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Composing or Coding … same and different? October 22, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Musings.
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I suspect like many schools across the country, we’ve been discussing how best to address and accommodate the changes in ICT in the National Curriculum. More specifically, given the shift of emphasis to Computing, how we might implement the computer science aspects of computation, programming and coding. In many schools this may prove a real challenge, not least for the teachers charged with that implementation. It was clear from the outset that there is

a critical shortage of teachers with the right subject matter expertise.1

ICT teachers often came into the subject from a variety of other disciplines to fill a need in their school and because of the skills, knowledge and expertise they had personally developed. It is less common I suspect, to find ICT teachers like this one who come with a computing background.

So either we wait until there are enough people coming out of university with the skills needed to deliver the new aspects of the curriculum, or we expect a good proportion of our workforce to retrain. But is that fair I wonder? How easy will it be for someone with facility in the use of ICT to reskill and become adept with computer science and programming? I’m not at all sure; how would I cope for example. Bear with me a while so I can prepare the ground …

music score

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo by Enrico Donelli: http://flickr.com/photos/enricod/7328986486/

Running through my mind recently has been the notion that music and computer code have quite a lot in common. They both have specific characters and notation which, to the untutored eye, have little meaning. Stringing them together creates a music score on the one hand and a computer program on the other. Yet you can’t just throw one character after the other in a haphazard fashion and expect to generate anything meaningful. No, it takes a skilled, experienced, talented individual to bring forth order, structure and beauty from those basic building blocks; a composer for one and coder for the other. Code snippets are combined and arranged in sequences and inter-connected with loops; notes are arranged on a stave, grouped in bars, guided by time signatures and also have repeat instructions. The different programming languages have different underlying principles, as do different musical genres. Musical instruments for which music is composed are like the different platforms for which programs are written. A computer user running an application resembles someone listening to a piece of music.

I’m sure there are further and better comparisons, but to return from our metaphorical sojourn then, it’s hardly surprising that

“A large number of ICT teachers feel exceptionally vulnerable after the rapid speed of change that has affected their subject…2

So before we ask a ‘vulnerable’ ICT teacher to consider teaching programming, perhaps we ought to ask whether we would expect the same person to learn to teach musical composition … on little more than a scant few twilight professional development sessions? Is that feasible … or fair?

1http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/index.php?id=noe-overview

2http://www.agent4change.net/policy/curriculum/2113-dfe-pulls-cash-to-gag-own-computing-expert-group.html

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Comments»

1. Aaron Davis - October 26, 2013

Another great post Ian. I think that there is a forgotten element to coding and that is that someone has to teach it. It is one thing to put it in the curriculum documents, but another to facilitate it. I, a little like yourself, arrived at ICT through the backdoor (Arts degree w/ major in English and History). I am comfortable with change, but still see coding a big hurdle at times.
I have done a few online courses and understand the building blocks. However, I find the biggest challenge to take these rather simple and boring blocks and make them into something beautiful and authentic.
I guess in that respect, there is a connection with music, as anyone can make a sound on an instrument, but to be able to play that instrument AND be creative with it. That takes years and at times isn’t something that you can necessarily ‘teach’.

ianinsheffield - October 27, 2013

You’re right of course Aaron. I think there are some subjects on the curriculum which are very, very different. Music, coding … and art is another I’d suggest. Precisely *how* they are different would probably take more than an odd blog post I suspect. Perhaps it’s that to become adept within these fields takes an inordinate amount of repetitive practice to develop sufficient ‘muscle memory’ to allow you to become creative without needing to think about about the basics? So yes we can provide those teachers willing to take on coding within Computing with an introduction to the basics, as you rightly observe, they’re going to need much, much longer to develop that ‘muscle memory.’


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