The Coding Evening at the Pi-Top HQ in Bethnal Green was the second time I had attended an event aimed at teachers, a place where they could gather to exchange ideas and information. On both occasions I was reminded of the situation that teachers were forced into when computers were first introduced into schools over thirty years ago. Few resources, virtually no training and scarce funding.
As I recall, it was decreed that all Primary schools should have a BBC ‘B’ computer manufactured by Acorn. Now plans never go as expected. So when my BBC ‘B’ arrived on my desk it had no cassette player. I know, I know! In those days we had to load the programs from cassette tapes. So I announced that I would bring my son’s cassette player and use that. “Oh, no! You mustn’t do that!” instructed the Head. “You might break the computer”.
Teachers are ever resourceful and they soon started to write programs. There were six strands to Primary computing: word-processing, data handling, information retrieval, control and two that have escaped my memory. “Control” is what took my fancy. My classroom had a turtle robot and the pupils controlled it with LOGO – a high-level coding language, devised by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The turtle was tethered to the computer which complicated moving it around. In the end the children preferred to work with a screen turtle.
In 1987 I spent a term on secondment as a Computer Advisory Teacher, based on Chelmsford and driving all over the region. Primary schools were managing with one computer in the classroom and programs such as “Granny’s Garden” or “Dread Dragon Droom”. I went into one infant classroom where the children had created a display full of paper flowers, with a snake made from a stuffed pair of tights. Their wall display had print-outs of flowers that they had coded themselves using “LOGO”. SEN teachers discovered the “concept keyboard” that could be overlaid with a pre-prepared grid of words/picture which the pupil could touch to “write” their story. Schools were buying more computers, more In-Service course were being offered . . .
Then what happened? I am not completely sure how or why, but Bill Gates and Microsoft introduced systems with “Windows” and schools went down the route of using the computer as a tool.
Today we have come full circle. The Government decrees that all children should learn to code. Few resources, virtually no training and limited or no funding. As before, resourceful teachers are overcoming the problems. And entrepreneurs such as the Pi-Top Team, are seeking innovative ways to provide affordable hardware for the classroom. Me? I still feel as if I will never catch up: technology is advancing at such a fast pace. My friend and I have set up CMD<create>CTRL, – computing sessions for 11 to 16 years olds where youngsters can learn coding and tinker with tech.