Despite me sharing a visual history of my life on Facebook, the vast majority of people who read this would not have known me when I was at school. I’m sometimes asked what I was like at school and the answer is generally quite dull. I did what every other kid did, which was to keep my head down and keep out of trouble. The best way we could accomplish this was to spend a lot of time in the dark, waggling our joysticks.
While I was introduced to computers in junior school, it was quite limiting. Partly because the hardware in question was a Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 and secondly, programming beyond the basics of “Hello World” was beyond the skill set of most teachers.
However, my cousin, being a couple of years older, was already in ‘computer club’ at secondary school. I remember spending a sunny afternoon on the grassy bank not far from where we lived, plowing through a dot matrix printout of some code. I saw how the variables changed and followed the conditions through the subroutines as a result. On paper, this does not sound like fun. What I needed was my own computer.
My first own computer was a Mattel Aquarius and it didn’t take me long to fill up the free 1.7k of its 4k memory with code. The only logical upgrade was to get what my friends had; the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum! The difference was, that I wanted more than just a computer to play games on, I wanted a tool to program.
I loved the BASIC programming language. I learned to compile my programs and manage the machine code so they could run faster. I still managed to fill up the memory on a few occasions and received the infamous ‘Error 4 – Out of Memory’.
Coding today is becoming embedded within the school curriculum and it is interesting to note just how little has changed since I was at school. On a positive note, teachers today are much more familiar with computer, using them to full potential in effective teaching. But, they are still not likely to be coders, but merely ‘end-users’ of computers.
The biggest advantage that teachers now have, is the change in supporting culture. Books on coding such as ‘Python for Kids’ by Jason Briggs and ‘Adventures in Raspberry Pi’ by Carrie Anne Philbin are specifically aimed at both children and teachers. Couple this with the upcoming release of the BBC Microbit and the truckload of resources this will come with and you in for a treat.
For my part, I became a certified Raspberry Pi Educator last year. I spent two days at the Central Library in Birmingham and worked alongside teachers in getting up to speed with how the curriculum fits with the aspects of teaching students to use Scratch, Minecraft, Sonic Pi, Python and then getting down with some hardware add-ons. Within minutes of sitting down we were jamming wires into the input/output port of the Pi and making traffic lights. I witnessed the leaps in confidence of many teachers as they set about debugging their own code, determined to make it work as they imagined it should.
This framing of coding skills and context with teachers reminded me of a conversation I had last year with a veteran coder. He told me, “Once you’ve learned your first programming language, every one that follows is easy.” He was right. I found no difficulty with my coding skills, having learned as a teenager to use BASIC, then later HTML and various scripting languages while working in neuroscience.
We need not worry over the exact coding language we teach students. They just need to learn how to think like a coder, which is to anticipate how a computer will behave. Yet, it is so tempting to repeat the mistakes of the past by hiding behind a shortcut or interface.
Last year saw the release of the Sinclair Spectrum Vega, an opportunity to play many of the games we did as youngsters, but is no longer the programming tool I used. To reinforce this purpose, it only has four keys along with a joypad. Yes it is now wireless and plays nicely on modern televisions, but it looked like my coding heritage was finally over.
Until a company called Accuratus manufactured a full size, recreation of the spectrum, complete with every single ‘dead flesh’ rubber key and the ability to program using Sinclair BASIC.
If you are of a certain generation, then you should look out for one of these for your kids. Sure, the games lack the polish of what many are used to but the ability to code with ease is what this machine can do. For instance, It was only a couple of years ago that I got asked to perform a prize draw and I wanted to be a little self-indulgent. This was the result.
In my mind, no computer has been as easy to use out of the box, nor has one been so aesthetically pleasing. Macs may now be big and shiny, powerful and unencumbered by wires to their peripherals, but opening the box and plugging in a Spectrum was to open an imagination, not just an app.