The hidden messages behind the launch of the Year of Code

I had the pleasure of attending a summit at the Royal Society of Arts last week. Entitled Skills for the 21st Century Summit, the event was designed to launch the “Year of Code” with as much razzmatazz as could be mustered.

And it worked. There was a great buzz throughout the day, and I came away buzzing and full of enthusiasm – though I suspect not for reasons that the organisers had in mind. No, for me the buzz came mostly from the range of people there in one room – not only the great and the good from digital enterprises but also, and mainly, people who are actually doing something: teachers, and representatives of education companies and organisations: Apps for Good, Computing at Schools, e-Skills UK and Zondle, to mention the ones I happen to know about.

And to be fair, some of the buzz came from the panellists. I enjoyed listening to David Putnam despite my misgivings (below), and to Eyal Gevar, who produces his sculptures through a fascinating combination of coding and 3D printing. Most of the panellists, in fact, were very interesting to listen to.

But there was so much wrong with the event.

A good idea, or a shot in the dark? Photo by Joey Gannon

To start with, the title of the Summit was something of a misnomer. It was called “21st Century Skills etc” but every authority who writes about 21st Century skills does not include coding as one of them. The description on Skills2014, the event’s website goes on:


As of September 2014, the UK will make computer programming part of its national school curriculum, making it the first G20 country to put coding at the center (sic)of education reform.”

Well, here we have three problems. By the way, I’m not picking up on things just for the sake of nitpicking. I think some things may be small, but that doesn’t make them minor. We in education like to pay attention to the detail, because that’s what the children pick up on. So, what are the three things I alluded to?

Three lessons

First, in England we don’t have a “K-12” education system. We are not the USA. I have nothing against the American system or its name, but I don’t see why we have to use a term that will instantly alienate every teacher in the country. Or, if not alienate, will cause them to think for a moment about what it means.

Lesson no.1: if you want to get teachers on board, speak their language.

Second, I wasn’t aware that coding was at the centre of the Computing programme of study, let alone the centre of the whole curriculum. There’s more to the National Curriculum, and even to the Computing programme of study, than coding.

Lesson no.2: if you’re going to write about the curriculum and try to get teachers on board, it’s probably better to not resort to hype and hyperbole in order to get your point across.

Third, it would be useful for a conference that purports to be about education to at least use a British language spell-checker. Yet again throughout the day we heard that the old ICT curriculum involved teaching Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and not much else. Well, it didn’t, but at least if you’d learnt how to use Word you’d know how to change the language of the spell-checker!

Does it not strike you as ironic that a website about coding, which involves absolute precision of language and syntax, features a spelling error?

Lesson no.3: the correct spelling is “centre”, not “center”, in the UK.

Now, I realise that this sounds like carping for the sake of it, but one of the things that it says to me is that if you really think you can organise a conference about education without involving anyone who actually works in education, you need to make absolutely certain that you don’t make those kind of schoolboy howlers.

But these issues, while important, are the not the main ones. For them, we need to turn our attention to something much deeper and more critical: the hidden curriculum.

No hiding place

What do we mean by the “hidden curriculum”? Walter Humes put forward a good definition in an article in the TES back in 2005. He said:

“The concept of the "hidden curriculum" is familiar in relation to school education. It refers to a range of things (attitudes, opinions, values) that pupils learn, not from the formal curriculum, but simply from the experience of being in school. These derive from the implicit messages conveyed through the structure and organisation of the institution, the relationships between teachers and pupils, the disciplinary regime, the assessment system, and the various subcultures that exist.”

The article was called “Never discount the hidden curriculum”, which is very apt. The hidden curriculum is almost always ignored and almost never spoken about. I suspect that most people who pontificate about education have never heard of it, which would explain a lot.

So what was the hidden curriculum in the Skills2014 Summit?

First, as far as I can tell, as I implied earlier, nobody who works in education was involved in the planning of the event. There was a teacher on one of the panel discussions, and there were kids and teachers involved in activities (more of which below), but that was about it. See Tom Morris’s article, Year of Code seems to not have many programmers, for a list of the people involved. No teachers there.

So the first “coded message” appears to be that you don’t need teachers to help you plan an event about education. This marginalisation of teachers and school was, in fact, a theme running through the entire day:

  • We were told about young people who had become entrepreneurs despite their school education.
  • One of the panel sessions involved Lord Puttnam telling us that he failed at school. Now, I have a lot of time for David Puttnam because he is very supportive of teachers, but my “take-away”, to use the current jargon, of this session was that you don’t have to succeed in school in order to succeed in life. That’s true, but is that really the message that the Government now wishes to be seen to endorse?
  • In the same session, Ian Livingstone told us that teachers can learn alongside the kids. This seems to be not a view taken by Ofsted, who explicitly state that in order for the provision of a subject to be awarded an “Outstanding” grade, the teachers concerned have to be subject experts. Nor, I imagine, is it the view of most parents. See my article We need ICT teachers, not facilitators, which applies as much to Computing as it did to ICT, and read Crispin Weston’s Round-table with Ian Livingstone at Computing magazine.
  • We were shown a video by Suli Breaks entitled “Why I hate school but love education”. It seems to me to be another one of those tedious diatribes by people who have become successful in standard educational terms (he obtained a degree) and then tells others that they don’t need to bother.
  • The day was organised into “lessons”, which consisted of “experts” talking at the audience, followed by a Q & A session. These so-called lessons were unlike any I have seen since leaving school myself in 1967. It would have been nice if the organisers had managed to find someone who has actually spent time in a classroom since 1970 – unless, of course, they were getting their information from watching Waterloo Road.
  • OK, so how about those kids and teachers I mentioned earlier? Well, their presence was very good if you happen to enjoy watching kids putting bits of kit together or playing the piano. These “lessons” didn’t seem to be set up in a way that it would be easy to talk to the kids, but then what would you learn from doing so anyway? The lessons seemed to lack context, and therefore to be pointless.

But that, in fact, simply reflected the very name of this initiative: Year of Code. If coding is to be done at all, it should be done for educational reasons, not for its own sake. Why not have a Year of Origami, or a Year of Making Videos, or a Year of Making Spreadsheets? Oh no, I forgot: kids don’t need to be taught about spreadsheets, and they’re all uploading stuff to YouTube anyway. I bet there’s mileage in that origami suggestion though!

The second “coded message” was that you don’t even have to know how to code. I thought it was a spectacular own goal when Martha Lane Fox came on stage right at the end of the day and announced that “I have a secret: I can’t actually code.”

That was before I knew about that other spectacular own-goal, the Director of this “initiative”, Lottie Dexter, telling the nation at large that she couldn’t code either. I found that out from reading Donald Clark’s article, Year of Code boss Lottie Dexter is a car crash. Is coding the new Latin?

But perhaps the most obvious indication of the message that you don’t need to know how to code was the list of organisers referred to in the article by Tom Morris, which I referred to above.

So, to summarise so far: to teach coding you don’t need to be a teacher, or to know how to code. If I’m missing something here, please let me know!

What skills are needed?

So what do you need? Well, one of the “skills” frequently mentioned and lauded was that of enterprise. There was a lesson” on enterprise, and even some discussion about whether it should be taught in school. What a load of nonsense! Is there not an inherent contradiction here: that the best way a pupil could demonstrate enterprise would be to skip the enterprise lessons and use the time to earn some cash on the side instead?

I’m actually being serious here: the whole tenor of the day seemed to be that you can succeed by being a bit of a maverick. Enterprise is defined, in the Oxford English Dictionary, as “Disposition or readiness to engage in undertakings of difficulty, risk, or danger; daring spirit.” So by definition, anyone who assiduously attends all their Enterprise lessons and hands in every bit of homework in time ought, by rights, to fail the course automatically.

I did actually sign up to a course in Consultancy once. Well, twice actually. Each time I started the course, which was highly academic, I had to stop because it was taking time away from running my consultancy business. It was really interesting, but given the choice between earning money and learning about how to earn money, I opted for the former.

All such courses are inherently flawed in my opinion: if you already have an entrepreneurial spirit you don’t need to attend such a course, and if you do attend such a course then you probably don’t have the wherewithal to acquire one.

Third, what were the action points to arise from the day? I have no idea. The hidden message there seemed to be that we need to all get excited about coding.

Not all bad though!

So was the day a total disaster? Not at all. There was, as I said, a great buzz, and the event provided a brilliant opportunity for networking. I really enjoyed talking to other people there during the breaks. It made me feel that there are enough good people around, especially in education, to enable us to take this stuff out of the hands of geeks and amateurs. I really hope that the connections that I and others were able to make, perhaps with people we might otherwise not have met, will prove fruitful in helping everyone concerned to make the new Computing curriculum really interesting, useful and relevant.

It was good to learn that the BBC is launching The Year of Code – not because that’s such a great idea, but because the BBC tends to produce good resources and activities.

It was also good to hear that the Government is putting up some money for people and businesses to get involved in helping schools get ready for the new Computing curriculum (see below).

And I have to concede that it may have helped to raise awareness of the new Computing curriculum. I am continually astonished, and not a little dismayed, at the number of schools who tell me that they have not yet thought about how they are going to accommodate the demands of the new programme of study.

And finally, the Year of Code website is useful in that it provides a set of links to several organisations who offer coding classes in one form or another.

But this was a great opportunity to involve and engage the educational community, and quite frankly it was squandered. The day was engaging and fun, but, unless it leads to some real, practical help in preparing teachers for the new curriculum it will prove to have been like some of the very early websites: all hype and no text.

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