Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Why we need to be able to Read & Write Code


The Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg tweeted at the start of 2012 that his new year resolution was to learn to code with Code Academy.
Around the same time Minister for Education Michael Gove announced plans to shake up the way that computer and digital literacy is taught. The policy development coming after criticism that we were producing functional IT users who could use but not create software.
On announcing the new plans Gove said that technology education is "vital to our success in the global race."
In a recent show on BBC Radio 4 called the "Coded World" the presenter and technologist Tom Armitage took umbrage against Gove's arbitrary suggestion that we should frame the a want for computer and digital literacy in solely economic terms.
Explaining what he meant Tom Armitage said that in the past much that was learnt about computers, programming and software development was done by autodidacts - the self taught! These were young men and women hacking away in their bedroom.
Much of that important work was done not in the pursuit of some policy-prescribed business goal or som global race vaunted by politicians. Programmers were pushing into new frontiers in the name of creation driven by a innate impulse to innovate. And they weren't just scientists, they were artists too.
For Tom innovation is strange; it is not a race that can be won by sheer brute force. Innovation is fostered by diverse interests and under a breadth of ideas. To see it in solely economic terms is to limit innovation.
So how do you teach innovation and the creative impulse? The type of innovation that leads to organic and natural innovation?
Code Club
Toms friend has been teaching coding at coding workshops to primary school kids and she has suggested that we should all be free to try coding just as we are free to try out music or drawing.
To Tom the computer is an instrument just as much as a trombone is and in the same way a paintbrush and easel is. And so for Tom we need les policy made and goal-centered education and more home brewed alternatives.
I think what Tom means is that we cannot force our young people to be world beating programmers. Rather we need to foster and facilitate an environment that allows our children to explore an be creative. Like anything, you cant force a result; you have to let things mature organically.
Marrying innovative subjects with innovative teaching methods
Toms friend who teaches code to kids also said that they don't just teach the kids to code - they also introduce them to programmers. And so it shows the children someone who makes a living out of software driven world.
But this plays a more important function for young people: it makes learning real. It shows to young children the end result. Education is not an island entire of itself; education, educators and the being educated need interaction with the world of work and workers. So this really is a fascinating development that marries innovative subjects with innovative teaching methods.
The otherness of computer programming
Are you happy in the knowledge that you cant read or write computer code? That you can read the English on the screen in front of you but you know nothing about the world behind the screen?
Code has always gone with a mystique of unknown and hiddeness; reinforcing the otherness of computer programming. That its something that other people do. So Code Club is opening up the innards of computers and software and displaying the workings in plain sight.
Being able to Read and Write Code
To most people and me included code looks like hieroglyphics. But code was designed or humans in order that other humans can use and interpret it. It may serve a function that allows computers to run software but first and foremost its for u humans to know and use.
Therefore we need to be literate and fluent in code. Alan Kay put computer literacy as: "the ability to read a medium means you can access material and tools created by others. The ability to write in a medium means you can generate tools and material for others to use.
You must have both the ability to read and write code to be literate. To Tom this is at the core of reshaping digital education; otherwise we cannot truly participate in the digital world.
Computer assisted world
Tom said further that the world we live in is not a computerised world but a computer-assisted one. We use computers as extensions - as prostheses like we would with a prosthetic arm of leg. Computers serve extraneous functions that assist our daily live in multifarious ways.
Our shoe boxes full of old photos are now hard drives. They consolidate and amplify our capabilities like Archimedes lever.
And computers do more than any other prosthetic: they give us the ability to think new thoughts. As I.A. Richard said: "using computers as a machine to think with."
Conclusion
The real reason to shake up education is not to win some arbitrary race but to train young and old to live in and get the most out of the architecture which makes up our lives online and offline.
So when Michael Bloomberg said that he was learning to code he did not mean that he is about to change careers. He meant something much deeper; he meant that he wants to think in a new way.
Michael Bloomberg is learning to code so that he can really live in, understand and contribute in the best way he can to the digital world in which we now live.

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