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Teaching code in primary schools

26 Feb 2014

This is my editorial for the Spring 2014 issue of HardCopy magazine:

Programming with Scratch from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group.

Programming with Scratch from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, MIT Media Lab.

Back in 1978, the BBC’s Horizon broadcast an episode called ‘Now The Chips are Down’, which predicted mass unemployment as a result of the microprocessor. It was followed a year later by a six-part series on ITV which made similar predictions. So seriously were the issues taken that the government launched the Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP) which aimed to “help schools prepare children for a life in a society in which devices and systems based on microelectronics are commonplace and pervasive.” It called for revisions to the curriculum, specialist teacher training and the provision of microcomputers in secondary schools throughout the land. It also spawned the BBC Computer Literacy Project and the much-loved BBC Microcomputer.

Heady stuff, but by the mid-1990s, it had run out of steam. Instead computer literacy meant knowing how to print a Word document; computer programming was something that socially-challenged men did behind closed doors on outdated PCs or arcane Unix boxes. Those with any talent were trying to hack the college mainframe; those without just wanted to get home to their PlayStations. The joy experienced when your first BASIC program did something wonderful on the screen was long forgotten.

Thankfully, after far too long a delay, it looks like things might change. September this year sees the introduction of a new national curriculum for computing covering ages 5 through to 16. At its heart are the skills that underlie programming, with the aim of equipping “pupils to use computational thinking and creativity” so they can understand “fundamental principles … including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation.” Even at Key Stage 1, “Pupils should be taught to … create and debug simple programs.”

If the idea of teaching a 5-year old to program sounds ridiculous, then check out Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT Media Lab. Essentially an Adobe Flash environment housed within a community website, Scratch allows you to construct programs out of coloured building blocks. Another is Alice, a rather more sophisticated but still visual system for programmng within a 3D world, also free of charge but this time from Carnegie Mellon University.  More advanced tools, such as the Kano kit, centre around the Raspberry Pi.

All good stuff, but doomed to failure unless matched by a programme that gives teachers not only the necessary skills, resources and enthusiasm, but can also overcome a very understandable fear of a subject that can be very daunting. The government has announced £1.1 million for the British Computer Society to develop such a programme for primary school teachers, which is a start. Initiatives like the Year of Code, launched recently with a rather vacuous website and fronted by someone who, by her own admission, has never coded, seem less helpful. And there is only six months to go.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 Mar 2014 11:47

    Reblogged this on Open Source, Open Share!.


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