Educating programmers - suddenly everywhere?

Odd how an idea that brews for a while is suddenly thrown into prominence.

With some 30 others I was delighted to be part of the Educating Programmers summit, organised by Jason Gorman and held at Bletchley Park last week. The very next day (it really couldn’t have been timed better) Eric Schmidt, in the McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, generated significantly more awareness of the woeful state of computing education in this country:

You need to start at the beginning with education. We need to re-ignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths … I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.

(Full text here.)

It was well reported in The Guardian — under the headline Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemns British education system, James Roberson wrote

The chairman of Google has delivered a devastating critique of the UK’s education system and said the country had failed to capitalise on its record of innovation in science and engineering.

The day at Bletchley Park was stimulating, and full of discoveries. Highlights for me, along with links, were

1. Discovering that the irrepressible Simon Peyton-Jones and many others have been spearheading an initiative, Computing at Schools, since 2009. Now supported by Microsoft, Google, Intel, the National Science Learning Centre and the BCS, it’s turning into a serious force giving teachers and technologists a chance to exert influence on policy at a national level, which Jason’s initiative (to provide pracitioner-mentors for teachers in schools, to teach, encourage and inspire teachers) nicely complements.

Check out Computing At School, and the the group’s curriculum proposal submitted to the National Curriculum Review,

Simon also highlighted the Livingstone/Hope report:

…if the UK is to retain its global strengths in the high-tech creative and digital industries more generally it must urgently address the need for more rigorous teaching of computing in schools

So perhaps things will start changing. Simon pointed out that the door to change isn’t closed, but it’s made of lead, and needs a lot of pushing. We hope that CAS, the NESTA report, and the report due later this year from the Royal Society on teaching computing will generate enough momentum at the top to make space for the multiple efforts that will no doubt be needed in the classrooms and teacher training institutions

2. Hearing about what’s possible at the earliest stages of education - inspiring primary school IT coordinator Ian Addison demonstrating some of the work of his classes, using some of the many introductory development environments around.

3. Seeing Eben Upton show and talk about Raspberry Pi — a capable computer built from the outset so that children can get their hands on something they can program, for the price of a text book ($25). I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on one when they’re released, all being well later in the year.

All this took me back to the days of Logo, and reading Seymour Papert’s 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas This made a big impression on me back in the late 80s (when my children were young, and I was teaching them Logo!) More on Mindstorms after a short break…

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