying very hard to explain what computing science actually is and differentiating it from editing HTML or PowerPoint documents.

You succeeded in linking together two painfully obvious points: editing HTML is not computing, teaching kids to edit HTML is not useful. However, that is not what most of us calling for teaching computing to all pupils are looking to do and thus this article really doesn't address the argument at all. Yes, there is a finite amount of educational resources available to teach kids, but that doesn't stop us giving them a taste of literature, maths, chemistry, biology, physics, history, cooking, et al.

In our world now, computing is at least as important as any of these subjects. The point is to give kids a chance to see how it works and figure out if they have an inclination to take it further, then give them the opportunity to do so. The same as we do for all of these other subjects. I grew up in a time when you just found computers on your own and taught yourself as well, but it's incorrect to think that we can just go on like that.

Having both taught computing science and had to waste hours and hours interviewing hopeless candidates for commercial programming positions, I've seen first hand that those days are over. When computers were new and exciting, programming them was about all you could do with them. Now kids grow up with computers being in the background and being tools for finding videos of cats. The main problem is that the smart kids aren't choosing to do computing anymore precisely because they can see through all of this ICT shit and see that it's not a rigorous discipline. We don't want more of that crap, we want to teach kids that programming a computer is a way of thinking.

I'm incredibly disappointed in your article.

Jonathan Hogg Computing at School

If Rory McLellan-Jones wasn't taught about how computers actually work, before being thrown at a copy of Notepad and an HTML reference book, they were doing it wrong. HTML and CSS are only going to confuse matters. (Not least because a mark-up language is not, by any accepted definition, a programming language. HTML and CSS are just metadata container formats.)

Education needs to be revamped to take a more holistic approach. At present, we're still stuck with minor variations of the Victorian approach: everything's sliced up into silos and Subject A is kept hermetically separated from Subject B. This does not help children learn how to learn.

Take that old teaching standby: William Shakespeare...

Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels, yet most English teachers insist on forcing children to read his stage plays from books, instead of seeing them as they were intended: in a theatre like The Globe, with the actors almost surrounded by — and interacting with — their audience, minimal sets, and minimal costumes too. This was the cheap TV entertainment of its day.

Consider what Shakespeare's history-based plays can teach: rhythm, scansion and metre in both prose and poetry (Music, Poetry); the societal and cultural mores of the time (History); how said societies and cultures viewed their own history (History again — think Coriolanus or Henry IV); the myriad ways of interpreting a script for a play (Drama, English); how acting a part differs from merely reading it (Drama), and so on.

To put it another way (with apologies to XKCD, if memory serves):

The book said:  The curtains were blue. The author meant:  The curtains were blue. What it meant to your teacher:  The blue color of drapes represent the deep depression in his life. Yet, they aren't black, the color normally associated with death, rather the blue not only means depression but also hope. Now, since blue is also a color associated with royalty, it means that the hope in his life is directed towards possible kingship not of a nation but of 

We need a hell of a lot less of that crap. Not only am I a writer myself, but I know a number of professional novelists and ALL of them agree that literary criticism is mostly bollocks. Everyone reads a book through the lens of their own experiences, so why waste the precious time of our children in implying that there can possibly a single, 'correct' reading of any book? Not all subject fields are equally valuable and this is certainly one that can be justifiably culled.

We need to stop teachers sucking all the fun out of Chaucer's proto-Carry On... bawdiness and somehow turning it into a tedious chore. Yet it would be an ideal choice for teaching about the history of the English language itself — how it has changed, mutated, over the years, while other languages have not. How literature itself has changed too. Why did English change so much, while other languages, like Italian, remained much more stable?

Schools today are all about the "what" and the "how", but hardly ever the "why". This needs to change as students become much more motivated when they know the whys and wherefores. Geometry and trigonometry, taught on their own, are of little interest to an 11-year-old, but if you throw in a game like snooker, suddenly it becomes much more fun — and, crucially, easier to grasp.

Languages are similarly taught in a vacuum. The "classics" — ie, the dead languages of Latin and Ancient Greek — have become little more than a source of trite quotations and aphorisms and, in some quarters, a basis for technical jargon that serves no purpose other than to confuse laypeople while adding nothing of real value.

Even now, many Brits still believe the Americans invented usages like "fall" instead of "autumn" just to annoy us. We were never taught that "fall" was the correct usage in the UK well into the Victorian era, when a fad for everything Latin resulted in the invention of "autumn". Similarly, the British were quite fond of adopting German loan words — eg, "kriegspiele" for "war-games" — right up until WW1, but you've never have guessed there was such a close cultural friendship today.

Instead of teaching individual languages separately in "English", "French" and "German" classes, we should be teaching a much broader, more holistic "Communication" class.

And that's where programming fits in too, because programming is really just a fancy name for "translation". Forget the usual bollocks about programming being about maths—practically everything can be expressed in mathematical terms, because mathematics is just another language. (Or, more accurately, a group of closely related, somewhat mediocre, orthographies.)

Computers can be used for mathematical problem-solving, but that is not their sole purpose. It's time we democratised communicating with computers so that everyone who has an interest in doing so can make the best use of them. Computers should be the most flexible tools in our individual toolboxes, yet we continue to hamstring users by forcing them to pick just one of a defined selection of tasks, instead of giving them the freedom to create their own.

Our education system is fundamentally broken. We're doing it wrong. All of it. It'll require politicians with serious, long-term vision and the force of will to carry it through to fix the mess, both in education, and within politics itself.

Sean Timarco Baggaley

Thanks, all.

Don't forget that Verity Stob channelled Nigel Molesworth "Coding: it's the New Latin" recently over here.


Animated joke alert

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