Code the curriculum

Coding is now a core part of the curriculum in schools in England. Initiatives like Code Club and the Raspberry Pi are making computers and coding more accessible to young people than ever.

The focus of much of the coverage of this development is on the challenge of ‘keeping pace’ with a changing world, and on employability. Talk is very much about the difficulty of achieving objectives, both in the student and teacher populations.

Everyone seems to be ignoring the fact that this has the potential to dramatically increase the opportunities for creativity in the classroom.

I’m old enough to remember when computers first arrived in schools. We were taught how to steer a turtle on the screen by writing code. We also wrote small games, generative art programmes and jokes. Most of these other projects came from students thinking, ‘If it can move a turtle, it can probably...’.

These classes taught students basic skills, which they then used on fun, self-selected projects to create new things.

Before long the focus had shifted to teaching word-processing and spreadsheets. These were seen as more important skills to learn, as they were in greater demand in the workplace. While this no doubt helped students gain employment, I doubt it sparked the desire to create in the same way.

This new policy has the potential to respark that drive to create.

Coding is the ultimate creative skill, and with modern tools and the power of the web you can achieve so much with so little.

Paul Lutus used to build equipment for NASA. He went on to create Apple Writer, one of the best selling word processors ever. His reaction to seeing an advertisement for the Apple II mirrors my own excitement when I first got my hands on a computer back in the ’80s:

“I saw an advertisement for the Apple II. Wow, I thought, a personal computer! With a computer you could draw a world in three dimensions out of colored lines. Write stories. Play music. Locate Neptune to point your telescope. Store fantastic amounts of trivial information . . . “

This was 1976. There was no app store, no Google, no World Wide Web. Programs (that’s what apps were called in the old days) were few and far between.

In those days you could only do all those amazing things if you were able to code them yourself. Coding wasn’t special, it was simply how you used computers.

We’re often told that there is an ‘app for everything’. There really isn’t. There is an app for everything that someone else has thought of. They work the way other people want them to work. There are so many more people than apps.

What about the things that only you thought of?

When my son first saw the Raspberry Pi (a small, practically disposable computer aimed at kids) he asked if it had a game with a skateboarding cat that could do tricks.

We looked for one. We couldn’t find one, so we coded it up.

It was very basic, but he loved it. Before long we had sound effects, swords, shields, and a basic scoring system in place. He even learned how to change a few variables to speed up the cat, slow it down, and make it meow louder. He was 4 at the time.

More importantly though, he learned that the computer will do what you ask of it, and you don’t need to wait for others to think things up. You can create it yourself.

It’s tremendously exciting to think that another whole generation of young people will have the opportunity to make computers do what they want them to.