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Tech News

17 June 2016

The perfect Gulyás Soup – it’s a balancing act

  • code
  • code
  • code
  • code
  • gulyas

Recently I had the privilege of attending the Budapest AmCham Lab at the Brain Bar Budapest in what turned out to be a most informative and thought provoking evening. I found myself in a group discussing ‘Work’ but as an educator, I was keen to see what the ‘Future of Education’ group’s discussion points were which we received via email late last week.

Whilst the following thoughts are intended for the Hungarian education model I suspect that a far more universal application is possible. The points below are exactly as they were received and having read them I developed a sense of unease – a feeling that I needed to explain them fully for myself or even disagree with some of them. Am I cherry picking here? Yes, indeed, and I have ‘combined’ two points (without alteration) because some further discussion is warranted on these since code literacy is a hot topic.

Notions about how to teach it—and when—are still very much in play, raising questions for teachers and parents.

1) No new teaching technology tools or methods are used by teachers; children are not allowed to use their smartphones at school for learning or research purposes
This speaks to an entire mind shift in teaching approaches and pedagogy that will not materialize overnight and needs to be firmly in place before the word ‘smartphones’ even finds itself in the same sentence. Adding smartphones or any tech for that matter to the mix without a clear plan merely results in distraction and not the desired disruption that is sought. There is a clear dichotomy and pedagogy needs to be the victor.

2) However, according to a recent PISA study, there is a negative correlation between the use of technology and digital literacy
I was unable (after a brief search) to locate this study online but it certainly comes to mind. I strongly suspect that the initial hype coined by Marc Prensky around ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ rears its head here. It was absurd to consider that just because you were born at a certain time that you would naturally assimilate and ‘sponge-like’ absorb the technology around you in such a manner as to proficiently use it. Open minded, lifelong learning adults who are/were the ‘immigrants’ were and are not left behind, and the notion was silly. Who in their right mind would consider a 6-year-old playing on his father’s iPhone in a restaurant to be an immediate, instantaneous tech wizard? Maybe we misunderstood Prensky, but at the time, our perception was our reality.

3) Schools should have enough tech gadgets available and children should start coding as soon as possible. Coding and algorithms are the new English, should be part of the curriculum, not only for scientists

As a teacher who actively and vigorously promotes the use of technology to deepen learning in the classroom am I wrong in wondering whether an EY or Year 1 really needs to know how to code. Shouldn’t other skills, like critical thinking, communication, creativity, logic, social skills, collaboration, and empathy take precedence over building a website? If these traits are absent isn’t it a bit like teaching a child what a sentence should look like without explaining what the sentence means? The inclusion of coding needs to be fit for purpose in a much larger context or the child rightly sees it as nothing more than entertaining for a short while. Is the knowledge acquired transferable to other areas – is there any evidence to suggest it is or it can be applied elsewhere? We don’t need everyone to code—we need everyone to think.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to code without thinking once certain patterns and algorithms become fixed practice. Is it right therefore to mandate programming as a general education requirement that would displace something else that we’re already failing to teach? A simple example of this can be traced back to what Paul Hynes, vice-principal of George Spencer Academy in Nottingham and a member of the Department for Education’s ICT expert panel had to say: “The emphasis has all been about coding but when we talk to our employers, that is not what they’re interested in,” he said. “Our employers couldn’t give a monkey’s about computer science. They want to integrate [school-leavers] straight away and not spend three days teaching them how to use Outlook.” Are the old skills now becoming the new?

A common argument for promoting programming to students is that technology’s unprecedented pervasiveness in our lives demands that we understand the nitty-gritty details. Let’s stop for a moment and consider the fact is that no matter how pervasive a technology is, we don’t all ‘need’ to understand how it works. How many programmers understand the inner workings of their cars engines or do they just turn the key ‘expecting the thing to work’? How many of us really know how a 400 ton A380 stays in the air? As it was recently explained in the TES: … “knowing languages such as C++ or Java could be like knowing how to farm: a tiny slice of society needs to do it, but most of us just need to go to the supermarket.” To justify everyone learning about programming, you would need to show that most jobs will actually require this. But instead, there are vague predictions that the growth in “IT jobs” means that we must either “program or be programmed” or that the select 'coding few’ will have the well-paid jobs.

This topic/debate/discussion is simply too big and fluid in nature to have any real justice done to it in a few lines and it will undoubtedly be ongoing which is what is at the heart of all deep learning. Can a decisive decision-making approach about coding simply be made? The answer to that is a resounding, ‘No!’ Will we at BISB continue to code? Absolutely, in multiple ‘languages’ and with fervour remembering that our students should have a chance to interact with it to see if they're taking to it, or if they're naturally able in that way. If a student hasn't tried something, they don't know if they like it or not. Coding needs to be like painting or acting and on an equal footing.

The home of true Gulyás Soup is Hungary and it bears no resemblance to the beef strip, creamy, mushroom infested recipe I knew as a child. A good Gulyás Soup is easy to find in Budapest. A truly remarkable one is more than likely a rich combination of numerous restaurant and homemade versions - it’s a balancing act and so is the inclusion of coding in schools and curricula. It is by no means the holy grail of education but is instead a recruit that needs careful consideration before assimilation.

The role of coding in our schools cannot be driven by the oration and gesticulation of a cabinet minister who has moved on and now bites the hand that once fed him. It needs time and vigilant deliberation (not to mention teacher training). It needs to find its focus by what Ernest Hemingway once said: “There's no one thing that is true. They're all true.”

Craig Brown