Teach our Kids to Code

I tweeted a Guardian article the other week, in which John Naughton looked at the Raspberry Pi and it’s potential, along with several other projects, to fix the broken way in which kids are taught about technology in schools.

A key driver of this new tech resistance movement is a desire to rescue kids from the fate that the Department of Education has in mind for them, namely as passive consumers of information appliances and services created by giant foreign corporations. Where governments dream up projects like the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), the resistance seeks to grant kids a “Licence to Tinker” – to demystify the technology by providing tools and ideas that enable them to understand how modern networked devices work.

Although seemingly not his own words, John uses the interesting phrase “Licence to Tinker” to describe the laudable idea that children should be taught how to understand technology, rather than merely using it.

The catchphrase is slick, but to me it worryingly implies that you need a licence in order to open these things up, and comparisons with the dreaded ECDL seems hardly likely to inspire confidence in this small revolution.

Fortunately, Emma Mulqueeny, in her blog post on the same topic, comes up with the fabulous rallying call “Teach our kids to code”, also the name of her e-petition, which you really should sign if you’ve not already.

As she notes, there’s a collective responsibility on us all to keep pushing this message. Eric Schmidt may worry about the future of the UK’s tech competitiveness, but “teach our kids to code” shows us the simplicity of the solution to these apparent problems.

Most people would recognise the importance of teaching children how to think critically about a piece of literature, and even writing their own pieces, as well as merely reading it. Yet we don’t do the same with software, which like mainstream literature and journalism tends to be written by a small-ish set of people (at least compared with the overall population) with a certain set of principles, and often an economic interest in doing things a certain way.

We should teach kids to code because it’s essential that they have the skills to examine and question the digital world we now live in, and when they really don’t agree that they can do their own thing.

If you agree with this sentiment, then please sign the petition.

Can Sweden teach us a lesson?

Interesting report on last night’s Newsnight over Tory “dreams” to bring a Swedish-style schools system to the UK, with independent groups receiving funding to operate within the state sector to increase competition and choice.

Radio 4 covered the same topic recently, interviewing actor Toby Young about why he wants to set up a new school here in Ealing. According to Young,

“Our parent group, which is about 250-strong, would apply to be the main sponsor of a new academy… Ours would be the first parent-sponsored academy.”

Doing a bit more digging, it seems Young kicked things off last year with an opinion piece in the Observer. The Ealing Gazette picked this up shortly afterwards and put a local twist on it and more recently, the Guardian and Newsnight re-opened the debate with their own further coverage on the subject.

Labour have taken us so far down the academies route, and (perhaps surprisingly) the juggernaut shows no sign of stopping.

But this is a scheme dreamt up in the heady days of the boom years. Underlying the academies scheme is a belief that the state (in combination with suitably wealthy donors) can play a central role in tearing down the old and replacing it with shiny new facilities, with scant regard for what is there already. Academies have done for the education system what the 1960s did for urban planning, to the extent that bodies like English Heritage now feel compelled to issue warnings.

In Education as in IT, the days of the all-enabling state are well-and-truly over. People have lost patience and the system has run out of money.

As Young’s example shows there are a huge number of people on the ground who think they can do it better and are motivated to do so. These are parents, teachers and others in the community who want to take back some of the control that’s been taken away from them over the last 60 years, first by central government and the LEAs and more recently by the academies. As Antony Seldon says in the Radio 4 piece:

“We’ve had a pretty state-run system for the last 100 years where schools have been run from the centre… and parents have been marched off to go to this school and it’s been pretty ordinary… We need to abandon the factory schools that served us so well in the 20th century and move towards a much more individualised system…”

The Newsnight report shows that the Swedish example is not perfect. Standards must be enforced (this being an ideal  role for the state) and non-profit status should be required for any organisation wanting to set up a new school, but bearing these in mind we can surely do things better by opening the process up further and allowing “individuals and organisations to flourish”.