Cracking Coding

The Raspberry Pi computer

Should our schools focus on producing thinkers or training workers? I, probably like most, come down firmly on the side of thinkers. For us to address the world’s problems, inspire cultural achievement and compete in a knowledge economy, surely our education system should be focused on the ability to think. On producing tomorrow’s scientists, artists and engineers, rather than today’s office workers.

But take a look at what passes for ICT (Information and Communication Technology) teaching in schools today and most of it is little more than training courses in Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. We’re training office workers rather than providing a basis for free thought. We don’t use maths lessons to train human calculators and we’ve gone beyond rote learning in history. So where has the sense of exploration and achievement gone in ICT? Why don’t we teach programming and inspire a new generation of code-literate problem-solvers?

On Friday I was at a meeting in the primary school where I am a Governor. I raised this subject and all the teachers in the room immediately sat up. It’s not that teachers are demanding that MS Office dominates ICT, it’s the National Curriculum that lacks the foresioght to require anything more.

Luckily there are already very talented computer scientists working on solutions. Cambridge engineer Eben Upton has developed Raspberry Pi, a very basic ¬£15 computer designed to let your children play around writing code somewhere other than the family PC. The first (alpha) release is already out and it’s planned to start shipping product at the end of this year.

And Arduino, a combination of hardware and software that together form a prototyping platform again ideal for children to mess around with and learn through experimentation, is now receiving serious interest from the teachers that will be needed to drive interest amongst the next generation of programmers.

On Friday I wrote about Britain underperforming in the list of top 100 digital start-ups ranked by value. There are a number of reasons underpinning this – ICT teaching in schools is undoubtedly one.

I want my son (and my daughter too if she’s interested) to find the opportunity to experiment with hardware and software as exciting, challenging and rewarding as I found the opportunity to experiment in school science lessons. And I believe that teaching programming, rather than use of a couple of software packages, could lead a new generation of inspired and inspiring software engineers to tackle our challenges head on.