A generation of kids with little idea of what makes their prized gadgets tick could be given the coding bug by this computer.
I’m from a generation that had BBC Micros in schools, and ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s at home. An advert for Sinclair Computers that appeared in the pages of the Observer in 1983 promised a future where, thanks to children having computers at home, “much of the deadening drudgery we used to call work disappears. The more information we have, and the more sophisticated the use we make of it, the more exciting and effective our decisions and actions become”.
Somehow along the way we seem to have lost the art of teaching children to program in our schools. The GCSE exam I did in computer studies included learning the database structure of the DVLA, but a lot of IT teaching today has a focus on using software packages rather than understanding how they are put together. The government has made some promises to rectify this situation, but it is still unclear where we will find the people to teach these skills.
Enter the Raspberry Pi. The launch of this single-board computer has the potential to trigger a renaissance in home programming by children. With a price-point of just £22, it is an affordable way to give the coding bug to a generation that are typically seen as hard to prise from their gadgets, but who often have little or no knowledge of what makes those gadgets tick. As Simon Peyton Jones says of computer technology: “Do we want the adults of tomorrow to see it as a mysterious box they can’t understand, or do we want them to have a sense of how to master it?”
There is an argument that the ‘R’ of pRogramming needs to be a fourth ‘R’ alongside Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic as a basic foundation of 21st-century education. I’m always wary, however, of sweeping generalisations such as “everybody will need to be able to code”, in the same way that I’m wary of people who claim that everybody would benefit by studying the classics, or studying physics, or participating in competitive sport.
There is no doubt, though, computer technology will play a huge role in the lives of anyone currently of school age. Even the slickest touchscreen application boils down to some ugly looking lines of text in the background to make it run. Programming teaches a lot about logic, flow and consequence. You learn to make constant trade-offs between short-term gain and long-term scalability – and how to prioritise tasks and features. You also learn that making a rough plan on paper often saves you from making mistakes later on. These are all transferable life skills.
There are some admirable attempts to help children, teenagers and adults to get coding. Codeyear is aimed at grownup beginners, whileScratch is aimed at children. Events such as Young Rewired State help showcase the work of existing young developers, and hopefully can go on to inspire others.
There is a viral email that periodically does the rounds aimed at people who grew up in the 50s, making jokes about how they survived despite their parents smoking and living in houses made of asbestos, compared with the molly-coddled world full of health-and-safety myths that kids grow up in today. I sometimes wonder whether the equivalent email in 20 years time will have the joke that “our parents grew up using computers they didn’t know how to program” or “our parents grew up thinking that we would need to program computers”.
by Martin Belam, an Information Architect for Guardian