Liam Maxwell and computer literacy

Following Glynn Moody’s recent article on the dearth of programming skills amongst our young (Raspberry Pi) I have been doing some research into the halcyon days of the mid-eighties. This was when every child was a master programmer who...

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Following Glynn Moody’s recent article on the dearth of programming skills amongst our young (Raspberry Pi) I have been doing some research into the halcyon days of the mid-eighties. This was when every child was a master programmer who piloted their Spectrums, Ataris and Commodores to ever new heights encouraged by leather-elbowed disciples of Turing.

They cut their milk teeth using Logo on the school’s RM 380Zs (or BBC Masters) and later, fed up with the slowness of their sprites, mastered machine code to poke a few bits into the right addresses. They grew up to found the mighty UK games industry and invent the i-POD demostrating their POV mastery by shaping Laura’s boobs just so and designing the KDE GUI just so you can’t use it.

Thus far we know as history but what about the youth of today? No longer masters of the universe they are now merely droid consumers and operators of mind-numbing software.
No programming on the curriculum and the big-wigs now fear that we have a generation of computer illiterates. Who can save the day?

Liam Maxwell, schoolmaster and Head of ICT from David Cameron’s old school, has been appointed to the Cabinet Office to advise the Government on ICT and doubtless to sort out the problem of computer illiteratcy among our children.

He may have a problem if the comments on ‘RateMyTeachers.com’ are any kind of guide but setting these aside Liam has been a vocal advocate of Open Source software... whilst making sure that Eton stayed resolutley a Microsoft-only campus judging by web site and the Dell computers the pupils are allowed to own.

Oh dear, maybe some of the pupil comments were right? It looks like we won’t get much reform from the old boy network but in any case it does not matter, the programming story is a myth.

Even in the 80’s there were lots of learned articles that wrung their hands about how teachers did not have the skills to teach Logo (a simple programming language that made a turtle move)’ beyond the simplest level. You may still find today many a dusty turtle hibernating in a corner in some primary classroom...no-one knowing quite what it was.

Teachers, curricula, complexity, software even Microsoft are not to blame for failures in computer literacy. Modern computers are not harder to understand than BBC computers or to program. Some modern applications have a lot of code, most of which is auto-generated but essentially nothing has changed not even the children.

The cognitive skills required to learn to program are well understood. A logical mind that enjoys structure being the cliched pre-requisite. In reality many budding programmers approach their projects with a characteristic ‘make it work’ quick fire approach relying on rapid quasi ‘trial and error’ over careful pre-analysis. These folk (in my long experience) are not-plodders or planners or thinkers, they are very bright often easily bored and very flexible. Programming gives (gave) them the private safely autistic overstimulation they need and become fully engaged for many hours.

And here is the rub. Fully engaged and overstimulated children will spend hours doing anything that feeds this need. Computer Games whether manifest as iterations of Tomb Raider or as simple hacking meet the need once met by programming.

In short, the Goose killed the Golden Egg. Not enough coders for the games industry?..blame the games industry or if it suits you better blame Liam Maxwell because he has helped more future ‘masters of the universe’ depend on Microsoft technologies than anyone else on the planet ... and that’ll do for reason.

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