Year of Code on Newsnight

You’ve probably already seen the section on the government’s Year of Code initiative that was on Newsnight last Wednesday. But, in case you haven’t, here is it. We’ll wait while you catch up.

Most of the commentary I’ve seen on this concentrates on Lottie Dexter’s performance in the interview that takes up the second half of the clip. We’ll get to her later on, but the problems start long before she appears on screen. Within the first couple of minutes of the report, reporter Zoe Conway has referred to code as “baffling computer commands” and “gobbledigook”. One lesson that I’ve learned as a trainer is that a sure-fire way to ensure that students don’t understand what you’re about to teach them is to describe it as difficult or complex, so Conway’s descriptions of programming languages are hardly going to encourage people to take up programming. As Conway says “baffling computer commands”, here’s the code that appears onĀ  the screen:

if (distance < radius) {

} else {

} // END if statement

Perhaps the fact that I’ve been programming for thirty years is clouding my judgment here, but I really don’t think that this code is “baffling”. Lily Cole does her best to counter this misinformation – saying that it’s “really cool to see how quickly we can pick it up”. I hope people listen to her and not the (obviously out of her depth) reporter. We then move on to the idea of children being taught to program at school. Various people tell us how important it is and we see a class who are trialing the programming syllabus that will be rolled out nationwide this autumn. Conway then gets to the heart of the issue. She visits East London’s “Tech City” and explains the severe shortage of programmers that the companies there are experiencing. There simply isn’t the supplier of programmers that the UK’s tech industry needs. Anything that addresses that problem should be welcomed. And then we’re back in the studio where Jeremy Paxman is talking to the Year of Code initiative’s director, Lottie Dexter. This is when it gets really weird. Let’s get a couple of things straight. I don’t think it’s a problem that Lottie Dexter isn’t a programmer. She didn’t try to hide that. She was clear about it right from the start. I also think that it’s great that she want to be a guinea pig for the Year of Code by saying that she wants to learn to code over the next year. But I do think that it’s a real shame that before coming to the interview she couldn’t find someone in her organisation[1] who could spend an hour briefing her so that she could sound like she knew what she was talking about. Instead, she just made the whole initiative look bad. Let’s look at some of the things she said.

  • “You can actually build a web site in an hour – completely from scratch.” This is true. I build web sites in an hour all the time. I install a copy of WordPress, choose a nice theme and install a few plugins. Of course, there won’t be any useful content on the site. And it will look like hundreds of other sites out there who also use the same theme. Of course, I can only do it that quickly because I’ve done dozens of previous web sites this way and I have a good idea about what works. Oh, and there’s no coding at all involved in this – so it probably falls way outside of what she was talking about. If I wanted to code up a web site from scratch, the minimum time for a web site that does something non-trivial is probably a couple of days.
  • “I think you can pick [teaching people to code] up in a day.” If you know how to code and you know how to teach, then I imagine that’s possible. But for a teacher who doesn’t already know anything about programming to pick it up in a day is a ridiculous suggestion. At college, I did a course on C which was taught by an experienced programmer and lecturer who didn’t know that particular language and who was reading the standard textbook a week ahead of us. The result was a disaster.
  • “If we start thinking about it now, I think in time for September when this goes onto the school curriculum teachers should feel confident” Colour me unconvinced
  • “I started a campaign last year. And if I had learned to code at school I could have done my own web site, I could have done my own app, I could have done my own graphics. I would have saved a hell of a lot of time, a hell of a lot of money and I think I could have done a lot better.” Sure, doing it yourself would have been cheaper. But I doubt it would have been quicker than having a professional do it. And I’m not at all sure that it would have been better. Or is she suggesting that when everyone knows how to code that we will no longer need professional programmers and web designers? I really hope not (or is that just my professional bias getting in the way?)

Paxman wasn’t much help either. I know he has a rather adversarial approach to interviewing, but was it really necessary to be quite so sneering about the whole idea? He did ask one good question though. He asked why it was necessary to code. And he’s right, of course, no-one absolutely needs to know how to code. But I think there are three reasons why teaching everyone to code is a good idea:

  1. We don’t know who is going to be good at programming. So teaching it to every child seems to be a good way of making sure as many people as possible get to try it.
  2. Even if many children don’t take up programming full-time, the fact they have been exposed to it demystifies it. They will be less likely to see it as a “black art” and will have more idea of what is possible.
  3. People who have some programming experience will be at an advantage over people who don’t. The future is going to be about data manipulation – extracting useful information from reams of data. See, for example, the Hacks and Hackers group.

So, yes, of course I agree with the idea of teaching children to code. The UK is already desperately short of programmers and that demand is only going to continue growing. But I worry slightly that the Year of Code project is just about being seen to do something rather than working out what the best thing to do it. The government have a awesome IT department doing wonderful things. I wonder what input they have had into this process. And please, can someone spend an hour or so explaining the basics of programming to Lottie Dexter before she makes her next TV appearance.

Update: Emma Mulqueeny has been working in this area for many years with her Young Rewired State project. Her reaction to the Year of Code is very interesting.

[1] Although, Tom Morris has severe doubts about the amount of technical know-how within the organisation.

2 thoughts on “Year of Code on Newsnight

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>