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Let's Take a Bear Grylls Approach to Coding in Classrooms

22/04/2016 10:14

Computer gaming was once a very different pursuit than it is now. Going to primary school in the 1980s, I spent countless hours on a Commodore PET. Not just playing the rudimentary educational games that loaded, after an age, from cassette. But also hacking into these games, digging down into the code and changing words around to the amusement of friends. Or spending hours on end inputting hundreds of lines of code to design a butterfly forged out of @ signs and causing it to flap its wings.

During that time, magazines full of code were stocked in newsagents, and fellow pupils and adults alike were captivated. The language commonplace at that time was BASIC, designed by academics for straightforward use by those who weren't experts in maths or science so that the broader public could customise their own software.

This all seems a world away from today's complex computer interfaces of Windows or iOS, which most people - myself included - wouldn't have the first idea about when it comes to understanding their inner workings. And, for the most part, why would you want to? These interfaces have transformed our lives in so many ways over the past three decades.

Yet as Jon Silvera found when dusting off an old BBC Micro from his attic back in 2011, the old language of BASIC still manages to captivate even now. Loading it up, he was astonished to find that his son became immersed in it, despite also owning a Nintendo Wii.

It is, he tells me, the accessibility of the language that allows people to become so engaged. The fact that you get instant feedback. That your interaction causes a butterfly to flap its wings, or for the computer to announce the classic "Hello World!"

In many ways, say Silvera, it's like people who are used to pre-packaged frozen food suddenly getting a glimpse for the first time into how it is cultivated and prepared. Going back, Bear Grylls-style to the fundamentals, to understand more about how modern computers operate.

Becoming trained in BASIC was the making of Silvera's career. Growing up in Minehead, Somerset, and dropping out of school at 16 he was, in his own words, "a lost cause". Until a close friend introduced him to a BBC Micro. Something clicked and he spent hours sitting around his friend's house learning to code.

He then got a job teaching people to code in the local Butlins holiday camp. Such was the appeal in those days, people young and old would spend their spare time learning to code. Silvera then moved to London and took a series of IT-based roles, until he rediscovered his old Micro in the attic.

Seeing his son transfixed gave him an idea. He had long been frustrated by the fact that while schools now teach pupils to code from Key Stage 1 onwards, the languages used were either too simple - like Scratch - or could be too sophisticated, like Python - the operating language of the now-commonplace Raspberry Pi.

Moving a pupil from Scratch to Python, Silvera argues, is like "taking a young child who was playing happily in the shallow end of a pool, ripping off their armbands and then throwing them into the deep-end with no support".

But it's not only pupils that are suffering - it's teachers too. They are expected to teach often-complex coding languages with little or no training.

Feeling genuinely angry about the situation, Silvera saw the need to reintroduce BASIC as an interim step - developing the FUZEBOX, an accessible coding gadget that uses BASIC to allow pupils to program games and apps, control robotic devices, interact with sensors and experiment with electronics.

His FUZE BASIC revives what was seen as an obsolete coding language to bridge the gap between coding simulators and advanced programming languages. FUZE boxes are now in over 400 schools in the UK, and Silvera is now running a Kickstarter campaign to introduce a new model that will redesign the hardware and allow it to make use of existing devices both at school and at home.

Silvera isn't looking to do down advanced programming languages like Python or C++. Indeed he recognises an 18 year old who is competent in Python can "easily walk into a £20k job". His concern is that the gulf between the likes of Scratch and Python is so great that many children are put off coding for good.

Last year, digital tech sector roles were added to the UK's Shortage Occupation List, along with health and energy industry workers. It is therefore of great importance that young people are not turned off coding due to unnecessary complexity. In going "back to BASIC", it seems FUZE could play an important role in preventing this. Its Kickstarter campaign deserves to do well.

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