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Object to #YearOfCode? You're a misogynist and a snob, says the BBC

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+Comment Critics of the Government's "Year of Code" scheme are misogynists or snobs, according to the BBC's tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones.

Rory's frustration is that while billions of pounds are splurged on IT, children are passively taught PowerPoint procedures. That's the limit of the state's ambitions for children.

This a widely shared frustration, and even Chancellor George Osborne singled out "Excel and PowerPoint" in his video promotion of the Government's scheme as something insufficiently challenging, a placebo for real learning.

But even if you, too, share the view that not knowing some computer programming is the biggest problem in education, it doesn't follow that "Year of Code" is the solution.

It's exceedingly rare for the BBC not to kick a Tory when he's down, or to rush to defend a Tory cock-up. Yet this piece finds Saul Klein, the pick-and-shovel investor who credited by the WSJ for creating the "coding for all" hype, being given a generous platform. Klein mounts a "passionate defence" of a scheme – as you and I would do, no doubt - without really being asked why he's the man for the job. Or whether this particular job is one that needs doing.

Sadly, and just as I predicted yesterday, the BBC is hopelessly compromised here. The media luvvies who amass in its middle management, and particularly its "digital" managers, have given themselves an almost identical and pointless task as Year Of Code. They're spending the licence fee evangelising "digital skills" to our youth.

Even as it was laying off BBC news journalists, its "Future Media Director" was saying: "We want to transform the nation’s ability and attitude towards coding, and bring together different organisations already working in this area."

No doubt, but what does he see is the problem, exactly, and why must he be part of a solution? Coders in the UK are not a persecuted class, obliged to meet in secret, perhaps shadowed by a plain clothes cop, as in a Joe Orton play. And the BBC's core job is written down in a Royal Charter: to provide high quality news and cultural material, not intervene in the job market. The UK is already well ahead of Japan, the USA and Germany on the technology adoption curve, so clearly, the project is not needed by us - the initiative has been devised for the benefit of the BBC.

This non-technical consultant class enthusing for "Coding for all" has some pretty strange ideas. For example, have a glimpse at this excruciating TED talk for MPs by Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office. Sporting two-day stubble, he enthuses that writing laws is really a form of computation, so we should make it more like a software project: legislation should be crowdsourced, and full of symbols. Get hip, legislators, he says, get like the coders!

It's a matter of faith in the bubble world these luvvies inhabit that "learning to code" immediately, and magically, gives a child an understanding of how computers or networks work. Their desire to inculcate "computational thinking" (see this Institute of Education paper (PDF) as an example) is even odder. Interacting with symbols in an arcane kind of ritual leads the child onto to a flash of enlightenment. This is Cargo Cult Education, and wouldn't be out of place in a religious cult. Programming is only ever a means to an end, many of you have pointed out. So unless you think of a child's mind is no more than a computer, computational exercise doesn't really improve them a great deal. In which case I must regret to inform you that you may be rearing a Dalek.

No doubt some of the criticism of Year of Code can be dismissed. There wasn't room for enough wannabe consultants on this gravy train, and some are miffed they haven't got a seat. I've also seen it described, weirdly, as part of a "neoliberal agenda". There's nothing liberal, or neoliberal, however, about diverting the state's cash to prop up your business empire, which is what the startup consulting class would doubtless love to achieve. That's corporatism, or Bongonomics, in its purest form.

The use of the word tells us that "neoliberal" has become a gut-level, general purpose insult for something someone really doesn't like. Its popularity with conspiracy theorists suggests as much. "Neoliberal" (aka "bad") things are only part of a "programme", an "agenda", or a "doctrine", you see.

We actually have the appropriate resources to do this properly

But with some 1,800 coding clubs around the country, and cheap equipment now available with the Raspberry Pi, the materials and manpower for enthusiastic IT education abounds. We can even say this part of a child's learning is currently super-served. Very few parents will demand "my child hasn't had their ration of computational learning today" but rather more will be concerned they are inadequately numerate or literate - as one-fifth of school leavers are deemed to be.

The "Coding! For! All!" evangelists often sound naive, as if they are missing the bigger picture, and that's because they are. Reg contributor Dave Mandl, a writer and former Wall Street techie, calls it narcissism. There's certainly a bit of that in the vanity that you can cure the world with a bit of code - and promoting the "problem" in such a way (lack of computational skills) makes you, Mr or Mrs Computational Skills, a part of the "solution".

The bigger picture, however, is that almost half of all employers say they now have to fund remedial training in basic maths and literacy. Vietnam and Slovenia give their children a better maths education than the UK does, according to the OECD. Your writer learned calculus, a vital building block for engineering skills at A level, at Maths 'O' Level, but this was dropped from GCSEs. As the Educational Borg dumbed down courses and inflated grades, countries like Vietnam and Slovenia improved theirs, and got smarter. Is HTML really what's needed now?

Can we do better? Give me your Reg Curriculum!

Reading your Reg comments, the reason highlighted by Rory between (say) you lot, and the media luvvies is not that you are misanthropic or being snobs – which Rory would have known if he'd read The Register's reader discussions, rather than YouTube comments. Your concerns are well-founded.

Like open heart surgery, programming isn't something you can learn in a day. Programming is an elite activity because an employer or a country gains a competitive advantage from having only a few very good programmers, not from having lots of bad ones. So "everyone knowing a little" doesn't help anyone.

And if you want to know "how computers or networks work" - about network latency or caching, for example, then you must study them through the disciplines of engineering or physics. For which, you need that calculus. The saddest part of Newsnight was when the reporter asked a 10-year-old girl why she needed to learn to code. "So I can build a website," she replied. It's as if Facebook had never been invented.

By the time she leaves school, though, every "skill" she learns on a coding course will be performed more cheaply and quickly in India or China or Vietnam. Which is actually good news, because our children can then perform higher order, and higher value tasks. Innovation and management, for example.

Now, I know and like Rory and I know his goals aren't really so different to yours or mine. He wants children to be less passive and wants their minds engaged, and possibly even expanded. It's his fix - "compulsory coding" in schools - that we find facile. But there comes a time when groaning at the BBC isn't enough. Such is the pulling power of endless cash, the same bad ideas will come round and round again. A new class, the consultariat, has ready access to this cash - so a "Future Media Director" and his staff can be relied on to pad their own backsides - and keep coming up with "computational legislation" and "coding for all" for a very long time.

So here's where you might be able to help. If not compulsory coding, then what? Fortunately, you can teach children incredibly fun and useful things without them realising what they're learning.

Schools already do some limited project-based learning where the class creates say, a gadget and divvies up the tasks. Let them build it and sell it. Some will do the research, some the financial planning. Some will devise cunning marketing strategies so local and national shops are convinced to carry the gadget. Some will do eye-catchingly creative ads.

And yes, some will want to do the coding to get the gadget built. This kind of activity teaches children lots of ITC skills that "coding for all" doesn't, and some of these are also things the UK isn't very good at - such as project management and customer support. (The latter we can't outsource fast enough, with dire results.) So let's have more of that kind of activity, and make it much more ambitious.

Many of you technically adept readers emphasise that coding is a means to an end. It's based on various conceptual and practical skills, and these have been most useful to you when code was needed. One old friend, a PhD who left academia to become a consultant where exotic functional programming is needed, taught his eight-year-old lad some set theory. And here's a maths curriculum that attempts (not very well) to do that. Maths is important.

So apart from basic maths what else is useful? Which bits of philosophy (such as logic) or physics (such as electromechanics) are most useful?

How about it? Leave the media luvvies to their Idiot's Curriculum, with its weird and mystical belief in the value of typing symbolic instructions into a Virtual Birthday Card. Our own children can have a better one. A few years down the line, we should be able to see who comes out smartest and best equipped. ®

Bootnote

Of course, this consultant class may actually be rearing a Dalek, nurtured on "computational education", which in 20 years' time will have achieved sentience and may be coming at us with hostile intent - and terrifying new weapons, the likes of which humanity has never seen. But realistically, looking around the social media consultants and digital whizzes at the BBC, I don't think this is a realistic prospect. ®

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