Why the obsession with “coding” misses the point

My relatively mild column about the Year of Code fiasco has generated a fair amount of comment, and a good many emails, including some from friends who think I was too willing to give the YoC crowd the benefit of the doubt, and citing Andrew Orlowski’s characteristically caustic take on the matter.

Leaving aside the motives of those involved in the ‘initiative’, a bigger concern (for me at any rate) is that the obsession with “coding” has two significant downsides:

  • it misses the point of the new school curriculum (or which more in a minute); and,
  • it risks alienating the audience that the initiative urgently needs to convince — schoolteachers who are not techies and are probably very nervous about what lies ahead for them as they come to terms with the new computing curriculum.

In her disastrous Newsnight interview, Lottie Dexter (and indeed her tormentor, Paxman) both seemed to think that the only motivations for the ‘coding’ initiative are utilitarian and economic: it was, they seemed to think, about kids being able to get jobs, start companies and thereby boost the prospects of UK Plc.

It’s nothing of the kind. This is first and foremost about citizenship. Today’s schoolchildren will inherit a world that is largely controlled by computers and software. The choice that faces them is “Program or Be Programmed”, as Douglas Rushkoff puts it in his book of the same title. If we don’t educate them about this stuff, then they will wind up as passive users of powerful black boxes that are designed and controlled by small elites, most of them located abroad.

Preparation for citizenship in this new world requires an understanding of how software works, how it is created and controlled, and how it can be changed. We don’t want them to grow up as technologically clueless as the parliamentarians who are supposed to oversee GCHQ; or indeed as Paxman, who at one stage fell back on the old trope about not having to understand electricity in order to replace a light bulb. (The obvious riposte — that light bulbs don’t decide whether you get a mortgage, monitor your private communications or count your vote – was obviously beyond poor Dexter.)

The other aspect of this is that, while learning to program is desirable, it’s not the most important part — which is about having a good critical understanding of the technology. And much though I love Raspberry Pi, teachers can achieve a lot of what I would like to achieve without ever touching a piece of hardware — as the wonderful Computer Science Unplugged project in New Zealand demonstrates.