Recoding Coding

Back in 2015 we began the first ever annual pyka_hack project - but why did we begin doing it in the first place?

So we’ve just finished the inaugural week of our new project, pyka_hack. And yes, there’s a lot to talk about - our students, the sessions so far, and the mysterious Bos Mann himself… reclusive executive or demented rabbit? (the jury is out). But let’s start with the most important question: why are we doing it? 

pyka_hack started life as a very direct response to the current educational climate, and particularly the somewhat myopic approach to code we’ve been witnessing. Short story? Everyone gets it, kinda. Programming is important. It’s been historically underserved by educational systems across the world, and we need to do something about it.

All of which is great. Except, and let’s be honest, at the outset learning to properly code is pretty tedious. I say that as part of a coding team who has spent years developing platforms like pyka_loop. We're all self-taught so maybe I got the short end of the stick, but I remember how it started. Three weeks in a bleary mire and the end of it, emerging bright-eyed and shining with… a circle that moved around inside a pink square. Sometimes. Maybe. Very slowly. 

Notwithstanding the flat-out tedium of learning the basics of something like Python, there’s other issues, too. Sure, many of the languages currently in use will have expired by the time primary schools graduate. But more importantly - within ten years the fundamentals will be different too -  the whole heuristics of digital creation will have changed beyond recognition (by way of analogy, watch how something like the grid is hard at work right now tearing up our understanding of web design). 

All of which to say our issue with the education climate runs deep. It’s not just our frustration with those West Coast techno-imperialists who will heal the world with their code. Or Cameron’s inevitable, execrable bandwagoning that has accompanied recent debate (introducing… the government spokesperson for a Year of Code… who can’t actually code!). Sure, we laugh at and loathe both of those things in equal measure. But there’s a more fundamental point to be made. Coding is one skill within the development process (software, hardware, whateverware), but it’s only one of them. And when we seek to usher students into this brave new world, we’d do well to consider these broader habits of mind. 

So let’s expand the frame of reference. We’re not alone in this line of thought, and similar thoughts have been expressed by many others, progressive educators and shoreditch digerati alike. cf Blonde

Of course there are also staffers here, myself included, who would argue compulsorily teaching kids how to code is much too limiting a syllabus. And would cite digital strategy, web design, SEO and UX as equally important skills.

Which makes sense. Except like it sounds like we’re using primary schools to churn out MBAs. Having spent many years in the creative industries, it’s almost a rule of thumb that the least interesting applicants for any position are those with a bachelor or masters degree in business. More importantly, that kind of expanded scope isn’t very, well, expansive. It seems hard to believe the best way to equip 7 year olds for the future is to bolt on to coding a range of specific disciplines that seem relevant a 30 year old digital businessman circa 2015. The trick, surely, is to situate coding within a broader framework of self-guided learning. One in which code isn’t just dropped alongside an existing curriculum, but deployed in a way that changes each aspect of it. Where code transforms your understanding of English or History. But just as importantly - the teaching of History, English (and everything else) suggests new ways to understand and approach the task of code. 

To some extent, the National Curriculum reflects this aspiration to approach code within a broader framework, to “use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world”. And we’re all for any evolution of the curriculum that acknowledges the role of personal creative practice in all learning. So good news… except once again, as with so many aspects of digitally-led learning, there is a great gulf between the stated ambition and the practical means to realise such lofty goals.

Our conviction is that coding really takes flight is when it is embedded within a broader set of tasks and processes that activate the entire fabric of the person who is doing it. In a situation where none of this has really been figured out, and many teachers feel ill-equipped to deliver even basic programming in an effective way, our role as creator-educators is primarily to help explore the possibilities, to work with students and teachers to map out a new approach. This is the kind of perspective we take in both pyka_hack and our Schools 2020 programme. Different journeys, but at their heart reflecting a common process - reconnecting learners to their own creative capacity, and then use this to reconnect them in new ways with their peers, their curriculum topics, and the wider world around them. 

In the case of _hack, it means making a cohort of students from seven schools through each stage of the development of a new iOS app, from research to concept development, deployment, testing and launch.  And in the process, challenging them to deploy all of the knowledge already at their disposal from across the curriculum. Using storytelling models to construct satisfying UX journeys, using physics to model gravitational fields, understanding the science of frequencies and then using it to produce professional sound design.

Because that is what coding is about.  Yes, a lot of it is based on “if this then that” statements, on a rigorous understanding of logical cause and effect. But it’s not all “if this then that”. Its also about “what if?” and “is that good enough?” and “oh god, what’s gone wrong”?.

We created the _hack course to communicate to young learners that coding isn’t just about conditional expressions and syntactic sugar. It’s about getting an idea and then deploying every bit of knowledge at your disposal to make it a reality. Whatever traditional code courses imply, great programming isn’t about making “Hello world” appear on a computer screen. It’s about looking around you in new ways, discovering more about the world around you and finding a place somewhere within it where you and your dreams can thrive. 

This year, pyka_hack is taking place at High Street Primary, Undy CP Primary, Llangattock CW Primary, Duffryn High, Usk CW Primary, and Heolddu Comprehensive. 

_hack is an extremely limited course and all places for each year fill up fast. Contact us to secure your place on next year’s _hack course or to find out more about our other education programmes.

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