CIO Folder: Tech is an environment, literacy is the skill

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14 November 2017

In all this talk of coding for kids in schools, specialist training and qualifications in technology, even STEM subjects, one wicked and old-fashioned train of thought occurs—is all that of the slightest value when the student involved is barely literate? What is the use of coding when you cannot write English or Irish or French or any language like your better educated peers?

Curriculum issues
There are a number of other arguments about coding in primary schools, such as the choice of programming languages—should it be prescribed by the national curriculum or chosen by schools or teachers? Python or JavaScript or old-fashioned BASIC or whatever? Who will train and assess the teachers? The Coderdojo voluntary extra-curricular movement that has caught on in Ireland seems a better path, even if it is on a par with scouting or mini-rugby or hurling or infinite varieties of ball sports. The children take part with enthusiasm, the trainers are personally motivated and the activity is fun. It is not country wide or structured, but it is a much better idea than ignorant politicians asserting that ‘coding’ is a requisite subject for primary schools. Even the idea that it is a ‘subject’ demonstrates ignorance.

“What certainly is downright urgent is early stage awareness training of children in Internet dangers. The Web is a tremendous knowledge resource, which has long since replaced encyclopaedias and reference books for kids and scholars”

At post-primary level, we have different considerations. Getting closer to third level studies, subject choice is strategic. There is now no question that technology should be introduced to all students, not least so that they will better understand their career options, which are more specialised these days. The other unassailable argument is that a tech foundation is as important as a fundamental understanding of mathematics for any student. In Arts and Languages, Medicine or Social Science today, IT and numeracy are essential, from statistics and analytics to medical devices. And communications, long since electronic. To put it simply, if you cannot use a PC you cannot progress in any profession or ‘white collar’ job.

Not that blue overall jobs are to be put down, from farmers to naval service personnel to first responders to long distance drivers. At a guess, something like 90% plus of jobs today require literacy and the ability to use technology, even if single purpose. That is why blind, deaf and speech-impaired people are at more of a disadvantage that ever before. Society was just getting used to giving them employment opportunities pretty freely. On the other hand, there have been great strides forward in assistive technology, so it may well all even out.

The three Rs
But back to literacy and numeracy. They are more important than any technology—even the wheel. At the most basic, they are the essential precursors to any technical skills or understanding of technology. No one can demonstrate intelligence or competence without those basic skills, so employment chances are limited and a career is out of the question. That is why the old colloquial expression ‘The Three Rs’ [Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic] was a truth universally acknowledged.

In all fairness, that saying referred to primary education when the majority left school at the age of 14. But the same truth holds today: the education of young children should concentrate on the essentials, literacy and numeracy. There are other subjects that deserve a place in the school day, geography, history, music and that old-fashioned term General Knowledge. If that embraces an introduction to technology and the theory of coding/programming it would be valuable and relevant today. But it is not essential or central.

What certainly is downright urgent is early stage awareness training of children in Internet dangers. The Web is a tremendous knowledge resource, which has long since replaced encyclopaedias and reference books for kids and scholars. Not that Wikipedia is infallible. One essential lesson for all users is to consult multiple sources if you are serious. But the Internet in general, is as dangerous as big city streets at night and children should have their instinctive wariness enhanced and informed. Digital dangers should be as basic in schools as the Safe Cross Code… and way ahead of coding.

No code necessary
Our political and other senior leaders frequently allude to the facility with which children pick up the practical uses of 21st century technology. Viewed from their own generally pre-digital perspective, it is a wonder. But for millennials and others who are digitally savvy it is simply the environment in which they have grown up or grown used to. There is no coding involved—or even a grasp of the theory—in using devices and applications across the entire range that is available today or will become so tomorrow. Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things or even the mundane Cloud may demand advanced expertise to design and build but not much more than literacy and numeracy to use.

Does this mean that we are seeing the rise of an elite group who are experts in IT while the rest of society are relatively ignorant of the inner workings of technology? Yes it does. In the same way that a person does not have to be an automotive engineer to drive a car, the future of all consumer and business technology is to be even easier to use. Soon people may not need to drive at all. Voice-controlled interfaces are about to become common, starting with domestic tasks like controlling the heating or telly or security features.

The elites are going to be those that design and develop technology and their skills are going to be a blend of general IT and mathematics, engineering and design. The advances and accomplishments are going to be built on domain knowledge in specific fields, such as all forms of transport—land, air, sea, space—architecture and art, medical and military technology, robotics and cyber security, artificial intelligence and inevitably a developing range of disciplines and learning that we don’t know anything of today.

Critical faculties
In our growing digital environment, knowledge and judgement are becoming more important than ever in ordinary daily lives. In professional work, breadth of vision is almost always more important than narrow focus, although specific skills are essential. Which is why a good general education, aided by modern techniques and tools, is still the essential foundation for adult life, socially and professionally.

Literacy goes beyond the simple ability to read. A cultivated mind needs feeding to develop. Fiction or history, science fiction or classics, encyclopaedias or comics (graphic novels), politics or philosophy, DIY or atomic physics or astronomy or even cookery, all knowledge contributes to learning and judgement, and is fuel for debate.

Back to kids and coding: pre-teenage children especially soak things up. Novelty or current popularity add to the appeal, from social media stuff to successful sports teams and stars to good old-fashioned films and TV. Coding is associated with the magic of computers, and not be knocked on that account. But other children come eventually to IT skills through model making, drawing (from art to mechanical), electronic games, music—listening, singing or playing an instrument—collecting things, multiple forms of craft, growing things—and reading books.

One other skill should be mentioned, something that the most successful career people share, is the first cousin of literacy: articulacy. Clear and persuasive presentation of ideas or arguments is possibly the number 1 skill in social life and careers. Forget our politicians. Business leaders, military leaders, academic leaders, sports leaders all share it. It is an indispensable quality for leadership—and a skill that will get everybody as far as they can go in their ambitions.

So back to the theme: coding for young kids is a good thing. But not at the expense of a range of more important skills that can only be learned properly at an early age. Reading and writing have primacy in primary, followed by at least a grounding in mathematics. The ability to speak clearly and sensibly follows and is universal and not a middle class obsession. Everything else, including technical skills and knowledge, can be studied or picked up later in life.



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