class Room:

January 15, 2012

So, the school IT curriculum is to be abolished, in the hope that this will make room for innovation and creativity, rather than just leaving a void (the Open Rights Group is less optimistic about this).

There was a lot of talk last year about the importance of teaching kids to code, much of it centred around a well-intentioned but rather confused e-petition; much of the surrounding rhetoric asked where the “programmers of the future” were going to come from if IT teaching in schools was neglected. Sidestepping the question of the difference between “programming” and “IT” for a moment, this concern completely ignores the fact that many of today’s coders didn’t receive any formal computing tuition at school (or in some cases any at all). That’s not to say that many of them wouldn’t have benefitted from tuition, of course! But it’s still worth bearing in mind.

So, as one of the coders of today, I thought I’d note down what “computing” and “IT” involved when I was at school (to the best of my recollection), just out of interest. I was born in 1978, so my schooling spans the 1980s and 1990s; it all took place in the UK, but we moved around a bit and I attended some state and some private schools.

Primary school: I don’t have any very clear memories of “computing” at primary school. I do remember there being computers (BBC Micros) at school; at my first primary school (which I left when I was about 6) the only memory I have of using it was for non-educational games at a school Summer Fête. At my last primary school (a tiny local state school) the computer (again, a BBC Micro) was used for educational games: off the top of my head I can remember playing Podd, Granny’s Garden, and Dread Dragon Droom. My parents had a BBC Micro at home, and I do remember that both I and my sister (nearly 4 years younger than me) were often asked to help at school when the computer “went wrong”, though our expert advice generally amounted to “try pressing SHIFT-BREAK”.

Secondary school: My private secondary school was equipped with a state-of-the-art Computer Room full of BBC Micros, connected by Econet. From the first year (now known as Year 7) we had “Computer Studies” lessons, which were taught by our Maths teacher and consisted of doing what I would later call “maths coursework” (problem-solving, usually starting with a specific problem and reasoning from this to a general solution for all instances of the problem, and possibly — for more advanced pupils — an algorithm describing this solution) with the help of the computer; the computer was used more as an interactive way of presenting the problem than as a way of solving it, though. I remember messing about ‘drawing’ simple smiley faces in ASCII characters (by means of a series of PRINT statements of literal strings of characters) when I’d finished a problem before the end of the lesson, and I remember our teacher being quite impressed by this (which I thought was a bit silly, as it was clearly very easy).

10 PRINT "                "
20 PRINT "&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&"
30 PRINT "&              &"
40 PRINT "&   O      O   &"
50 PRINT "&       ^      &"
60 PRINT "|   \______/   |"
70 PRINT "|______________|"
80 PRINT "                "

This was also the first time I’d had a personal account with a password, a personal ‘place’ to store things on the EcoNet. I can still remember the password I used! I can also remember watching the head maths teacher log in with his password (nobody worried about shoulder-surfing in those days) to perform some admin task, and seeing that when he did this, he could see inside everybody’s accounts. So my friend Julie and I wondered what would happen if we typed in his name and password… the answer, obviously, being that we too could then access everybody’s accounts. We copied games from other people’s accounts, certain that this was OK because the games were still in their accounts, so we clearly hadn’t “stolen” them. I forget how we were found out — we probably just told people! — but I do remember that it resulted in a stern lecture about “hacking” from our maths teacher.

In the third year (Year 9) our “Computer Studies” lessons were replaced by “IT” lessons; these were also taught by a maths teacher, and began with “How to use a three-button mouse” (the state-of-the-art Computer Room having by then been upgraded from BBCs to Archimedes). To practise using a mouse we were asked to solve the Fifteen puzzle. Subsequent lessons involved learning to use word processing software and spreadsheet software (I think we even got as far as writing spreadsheet functions).

Now, I’ve had computers at home for as long as I can remember — first an Apple ][, then a BBC Micro, then in the mid-80s my parents got a Mac Plus and from that point on it was Macs all the way. I should make it clear, however, that I really didn’t do much in the way of programming on any of these: I typed in listings from computer magazines and could manage the basics of BASIC; later, on the Mac, I played around with HyperCard quite a bit; but that’s about as far as it went. In general I was more interested in racking up world-class hi-scores on Tetris (my dad showed me how to use ResEdit to hack the leader board, e.g. when shareware games came with the programmers’ own unbeatable hi-scores already filling the board, but I didn’t usually need it!). However, my experience at home meant that a lot of the “computing” to which we were introduced at school really wasn’t new to me in any way. It’s hard to imagine what I’d have made of it if it was: I suspect the educational games would have probably still been fun (as far as I can remember, everybody seemed to enjoy playing on the computer); I found the maths coursework fun with or without a computer, though I think the novelty of the computers made the maths slightly more exciting for some; I can’t imagine that I’d have been particularly inspired or enthused by the “IT” lessons, as they seemed to be geared more to secretarial work than anything more exciting. I presume I would have found them harder if I’d never been exposed to a computer before, or a mouse (we’d had a Mac for several years by then, and I’d used a Lisa briefly when I was about 5, so I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t know what a computer mouse was); I suppose I might have been excited by what computers could do if I’d never encountered them before, though a) I’m not sure how impressive word-processing would be for anybody who’d already seen a typewriter, and b) I was 13 or 14 when these lessons were introduced, and it’s quite hard to get teenage girls to admit to enthusiasm for anything at school.

What general lessons can we draw from this about IT teaching in schools? Absolutely none: it’s simply an anecdotal account of my personal experience, from a time when most pupils wouldn’t be expected to be familiar with computers already (whereas now I suspect most schoolchildren have already encountered computers by the time they reach primary school, let alone secondary school). I don’t think it taught me anything that helped me learn to program (I suppose the maths may have been useful, but we’d have done that without computers, and indeed after those first couple of years I don’t remember using computers for maths again) and I don’t remember it ever even occurring to me that computers might be relevant in a career context.

The story of how I got from there to my current situation, and what I learned outside school, can be a subject for another blog post. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear other people’s experience of IT/computing at school!