The king is dead, long live the king

After an online chat on twitter recently I was left thinking about the ways we have always used coding in school.  I have coordinated ICT/computing for nearly fifteen years and in that time there has always been at least one element of coding.  I thought about how I am in the process of designing some training for staff on how to use robots and electronics.  This is cutting edge for computing in Primary Schools.  Well that is what people would have you think…

It used to be called Control. It was all about Logo in those days.  For the uninitiated LOGO is a text based coding language that can control an on screen turtle.  It formed the basis of the inputs to floor robots such as the roamer and beebots.  People hated it because it had a complex syntax (the way the commands were structured).  A missing space here or an extra space there could stop your command from running.  If, mastered you could create some fantastic algorithms.

There is some similarities to Logo in Scratch.  Both were created at the Massachusetts Institute of technology.  It starts with a screen which is clear apart from a single sprite.  Scratch also keeps the drawing options, originally seen in logo.  Scratch is just that little bit more clever, and colourful making it more appropriate for the current generation of coders.

Even back when I was a trainee teacher in 1997 we created algorithms using Roamer floor robots.  Ours made our robot (which we had decorated as Mr Bump), navigate a maze while we told a story.  We had to use repetition, debugging and all of those skills we now talk of as the ‘new curriculum’.

Going back even further I can remember learning about BASIC.  Adults of a certain age will know the pleasure in the two simple lines of code.

10 Print “hello world”

20 Goto 10

Hitting the enter key would fill the screen with the words hello world for ever and ever.

What I am trying to say is that the new curriculum is not new at all.  What was one small part of the ICT curriculum that people often avoided, now forms the lion’s share of the current curriculum.  We are moving full circle, to where we started with computers in school.  The difference this time is that block based coding is making it more accessible than ever.  No longer are children put off by missing spaces.

With a few blocks snapped together, children can start to create their own games.  I have given my class the freedom to explore and create their own games this term.  What amazed me was not only the level of engagement and skill they showed but the type of games they were creating.  Some of the games bear more than a striking resemblance to arcade classics such as Frogger or Formula 1.  They are beginning to learn code because they want to add something to their game.

If they can create something now as good as the experts were creating back then, what can we expect them to be creating in twenty years?  While we cannot hope to create a whole generation of children fluent in multiple programming languages, we can hopefully inspire more than there are currently.  It certainly appears that more children (boys and girls) are taking an interest in computing.

I hope that this time the cyclical nature of Education will not lead to this latest push on coding being side-lined further down the line, as it was when I was growing up.  We CAN find a happy middle ground while providing a balanced curriculum of Coding, digital literacy and E-safety.   Children will leave Primary school with a good grounding in the basics, before specialising in computer science or more general ICT skills in Secondary School.

So remember the next time you read an article about the ‘new’ curriculum, it has been around for a lot longer than we are led to believe.  It has been given a new name and a new costume but the idea remains.  Maybe it will even inspire a few former bedroom coders to dust off their keyboards and share their former interest with their children.

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