Towards a greater understanding of technology for everyone

In response to the response to the Year of Code

By stef

The Year of Code launched last week. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a UK campaign about responding to the change in the national curriculum that will see, from September, “coding” being taught in schools across the country. 

The launch really didn’t go so well. You may have read some harsh criticism, so I thought I’d share my reaction. Some criticism of my own, but you know me, perhaps a little positivity…

A hacker curriculum

A new computing curriculum for Key Stage 1 and 2 (that’s primary school-age kids) is due to kick in in September and is very ambitious. Key Stage 3 and 4 (secondary) curriculum goes even further. Here’s a snippet of what we’re looking at achieving for primary school kids in the UK:

“Computing… ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.”

Wow. And then later on…

“Pupils should be taught to… select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information.”

Sounds almost like modern life! This is happening, it’s not a proposal. It’s nothing to do with the “Year of Code” initiative. It’s what schools will be required to teach from September. And we’ve known about it for some time. It’s not news, but it’s very exciting!

I’ve grown up with software. I’ve been coding for years. And do you know how this makes me feel? (With a few concerns) -

Knowing that school kids are going to be taught about code makes my heart sing.
That’s how.

Cards on the table, I can code

The Year of Code initiative is a response to this change. The director of the campaign did an interview on Newsnight and declared she doesn’t know how to code. Yet. Cue an internet backlash.

Me, I’ve been writing code for as far back as I can remember. “Coding” for me, and I know everyone who’s writing about this subject always summons the great experience they had in the 80s playing around with a ZX Spectrum or a BBC, has always been tinkering.

Tinkering has never been something that’s taught in the education system. You can’t grade inquisitiveness.

For me, learning to code is a thing I did in my spare time, self-directed, with no support from the educational establishment to do so. I wanted to learn Pascal, and I was lucky enough to have the kit to do so, so I did. I wanted to learn C and Hypercard and BASIC and, well, I’m showing my age. But you get the point—for me it was as an aside to my education.

I often wonder if those around me, had they had the opportunity that I had, would they think of the web, and of mobile phones and technology as such locked-away things? Would they be tinkering too? What would that do for our culture if we widened it up? 

The curriculum sounds amazing

It really hit me this week after reading into this a little more. Oh my goodness. We’re actually talking about educating young people, as part of their general education, about how “computers” (a silly term nowadays—phones, ipads, TVs,…) work. We’re putting tinkering on the curriculum.

Wow. Sounds amazing. Hang on… let’s think that through then.

Should we really teach everyone this stuff?

It might be the case that some young people might not be advantaged by a requirement to do this. It could be the case that the things involved in “learning to code” (which I’m not quite sure is what we’re talking about here) might not be for everyone. 

Does knowledge of tech lead to better prospects?

It might be the case that “learning to code”, when branded like this, becomes the “learning to use a typewriter” of the 21st century. Some parents pushed back against the teaching of this skill in the 20th century because it was perceived as a skill for lower-income workers and by learning it could actually negatively affect the prospects of your kids. It was a thing, I’ve not got enough information on whether this was proven or disproven as accurate or not.

Won’t tech work get outsourced to other countries anyway?

It might be that software or technology skills may be useless, because software development is a commodity skill, and a trend will emerge that software and “code” is developed overseas, leaving us with a nation of young people with an irrelevant, valueless skill, surpassed by people elsewhere in the world. I’ve heard this a few times now, even first hand. 

It’s very hard for me to suspend my own bias, because I firmly believe in the idea of software and technology being an empowering tool for our culture and the economy. I can’t see a future where we outsource our culture, and where “remote working” has anywhere approached the ability of people in a room to dream up beautiful and useful things.

Is this only about jobs? What about culture?

For me code and culture are inseparable. I’m odd that way. I really think that by enabling more people to use information and software we end up with a richer culture. The narrative recently seems to have shifted to “learn to code to get a job”, and sure, there’s possibly something there, but there’s a higher aim here for primary kids. Later on sure, as Jase points out, “If you're teaching kids to code for reasons other than getting them a job, I can introduce you to some teenagers that'll happily ignore you.”

Are the teachers ready?

And this is by far the biggest concern. I know this second hand, because my mum for many years worked at improving modern language teaching skills in primary school teachers in response to new requirements for primary modern language teaching. 

There’s much to say here, but suffice to say, the mood appears to be that yes, there are many capable teachers who can deliver the new curriculum, but there are also may be many that are probably unprepared and under-skilled, and the deadline is looming. That’s not to say these are bad schools, or bad teachers, just that the learning and implementation curve seems reasonably steep.

Well, here we are

I’m sure there are other concerns, but let’s move on. Somehow the hackers have managed to influence the education policy of our country, to encourage kids to have an understanding of how the technological things they use on a daily basis are actually made.

For a long time now, the trend has been towards people shying away from “computer science” as a career path. I know, because I’m on the “Industrial Advisory Board” of my old university. Oh I know, Adrian Short will now count me in his conspiracy theorising. But know this: on that board, I’m the voice of the micro-business. Hackety-hack, not just Java megasystems for defence contracts.

When I attended in 1996 I was at the peak, and there were something like 150 people in my year-group. Now, well, let’s just say, despite it being the UK University of the Year, the undergraduate Computer Science course is nowhere near that level. It’s been a steady, consistent decline. And as far as the number of new Masters students each year, an assisting factor has been that international students have been attracted. UK? Not so much.

And that’s across the country. Young people choosing Computer Science as a path has been on the decline for a long time now. “Over the last decade there was a 23.3% drop in the number of students studying Computer Science at undergraduate level and a 33.8% drop in the number of students entering at graduate level” according to government stats released 2012 (I couldn’t find more recent figures, happy to update if you have them). 

This seems utterly crazy to me, because the demand for people who know what they’re doing with a computer should surely be rising. In fact, as far as (oh gosh, no, don’t say you work there!) Shoreditch goes, we’ve got a big fight on our hands for talent, and more potential jobs going than candidates to fill them.

Something should be done! Oh hang on, it looks like something has been done.

The Year of Code

So here we have the Year of Code campaign. I have watched with some dismay this week at what happened around its launch. I won’t summarise here what happened, but I’ll draw you back to their statement of intent:

“In 2014 we want to celebrate technology & encourage more people to start writing code”

Admirable. I can get behind that. And I said so, even though there were others decrying how such-and-such had been said in an interview, or how oh-my-gosh some muppet hadn’t done the website properly.

I’m not part of this campaign. I’m busy. Mainly, writing code! But I want to put down some observations that seem to run contrary to what’s been said so far:

Running a campaign isn’t coding

There’s been criticism that the woman leading the campaign can’t code. Seriously, so what if the person running an organisation about x doesn’t practice that thing, or have detailed experience of it. I know of plenty of organisations with a leader who is similarly unskilled in the core function of their business. A leader’s skill is leading.

Government ministers epitomise the principle that it’s about leadership and decision-making, not practical understanding of an issue that is sometimes important. Actually, it might be quite beneficial in the long-run having a non-coder at the helm. Indeed, you need a hustler to get this kind of thing off the ground.

The tiny budget

We’re only talking a few pounds per teacher for training based on the current funds, minus costs. I can only assume that this is the “seed round”, and it’s upwards from here. In fact, I’ll assume the best here, but it certainly feels a couple of orders of magnitude out if we’re really to address the “teach the teachers to teach” issue. But then, I’m only reading what’s available online.

An emphasis on it being easy

“You can learn to code in a day” feels like a red herring, a thing said by someone without sufficient information, in front of one of the most famous withering gazes of them all.

Software is hard. Teaching software is hard, as is teaching any subject. Making software, and making teaching software seem easy, well, isn’t this the same as what loads of companies have been doing for years? Apple’s one-button mouse, Google’s search box, Squarespace making websites easy, and so on. Implying ease of entry encourages entry. 

Getting a taste for code ≠ coding

Much has been made of the “learn to code in one hour” comments around this project. I’ll sound like an apologist to the folks picking holes, but if you’ve got this far you must realise I’ve nothing to gain in this. The other day I showed my 7-year-old daughter how to build a website. As any 7-year-old’s father knows, you have about half an hour for any task, and then they’re off. So yes. We did build a website in half an hour. Mozilla has tools for this stuff

Sure, I know what I’m doing, but what does “learn how to build a website” mean, anyway? I’m still learning! This wasn’t “learning to code” though. This was “learning to have a taste for code” and you can do that in an hour, easy.

Backlashers, back up a moment

The saddest thing here is that almost immediately we have someone is wrong on the internet kicking in, and all manner of people tearing this thing apart. It’s so striking nowadays how short a time you have to put something out before it’s evaluated as dead or alive. Gosh, this was pretty much evaluated as dead a few minutes after the Newsnight piece by those who responded on Twitter.

What concerns me more than anything around this is that because of the reaction to this campaign that the entire issue will be seen as a no-go politically, and then we end up back where we started.

Small, experimental projects may be viewed as a risk, so interesting ideas get squashed because they could “embarrass” someone, as I am sure will have happened here. Not good.

This is frustrating

I’m pretty frustrated with how the people behind the Year of Code handled this. It was a gift on a plate — the decision has already been made to introduce kids to this stuff, that argument has been won. The argument to win was to convince concerned parents and teachers about the validity of the idea, and to excite people. Simple stuff. Yet somehow they’ve managed to get some of the best people who have been encouraging code skills in kids for years to turn their backs on this project. Maybe that’s irrevocable, but I hope not.

Rohan Silva, who’s been working on this, is a man who knows how things work. We’ve met once, and my impression was of an impressive person who knows how to navigate Whitehall. Yet I’m disappointed with how this was handled! It feels like “leadership course 101” stuff… I’ve learnt this the hard way with projects like this — for some things you must bring people along with you, you must include a diversity of skills, network and experience, and that just didn’t happen in this case. Hence the takedown.

We shall see

Still, as I get older, I tend to try to give the benefit of the doubt a lot more. Maybe I’m getting all Zen, but I think that if there’s a Twitter knee-jerk reaction to something, just consider the phrase “we shall see”. I’d like to live in a world where it’s okay for a new, small non-profit to make a bit of a mistake, and the tech community to allow a little bit of lee-way. Here’s a relevant quote from Charlie Wilson’s War:

A boy is given a horse on his 14th birthday. Everyone in the village says, “Oh how wonderful.” But a Zen master who lives in the village says, “We'll see.” The boy falls off the horse and breaks his foot. Everyone in the village says, “Oh how awful.” The Zen master says, “We'll see.” The village is thrown into war and all the young men have to go to war. But, because of the broken foot, the boy stays behind. Everyone says, “Oh, how wonderful.” The Zen master says, “We'll see.”

Build on the work of others

Frustratingly, and hence me writing the post, currently this project feels like it’s done more harm than good. That’s recoverable, but it’s probably summarised by one idea: build on the work of others.

There have been so many people working towards this learn-to-code idea for many years. I won’t delve into Emma Mulqueeny’s post, but there are some obvious lessons contained therein. Never launch a thing where the “advisory board members” on your website aren’t actually doing any advising or have said that you can use their name. Select people with expertise in the general area your organisation will cover. If it’s not an organisation, and there’s not a real board, make that clear. Select the right people to join you in you endeavour, and don’t leave yourself open to obvious criticism by looking like an industry-only project! But above all, make sure it’s an additive idea, not versus, and definitely not negative.

It’s easy to criticise from the outside, I know, and I mean this all as a critical friend because honestly, it’s quite obvious what has to happen for this to be resolved: form an actual board around a common set of principles. It’s possible - it’s not too late to rescue it. 

For a campaign like this to succeed requires careful, steady work to bring people along with your agenda, and respect for work already done. Benefit of the doubt, I’m guessing that wasn’t possible because of the timelines involved.

And that’s why I’m writing this. Because it’s really, really, annoying that a fundamentally good idea “hey, you know what, we should help teachers by training them to teach kids about tech!” has had a battering the last few days.

Luckily the idea isn’t entirely original, and Code Club (these folks are totally inspirational) are offering training for teachers, as well as supporting a network of after-school coding clubs. Lesson-plans, code repositories, advocacy… all power to them! And joining them in the inspire-the-next-generation stakes, Rewired State have announced a call for support for this year’s Festival of Code. You should do a bit if you can.

Play a longer game

If you’ve been writing takedowns of this project, no matter how justified, check yourself. What are you trying to achieve? Page-views or progress? Campaigns come and go, but the dialogue in our industry must step up a notch, because quite frankly I’ve been disappointed on all sides this week.

Slamming short-term mistakes is not a good way to achieve a long-term goal. Are we generally agreed that more young people being supported in an interest in this area is a good thing? I hope so. Personally I would love to see the UK reach a point where we have young people emerging from school with a strong understanding of how technology works and how to create as well as consume it. I’d love to see teachers who feel confident and natural in teaching and working with modern technologies. 

Not just for jobs, but because I’ve found that being able to code has given me a greater sense of being a citizen, of being involved with things around me, to be involved with where technology and culture meet, and all of that is open to people if they have a tinker with code.

True, it might be the case that the Year of Code as an initiative might not be the be-all and end-all, but what concerns me here is a lack of longer-term thinking in the commentary. If we’re into this for the next twenty years, and I am, and we want to encourage and enable young people to do inspiring, valuable, useful, human, revealing, amusing, surprising things with tech, we should probably start thinking a little further than the latest campaign. A bit of a PR screw-up does not mean the entire campaign and all those involved are misguided. You know, people are human. Things get rushed, messages get mis-sent. Assume the best.

A culture of understanding

I can see amazing stuff coming just over the horizon and I really want my kids and anyone else in school right now to have access to some of it in their education. It can only lead to good things. Maybe coding isn’t for everyone, and as far as I can tell, the curriculum doesn’t even make it sound like it’s code-literacy that’s the aim. We’re not talking about computer science for ten-year-olds but an education that teaches that technology is an integral part of our culture, software is in and of everything we want to do as people, and that we’re able to manipulate that software to change things. 

Software is bleeding into everything and becoming an integral part of so many areas of life. The opportunity here is to bring a stronger understanding of technology, software and its applications, not just writing code, to a new generation. Longer-term that could have a big impact on our culture and the nature of our life and work. 

If there’s one example, of what a general education around code could achieve, it’s that self-same Newsnight broadcast. A reporter describing code as “gobbledegook”, and Paxman being equally dismissive of it. 

This is on a programme that I viewed time-shifted, on-demand, via a web browser because Twitter told me that it had occurred. Code, on code, on code. I doubt that kids coming out of school, even with just a little experience of learning how the tech works would lay down a similar critique. And that would be progress.

It strikes me that the new curriculum is a huge opportunity for us all, and a move in the right direction. We must not allow a bad launch to knock back the general level of good progress that is being made towards our shared goal of encouraging more people to share our interest in technology. 

Maybe you don’t think much of the government’s campaign, but if you’ve read this far then you’re possibly as convinced as I am of the idea we should teach kids (people!) to code. Maybe not all of them, and maybe “teach” isn’t even the right word. 

How’s about the following for a general direction in which we can agree we should move?

Towards a greater understanding of technology for everyone.


Stef is a hacker, founder of Makeshift, a father of primary age kids, a school governor and a proud graduate of and industrial advisory board member to Birmingham University’s Computer Science department. Image: Artist Liz Barile-Page who I worked with on our Cryptographics hack-day project.