25 Apr Computing and the New National Curriculum
I remember the Christmas we unwrapped the BBC Micro bought at great expense for the family, £399 in 1984 was a staggering amount of money. It was the dawn of home computers and we had one with rather impressive orange function keys and I was now able to play the games my friends had been talking about in the playground for months.
I had a little experience with computers with my dad often bringing the work Apricot home but although I used it to type up a fighting fantasy style book I had written, there were no games. Some years before a neighbour, another eight year old boy whose dad worked in IT was kind enough to demonstrate a game involving a rhino in a maze on his dad’s Commodore Pet. This was followed by years sat at this boy’s side passively watching him play on increasingly advanced computers; the BBC (he had the master version with disc drive) to the Amiga 1000. It was about this time I’d had enough of politely waiting for a turn.
“The graphics are amazing!” Unnamed boy in playground circa 1982
Games did dominate the scene as they do amongst children today, but I did also learn some rudimentary programming. In the very early days I used to spend hours typing in lines of BASIC from books and magazines (beginners all purpose symbolic instruction code) in order to make very simple games: an asterisk might move sideways along the screen towards a pair of brackets. A certain amount of imagination was required to make up for the lack of graphics, sound, playability… well everything really, but the fact that I had created the games meant a great deal and creative potential was very exciting.
Coding mistakes were made and messages such as <bad programme> or <syntax error> would follow, which would mean retracing steps, identifying errors and making corrections which ultimately served to cement knowledge of the process. Although I never joined the ranks of future IT industry millionaires whose humble beginnings I shared, the whole process taught me to appreciate the complexity and sheer work that’s required to create something special, in programming or otherwise.
Children now have access to what was then the result of wide eyed friends’ playground conversations about what technology could become. Games where you were free to explore a detailed city, games whose graphics were so advanced you’d confuse them with reality, phones with computers in them!
Putting my 1980s nostalgia of a very different world aside and considering the advent of a new computing based curriculum the question is whether the emphasis on providing Rasperry Pis or BBC clones in 2014 will be relevant to needs of people functioning in the current or indeed the future digital landscape. Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt described himself as ‘flabbergasted’ that computer science wasn’t taught as standard, and that England thus risked throwing away its great ‘computing heritage’
In this age of digital decadence, children now consume ready made dreams. What effect has had on a child’s imagination or the capacity to create or be innovative? The nature of modern tech is such that 30 year old technology like a BBC Micro is actually better for learning to think than any modern computer, because these machines are simple enough to be understood.
Some useful related resources