Five challenges to digital making, part one: The challenges
As part of a project planning process it's often an effective technique to employ Gary Klein's idea of a pre-mortem exercise - something that Kahneman in his wonderful book 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' describes as "the best idea" for taming unfounded optimism.
Take people into a room and tell them that you can see into the future, and what you see is not pretty. This project which you think is amazing, and which you have devoted so much effort to, has failed. The thing is, you cannot see into the future with enough clarity to identify exactly why the project hasn't, umm, quite lived up to expectations - that's the task for the people in the room who now have the safety, and the change of perspective, that may allow them to identify the risks that the project faces.
As we translate our digital making programme into a set of concrete actions, I thought it would be useful to employ a similar conceit: step into the shoes of a sceptic about this movement to get more children coding, making apps, hacking websites and so on, and 'live' the toughest objections. So, on day one I entered into the shoes of this person and articulated, as well as I could, all the objections I could think of. I quite enjoyed it.
Below is what the result looks like. In another blog post I reply to my sceptical self.
Challenge one: the economic argument is a (dangerous) attempt to predict the future that may turn out false.
The demand for more coders rests on the assumption that there is a skills gap out there, and that this skills gap will persist for long enough for these newly trained-up folk to get a job. But the world moves fast - jobs can get automated, or transferred overseas. Industries that need coders already effectively outsource many of these roles. For example, if you look at the big IT consultancies, the Accentures and IBMs of this world, they have armies of off-shore coders, working in roles that used to be carried out in the UK. Also, industries often lose their competitiveness, not through a skills shortage, but through policy or regulation changes, or through more effective competition from overseas. Picking winners, or growth areas, is a dangerous business - and not one we should expect an education system to engage in.
The skills that we can be confident we need more of (more STEM graduates or students leaving school with the right foundations in the three R's) or that are difficult to transfer abroad (things like creative problem solving, or entrepreneurship) are completely unrelated to learning about variables, pointers, and if statements.
Worse, the 'we need kids coding' argument fits into a defunct view of the future where the UK, en masse, moves to a knowledge based economy where the majority of people work in creative, high-tech jobs in a globalised economy. In contrast to this globalised, technology driven nirvana, the picture that is actually emerging is one of increasing demand for low-end service jobs (in health care, or leisure for example), a minority of people working in a globalised knowledge economy and a 'hollowed out middle' struggling to find meaningful work. For the majority of students coding will be irrelevant to them finding meaningful, productive, jobs.
Of course, one could instead argue that coding is a good training-for-the mind - but then it looks an awful lot like a Sudoku in schools movement.
Challenge two: the economic argument for having more coders is a pretty desiccated one, treating students as units in an education production function whose sole purpose is to equip our young people to get a job.
Education and learning is about more than acquiring the skills to get a job. It is about supporting students so that they can learn about their interests, passions and joys. It is about making them confident citizens and adults, able to be good parents, neighbours and friends. It is about providing moments of joy, excitement and inspiration.
There is very little of this in learning the syntax of html, or writing an efficient SQL statement. Surely we want students to be engaged in the real world, and in their community - not sitting, alone, in front of a PC.
Challenge three: schools just don't have the time to do this, while arguing for the time to be made means falsely privileging computer science
Draw a matrix, five by five: that gives you the timeslots available during the school day. Now populate it with the things that schools are already expected to teach - Maths, English, some exposure to the humanities, the sciences, and some physical education. Also, put in some citizenship lessons. You are left with no gaps.
What would you take out to make time for computer science?
Mathematicians, historians, scientists, English literature teachers, and many others, can all make a very strong argument that an understanding of their discipline is a pre-requisite for understanding how the world is. Sports-people, artists, actors and craftsmen can all make excellent arguments that their discipline enriches life - that their discipline manifests what a good life feels like.
What privileges computer science over these subjects such that it should shunt one of these out of the five*five?
Challenge four: we don't need every child to learn coding just as we don't need every car driver to be a mechanic. Being a skilled and adept user is fine in other walks of life, just as it is here.
When cars were first invented you needed to have mechanical expertise if you were to reliably use them. Being an effective driver of a car meant understanding how they worked. However, as the technology got better this need became less and less important - so much so that nowadays much of the workings of a car are even hidden from most mechanics.
It's the same with computing - in a world before graphical user interfaces, drag and drop functionality and reliable plug-and-play devices you needed to understand the way computers were made and controlled if you were to do anything useful with them. But this isn't the case now - the beauty of the new devices and applications is that they can be used powerfully without understanding their inner workings.
Moreover, left on their own, kids look to me to be adept at finding their own way in this - it's just not plausible that classroom time needs to be made available to teach children how to use Facebook.
Challenge five: this isn't a school age thing - you can come at this later in life
If you look at what universities seek from computer science applicants they want maths 'A' level, while many university graduates who have not been exposed to computer science go on to get jobs where their employers pay for them to get skilled up in, e.g., programming or using digital technologies to address business issues. Many adults are teaching themselves coding through initiatives like Code Academy, or Decoded. These three observations suggest that the we have got too caught up in the 'pipeline' argument - if we do need more computer scientists then we do not need to reach down to primary school age. Concentrate on more maths 'A' level students; more HE places in computing, or more adult learning opportunities. Leave schools to teach the things which are genuinely prerequisites for further learning - maths, and literacy.