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The 'fun-nification' of computer education – good idea?

Compulsory code schools, luvvies love it, but what about Maths and Physics?

Battle of Ideas The idea that computer programming should be compulsory in schools is hugely popular with metropolitan media luvvies and quango-hoppers - but serious questions were raised by people who do it and teach it this weekend.

Some argued that the current overemphasis of the field, rather than encouraging an enquiring technical mind, could well extinguish any interest.

This emerged from a panel at the tenth Battle of Ideas festival at the Barbican, with the lively audience including teachers, pupils and professional programmers – and it will be surprising probably only to the luvvies and quango-hoppers.

After-hours code clubs run by enthusiastic and skilled developers and teachers are nothing new. But the state has bounded in, and made it a focus of a reformed ITC curriculum, which means even five-year-olds will dabble with "gamified" development or HTML.

Advocates for compulsion include businesspeople such as Ian Livingstone – who called it "the New Latin" – and VCs eager to sell material into such a lucrative market, such as Saul Klein.

The BBC, which is always seeking to expand into non-core activities like as education, naturally thinks it's a spiffing idea. (See our Timeline of how the compulsory coding hype took hold of the UK's luvvie class here).

It quickly became apparent that what we were discussing wasn't whether programming or even IT skills are a good idea, but whether the idea of compulsion was. Will it help or hurt?

Teacher David Perks taught after-school programming for years, has been involved in re-writing the curriculum and now has his own school, the East London Science School. He turned out to have some quite practical advice:

"The new Latin isn't programming, it's Latin. If you want a new Latin, just teach Latin. In terms of logic, teach philosophy. You don't need to hide things and if you do you're missing the point. For programming you need someone who can do it. If you haven't then you're teaching 'about it', which is a disaster," he said.

"To be good at Computer Science you need Maths and Physics," he added. To buttress his argument he pointed out that software ran on hardware, and to make hardware – like your own iPod, say – you needed Physics.

More surprisingly, Ruth Nicholls of Young Rewired State (a late substitute for former civil servant and BBC favourite Emma Mulqueeny), agreed with a fair bit of that.

YRS held out of school camps for children who were enthusiastic ("bedroom monsters"), but it didn't pretend to teach, she explained. She was a non-expert, and her job was providing a venue, rather than instruction.

Although she backed compulsion - she also highlighted a big problem with it too:

"Teachers can't mark their homework. So, are you going to say: 'Teach it at the pace of the people who've never done it before?' To me that's not constructive."

Nevertheless she thought it would be a good idea, because the best possible outcome would be a good thing: a more economically productive UK plc and a more diverse IT workforce. What was missing was the leap of logic: how we got from those schoolrooms full of bored kids placing angle brackets around letters, to that best possible outcome. Or if it was there, I couldn't see it.

Joe Halloran, an educationalist and former pupil of Perks, didn't buy that "Coding was the New Latin" or that there was necessarily an economic justification for compulsion.

All that fun = BAD for programming

Several speakers and audience members pointed out that what "UK plc" really needed was a small number of very good programmers rather than everyone being able to do it a little bit. Others thought that compulsion would put people off. Others challenged this, saying that you could make that argument against teaching anything. Physics can be badly taught - that doesn't mean you should scrap Physics. It was more of an observation about our lack of faith in the education system.

The sole software engineer on the panel, Paul Reeves, had some ripe observations about British programming culture. He blamed the "Baby Beebers" – the products of the micro boom 30 years ago.

"Computing in the 1980s, especially in the UK, was seen as a hobby. Now it's being presented as 'creative' to get people into the subject and into the jobs." He thought the micro boom had created a generation that didn't take its work seriously enough, and lacked the professional rigour of other engineering vocations:

"I often hear the attitude that 'I can't believe they're paying me to do this job'. A lot of the 'Baby Beebers' generation are now managers. Programming hasn't really grown up compared to other engineering activities and it isn't as professional," Reeves said.

"Racer games and boy things turned off a generation of girls in the 1980s," Nicholls agreed, arguing that we needed to make things fun in schools.

Not so, argued Reeves. The consequence of "fun-nification" was that people didn't appreciate that the work would then be hard and messy.

"A lot of developers don't like to read a book all the way through. They don't consider how their work interacts with others. A product might be no fun to work on for years but it will ultimately be important. So it's unfair to say to children that insist that it's a fun and interesting thing to do," Reeves thought.

Maybe it might be better to pass on values like quality – rather like how Law is "taught". It isn't, with the details left to further education – but we have no shortage of lawyers.

(Later that day I was on a panel on "funnification" - the buzzword is "gamification" - where a teacher expressed enthusiasm for using games as a teaching tool. I said that in middle age I rarely – ie, never – regret not having "more fun" at school, or not goofing around enough, but occasionally regret not having taken one or two things more seriously. That's my position on Fun Learning.)

"I have no problem with children learning online and with code clubs. They may want to do this in special lessons - but I'm not convinced it needs to be taught," concluded Reeves - weirdly, summing up a consensus on the issue.

Compulsory coding is the natural end product of years of calls for greater "digital literacy". If you've ever harboured the suspicion that "digital literacy" is a gravy train run for the benefit of the digital literacy campaigners - and remember that the UK is already one of the most tech-savvy nations in the world, so the need is questionable - then the current mania for compulsory coding confirms those suspicions.

Making coding compulsory has left teachers who can't teach it very confused, and may well turn off pupils who don't need it. Luvvies and quango hoppers: take note. But I'm afraid few, if any, were at the event - they tend to have their own "ideas festivals" where everyone agrees with each other, and they reinforce their own positions and prejudices, rather than exposing those fads and beliefs to be challenged.

The old (and often unfair) jibe about teachers was "if you can't do something, teach it." This now appears to be hopelessly out of date in modern Britain. If you can't do something – tell teachers they must teach it, and pocket the subsidy or the profits. You can't go wrong.®

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