PyconUK Talk: BBC B to Python GCSE

On the weekend of Sep 25 – 26th September, I attended the PyconUK 2011 conference. This was the culmination of a long journey which started by thinking “we need to start teaching children how to code” back in January 2011, then a long process of searching for an appropriate language to teach them, then finally landing on Python as the best language for children to learn programming.

Since I expected most of the audience to be well seasoned programmers and developers – I was not sure exactly what I would expect to achieve by going. I thought it might further the cause to raise the profile of teaching programming in school if I were to present a talk. So, I signed up to give a talk entitled from BBC B to Python GCSE. The previous weekend I pulled a stunt at Barcamp MediaCity to raise ‘Computing at School’ on the agenda and decided I would try something like this again, with some small variations.

The BBC CodeLab element was a short part of the talk, you can it again if you watch the video. My main motive was to provoke discussion and invite others to speculate about what could happen, especially if a respected organisation such as the BBC were involved. I would like to claim the credit for this myself, but if you look on the pages of python.org you will see that back in 1999 Guido himself launched a project entitled “Computer Programming for Everyone”, I highly recommend reading it, this is where my inspiration for CodeLab came from.

The CodeLab proposal was a vision of what could happen, (in my opinion with or without the BBC). After I revealed that the talk at BBC BarcampMediacity  was a hoax, people approached me with suggestions and proposals of how to make it a reality. I was met with equal amounts of disappointment and disbelief -people wanted to believe that it was actually happening.

It was always my intention to reveal the truth of the hoax during the talk. At the start of the talk I said I had some questions to ask at the end (some questions that little by little would have revealed the extent of the stunt) – I didn’t need to, since somebody quickly realised that it was a hoax having heard of the stunt at Barcamp. I tried to give some subtle clues during the early part of the talk, eg. suggesting it was to be launched in early April (1st of April), also suggesting that people were soon going to be throwing their shoes at me.

In addition, I had already posted a blog the week before the talk explaining it was a stunt, however on the morning of my talk I made the blog entry ‘private’ and then made it ‘public’ again right after the talk – for the purposes of the talk. In addition to this, on Saturday morning I told one of the PyconUK team who  was going to be the chair for my session that it was a stunt and I would reveal.

Many will argue that my motives or intentions were misguided – and I will not disagree. I did have one clear motive, to raise the profile of computing and programming in school – and I dont think anyone will argue that I achieved that, albeit using nefarious means. I know I upset some members of the PyconUK community – this was never my intention. I will have discredited and alienated myself in the process, but if I achieve my motive, it was a small price.

I was pleased to observe that the topic of “Python in Schools” was discussed on a few occasions during the three of the conference lightening talks, there was a reference to it in a coding dojo and two of the PyCon Panel questions . It was good to hear of the pioneering work that Garry Bulmer of Warwick has been involved with, and Nick Tollervey for all his efforts in introducing the Raspberry Pi to the community.

My final and possibly most important point – Earlier this year, I committed myself to learn how to program again so that I could teach children in my school how to. I spent many months searching for the right language to teach them, I looked at Basic, (even BBC Basic), BYOB, Java, Visual Basic and many more.
It is my belief that Python is the most appropriate for anyone of any age to begin to learn to program with. I am frustrated that I spent so much time searching for Python and wished that my search had been made easier. I was highly motivated to look for an appropriate programming language, I believe that PyconUK needs to be a little more outward looking and establish a more visible presence in the UK schools. So that teachers will not conclude their searches after landing on Java, Visual Basic or Ruby. If we want to rasie the profile of programing in the UK, Python provides the means to do so, it removes barriers.

It would be fantastic to hear that members of PyconUK community are now doubling their efforts to make sure that this becomes a reality and not just another stunt? When PyConUK 2012 conference takes place, it would be a fantastic opportunity to showcase the impact on computer programming in schools. A suggestion was made that education be a feature of the next conference.

Advertisements

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi,

    I was in the talk, spoke to many people after it and have been taking part in a private email exchange with yet more people. You certainly created a minor shit-storm!

    You assumed the assembled Pythonistas didn’t care about programming in schools and that the issue needed highlighting. As I hope you now realise, there are many members of the Python community who already care deeply about this issue.

    Please correct your claim that it *became* a hot topic at the conference. Raising the profile of programming in schools is *already* a hot topic of discussion in the Python community as well as the wider open-source world at large. For example, at the conference there were three lightning talks about programming with kids, a demonstration of the RaspberryPi kids computer, a call for a sprint to write a learning environment for it and a code dojo ~ all prior to your talk.

    As far as I can tell, what miffed most people was that it was a wasted opportunity to organise, share and move forward.

    Put simply, *you were preaching a lie to the choir*.

    As Linus Torvalds says, “talk is cheap, show me the code” (viz. https://lkml.org/lkml/2000/8/25/132).

    I’m quoting it in this context because there are many Pythonistas already volunteering their time and energy to build things that directly address the promotion of programming in schools. The single most useful thing *you* could do is to engage with the community in a pro-active and positive way: programming, finding bugs, offering advice in your capacity as an education professional, asking for features, learning what people are up to and *evangelising*.

    All useful contributions would be most welcome!

    However, the crux of the matter is that using misrepresentation as a means of getting a message across immediately discredits the message. If a message is important enough it will stand on its own.

    I trust you’ll take this comment in the spirit in which it was intended: as feedback on the debacle at PyconUK and as an open invitation for *anyone* interested (including *you*) to join in and contribute to make good things happen.

    Best wishes,

    Nicholas.

    Like

  2. teknoteacher says:

    Thanks for your reply, I have edited comments above as you requested.

    We have established that we have some common interests and goals – we both believe that there should be more computing in school and that Python is an ideal language to learn programmiing.

    On October 20th, March 1st and May 17th we are holding network meetings at our school to guide and support teachers who wish to teach children how to program. March 1st will have a particular emphasis on Python. I will also be contributing to another meeting on November 2nd in Manchester. I am very active in the Computing at School community. In addition to this, I am also a member of some other groups that are trying to raise the profile of programming and computing at school, including using Python. I want to make Python more accessible to teachers.

    http://caspreston.eventbrite.com/
    http://casmanchester-eorg.eventbrite.com/
    http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/

    1. Do you think any members of the UK Python community are willing to join the ‘Computing at School’ network and possibly attend CAS network meetings?

    2. When teachers ask if Python is appropriate, what messages do you think we should be spreading?

    3. Should I be encouraging teachers to join the UK Python community, and if so what advantages will it bring them? What response should teachers expect from PyconUK?

    4. What outreach activities can I tell my teaching colleagues that members in the UK Python community are involved in?

    I accept that I upset some Pythonistas on Sunday in my unconventional approach – however, I also received praise from others.

    5. If the BBC had approached the Python community with the proposal I described, to equip every child in the UK with the means to program – what would this include? Are there particular guides, books, resources that you would be recommending? What is already available and in development that would convince the BBC that they should be working with the Python community to develop a CodeLab type initiative?

    6. I worry that when Raspberry Pi is available to schools, the original motives behind the project may not be fully realised. Is it possible that schools facing budget cuts will just see the Pi as a cheap way of resourcing a computer room? There is an opportunity here, in the time before Pi is available to schools – to ensure that schools want to teach programming (including Python) using the Pi. What can we do to preapre the ground beforehands so that it will not be just seen as another way to teach Office applications, word processing, spreadsheets etc?

    Like

  3. Hi,

    1. Do you think any members of the UK Python community are willing to join the ‘Computing at School’ network and possibly attend CAS network meetings?

    Me: Absolutely! Meetings, events and so on are all arranged / advertised via the PythonUK mailing list (see: http://mail.python.org/mailman/listinfo/python-uk). I’d mention your events there and if you have specific people in mind to contact them directly (i.e. off list).

    2. When teachers ask if Python is appropriate, what messages do you think we should be spreading?

    Me: Python is an easy-to-learn yet powerful general purpose programming language that has widespread adoption in industry (Google, NASA, Industrial Light and Magic, Microsoft, many companies in the financial sector, academia [e.g. MIT] and so on – see http://python.org/about/success/) and an open and friendly community of developers who’d love to help.

    3. Should I be encouraging teachers to join the UK Python community, and if so what advantages will it bring them? What response should teachers expect from PyconUK?

    Me: Of course. In fact we already have many teachers and their students who take part in the UK’s Python community. You don’t have to “join” anything ~ stuff just gets organised via the Python-UK mailing list. There are various regular meet-ups in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Cambridge and London. All you need to do is engage and get involved. It’s a great way to ask for help, get advice, learn Python and share experience and knowledge with each other. There is an “official” PythonUK organisation but this is just a front for the organisers of the PyconUK conference (btw, there is talk of a teachers / kids track at next year’s conference).

    4. What outreach activities can I tell my teaching colleagues that members in the UK Python community are involved in?

    I accept that I upset some Pythonistas on Sunday in my unconventional approach – however, I also received praise from others.

    Me: The PythonUK conference, monthly meetings up and down the country – several dojo-like events and many programming projects. The UK Python community isn’t some sort of official organisation – rather, it’s a self-organising, self-sustaining group of developers, companies and other interested parties.

    With regard to the reaction to your talk, I’m afraid I only heard negative comments about the hoax although, as I tried to point out, there is a universal positive response to encouraging programming in schools. That’s an important distinction.

    5. If the BBC had approached the Python community with the proposal I described, to equip every child in the UK with the means to program – what would this include? Are there particular guides, books, resources that you would be recommending? What is already available and in development that would convince the BBC that they should be working with the Python community to develop a CodeLab type initiative?

    Me: There’s a huge amount of resources about learning how to program in Python with a lot of it aimed at kids. Just Google for Python for Kids. There are lots of great books online. Zed Shaw’s “Learn Python the Hard Way” is getting a good buzz at the moment. In fact, Python has the “turtle” module in the core language in order to provide a Logo-like environment for kids to play with. The Python website has lots of resources too and there are many individuals and companies who also provide training and coaching.

    6. I worry that when Raspberry Pi is available to schools, the original motives behind the project may not be fully realised. Is it possible that schools facing budget cuts will just see the Pi as a cheap way of resourcing a computer room? There is an opportunity here, in the time before Pi is available to schools – to ensure that schools want to teach programming (including Python) using the Pi. What can we do to preapre the ground beforehands so that it will not be just seen as another way to teach Office applications, word processing, spreadsheets etc?

    Me: You weren’t paying attention in my lightning talk were you, huh..? 🙂 See my call for a learning environment for learning Python, written in Python by the Python community. Also, the operating system for the RaspberryPi is Linux *not* Windows so, by virtue of its open nature, there are *lots* of opportunities for learning other things than office applications.

    Like

  4. Tony Ibbs says:

    You say “on Saturday morning I told one of the PyconUK team who was going to be the chair for my session that it was a stunt and I would reveal”. In fact, I was the session chair for your talk, and you certainly did not tell me, at any time beforehand, that it was a fake. If you had, I would have refused to be session chair.

    There were a lot of people talking about kids and computing before your talk, and even before the conference – it’s clearly a wide concern in the general programming community. It’s why your talk was so full.

    Yes, many of us were upset. Lying about something people care about will do that.

    Like

    1. teknoteacher says:

      Tony

      On Saturday morning as I was signing in, a PyconUK red shirt approached me. He said he heard me mention my name and introduced himself to me as “Richard”. He told me he was going to be chairing my talk on Sunday. I had never met Richard before – and I hope I have remembered his name correctly. He had long brown straight shoulder length hair, a slight beard and was clearly seen organising throughout the conference.
      I requested we step outside, while outside I clearly spelled out to him that I intended to pull a stunt, that CodeLab was a hoax and that I would reveal it before the end of the talk. I explained that it was a simply a vision in my head, but I was going to describe it as reality in the hope that it would stimulate interest in a national project.

      If Richard ever reads this, I invite him to confirm that this conversation took place as I described.

      I agree with you that kids and computing is a concern in the general programming community.

      Of course, you are perfectly entitled to describe my action as a lie. I would prefer to call it an ‘illusion’, since I spoke as though the vision was already a reality in the way that a magician uses the power of suggestion to make people believe he possesses mystical powers.

      I deeply regret upsetting anyone. I intended to provoke thought and discussion, but fear I may have alienated a community with much to offer.

      Like

  5. Hi Nicholas,
    The teachers in the CAS community would really like to hear about ways in which the Python community can help us 🙂 e.g. training courses in learning Python and using this as a vehicle of understanding Computing Science would be really useful. Having a discussion about what could be put onto the Raspberry Pi to help our youngsters use it in the way it is intended would also be useful.

    CAS have, as Alan says, a number of regional groups who meet once a term, or we could arrange a series of webinars, screencasts or face to face workshops.

    Happy to chat off-list (info AT computingatschool DOT org DOT uk

    Simon

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s