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Teaching our kids to code: a clarification [Sep. 15th, 2011|02:11 pm]
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[This is a followup to Teaching our kids to code.]

When I say that I yearn for a mass-algorate society, I don't mean a society in which everyone has the level of knowledge of today's professional programmers. We live in a mass-literate society, but we don't expect everyone to be able to write novels or sonnets or in-depth analyses of the politics of the Middle East; we live in a mass-numerate society, but we don't expect everyone to be able to prove Stokes' Theorem or calculate cohomology groups. We do expect (almost) everyone to be able to read a newspaper, write a note for the babysitter, and write an SMS to tell their other half that they're staying in the pub for another round unavoidably delayed due to badgers on the line; we do expect (almost) everyone to be able to do simple arithmetic and make sense of graphs. Similarly, a mass-algorate society probably wouldn't expect everyone to be able to write an operating system kernel, a compiler or a game engine, but it probably would expect everyone to be able to write simple scripts to automate repetitive computational tasks, to do basic data-mining, or to control machinery.

I think that this is within the capabilities of almost everyone, given a sufficiently supportive infrastructure (which we don't have at the moment, but which we'd inevitably develop as more and more people become algorate). I'd love to live in that world.
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[User Picture]From: johnckirk
2011-09-15 04:54 pm (UTC)

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"we do expect (almost) everyone to be able to do simple arithmetic and make sense of graphs."

I think you may be overly optimistic there. For instance, here's a conversation I had recently:

Me: "This oxygen cylinder holds 460 litres. Let's call that 450 litres to keep things simple. Suppose that you turn it on at 15 litres per minute. How long will it last?"
Other person: "An hour?"

This maths gets a bit more complicated if the cylinder is only half-full, or if you use a different flow rate. By our standards it's still pretty simple, but a lot of adults will struggle with that, and these are people who function in modern society (e.g. they have jobs).

As for SMS/Facebook/email, I see a lot of people who have no idea about spelling or punctuation, so it's a struggle for me to decipher their messages.

Looking at programming, I've come across a lot of poorly written software. In most cases, I assume it's because the people who wrote it don't know any better: they don't really understand the underlying issues, so they just did a quick Google search and copy/pasted something which more or less works, at least on their machine. These people would benefit from more education, but I'm concerned that a compulsory basic course at school might do more harm than good. For most people, I think that setting up a mail merge in Word (or equivalent) rather than retyping all the addresses would be roughly the peak of their abilities. For a lot of people I know, if they wrote a program to control machinery then I wouldn't want to be anywhere near it!
[User Picture]From: pozorvlak
2011-09-15 05:28 pm (UTC)

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I think you may be overly optimistic there. For instance, here's a conversation I had recently:

Hmmm, you could be right. That's pretty horrifying.

For a lot of people I know, if they wrote a program to control machinery then I wouldn't want to be anywhere near it!

Depends what the machinery is - I certainly wouldn't trust random members of the public to write code for dangerous machinery. But most (or at least many) machines are not dangerous.
From: (Anonymous)
2011-09-16 10:43 am (UTC)

what John said

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Computers are magic. Actual magic. That's how much most people know about them. Hell, cars are magic. A fucking hot water heater is freakin' magic.. If you can copy and paste using keyboard shortcuts you're a goddamn technological wizard.

Maths is voodoo and English is a type of beer. "Well within the capabilities of everyone" is probably true in a biological sense, but the education system is still turning out functionally illiterate people who can't add two small integers together without using their fingers - I think shell scripting and database interrogation is quite a long way down a line that the government seems bent on tearing up and selling for scrap.
[User Picture]From: andustar
2011-09-16 05:00 pm (UTC)

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The interesting thing for me about this post is that I tend to think of myself as someone who is on the geeky side of the spectrum, but as far as I'm aware I've only ever done one of the three things on your list (the first - obviously it depends on what exactly you mean by the next two, but yeah). I wonder what that's all about.

I would have loved it if that sort of thing was in school though, totally, and I think you're very right that this sort of thing shouldn't be seen as an obscure specialist subject.