Mark Griffiths - 12.06.2012
In a previous blog post I set out five challenges to the movement to get more children coding, making apps, hacking websites and so on.
The idea is to use a modified version of Gary Klein's concept of a pre-mortem exercise to force a sceptical consideration of the rationale for our digital making programme.
This technique comes on good authority - in his wonderful book 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', Kahneman describes it as "the best idea" for taming unfounded optimism.
The idea is this: in the previous blog post I stepped into the shoes of a sceptic about this movement to get more children coding and 'lived' the toughest objections. I then put this aside for a couple of days and came back to it as me again, answering the sceptics points as well as I could (I haven't done this challenge-by-challenge, but as an overall response).
This is what I came up with by way of a response to my sceptical self:
My starting point for a response is that the economic argument is more fundamental than the critique implies - it is, at its most powerful, about pointing out a profound shift in the way that business and our lives are organised that, in its implications, may be more significant than the industrial revolution. It is not about backing a particular industry, or about projecting the skills needs in a given country; rather, it's about recognising the profound changes that the digital world is already throwing-up. (Having said this, there are skills gaps, instances of the digital economy growing at a rate faster than the associated skills, and it would be foolish to disregard this - for example, see Nesta's own Next Gen. report, or the predication that by 2015 90% of all jobs in Europe will require e-skills, or that by the same date the UK will require an additional 500,000 IT professionals).
This second economy, the digital one, of hidden transactions, thinking and intelligence, is already: helping architects design buildings, tracking sales and inventory, moving goods, executing trades and banking operations, controlling manufacturing equipment, making design calculations, billing clients, navigating aircraft, helping diagnose patients, and guiding laparoscopic surgeries.
And the second economy is getting larger, smarter and more ubiquitous- the innovation theorist Brian Arthur predicts it will equal the physical one in size in two decades, while Ray Kurzweil's work tracks this exponential growth in more detail.
We don't know the full implications of this - but it feels to me pretty reasonable to argue that children and young people need to be supported to at least understand and critique the capabilities of this second economy, but, more than that, to also harness its power for economic and social good. Here, surely, is a profound realisation of Andreas Schleicher's injunction that "schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don't yet know will arise."
Our digital making programme recognises this; while it is definitely about coding, computational thinking, and learning about data structures and algorithms, it is also about using the digital world to create new businesses, to creatively solve problems, to tell engaging stories or to connect with your local community.
Digital making is a fulfilling means of creative self-expression. It's often a discipline where art and science meet and it usually involves collaboration - between people and across subject boundaries. These are precisely the types of skills that are difficult to outsource, and that fit into Andreas Schleicher's description of a reformed education system which:
"is much more about ways of thinking which involve creative and critical approaches to problem-solving and decision-making. It is also about ways of working, including communication and collaboration, as well as the tools they require, such as the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies, or indeed, to avert their risks. And last but not least, education is about the capacity to live in a multi-faceted world as an active and engaged citizen. These citizens influence what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, and it is this that shapes the role of educators."
A good example of this collision of skills is the Apps for Good programme where students work to create Apps that address a problem of their choice: one group of students have created a Stop and Search app, available for download, that "allows young people to rate their experience of being stopped and search[ed] by the police, to obtain information about their rights and to allow people to map the search and start seeing patterns."
In the Apps for Good programme students learn not just about the process by which digital products are made, but also how to be confident harnessers of the digital environment to good effect. We need, we believe, more of these opportunities - at scale - and I think this claim holds good.
Some of the students who are fortunate enough to access learning opportunities like this will go on to more formal studies - some won't, but we hope that their awareness of the capabilities of the digital world will find a use in other manifestations. And the possibilities here are great - from using digital technologies to improve the political process (e.g., Delib - a digital democracy), to using them for social good more widely (e.g., Code for America); to improve student learning through the power of adaptive technologies (e.g., Carnegie Learning, Khan academy, or Knewton) or to improve business processes in manufacturing (e.g., SAP).
The point here is that these e.g.,s could go on and on. The implications are wide-ranging. The point is not that we expect a majority of students to become coders, or creators of digital businesses, but that we do want a majority of students to be aware of the possibilities and potential of digital technologies - what they can do - and also how they are made. The latter for the same reason we expect all students to know about photosynthesis, or that Shakespeare wrote some plays - such understanding is needed to understand the world we live in and should be made available to students irrespective of whether they spend their lives in the 'hollowed-out-middle' or not.
It also strikes me as tremendously dis-empowering and dangerous to say that what goes on in the digital economy can sit in a black-box (or, a more elegant white box with an apple logo) that we don't need, at least, to peer into. Philip Colligan has reminded me of this powerful analogy - we haven't for decades bothered to keep-in-mind the process, system and activities that mean we can turn a switch and get light. This amazing feat of accomplishment now appears like a piece of self-sustaining magic. But this is dangerous, because this illusion of sustainability is false (turning on a light involves a chain of activities that causes environmental damage that cannot go on indefinitely). With this in mind, think of some of the phrases that are used by Brian Arthur to describe the second, digital, economy. Here are some of them: 'vast, automatic, and invisible'; 'silent, connected, unseen, and autonomous'; 'self-organizing, self-architecting, and self-healing' and 'a neural layer for the physical economy'.
Taking all this together, I hope it shows that when we talk about digital making we are talking about more than servicing the needs of a given industry, or even the economy (although it would be naïve to not acknowledge that this is one function of education - and an important one). We are also talking about acts of creativity, imagination and self-efficacy that are difficult to outsource, and an awareness of the way the world is made that should belong to more than just an elite. Of course these skills can be acquired later in life, but so can all other skills - the point is that this is harder and makes it more difficult to get take-up at scale: like it or not there is a point to the universality of education.
The five*five challenge is powerful. The most obvious response is that the stuff we are talking about should be integrated within the life-blood of the school, reflected in the maths lesson as well as the geography lesson (for example, students could build an application to visualise weather data, say). However, this clearly represents an enormous challenge of system reform, and teacher professional development, that it is not obvious that we have the tools to do, and that our programme certainly doesn't have the resources to tackle.
What we can do, though, is this:
Seventy per cent of 11-15 year olds visit a museum, gallery, or archive in a given year. We think this is important because it exposes young people to a cultural life that is important for a life well-lived. Given the importance of the digital economy to the social and economic opportunities facing young people it seems more than reasonable to ask for something similar in terms of digital making opportunities. I think that conclusion stands in the face of the sceptics' arguments.
W Brian Arthur, The Second Economy
W Brian Arthur, The Second Economy