The Times: “Program or Be Programmed”

A lot of computer science in The Times today: a full-page article on page 3 entitled Play the game, but write the software too (£), a four-page pullout on learning how to code, as well as the following leader (£) on page 2:

Program or be Programmed

The best time to start learning the language of computer code is now

void draw() {

The world divides into a majority of people for whom the preceding four lines are meaningless and a minority for whom it is clear at once that, given the right breaks between them, these lines will create on your computer screen a simple clock.

For the majority, the world of software is a built world that, like a city, helps us to organise and to consume. But it has been built by others. For the minority, software is merely a curtain that can be pulled aside to reveal a wild world of confusion, trial and error, but also of potentially unlimited creative and commercial potential. It is time for Britain’s schoolchildren to be granted access to this world.

For a brief period in the 1980s, British schools and universities punched far above their weight in the production of graduates who spoke the language of computers. This was partly a legacy of Britain’s pioneering role in the fundamentals of computer science and partly thanks to the BBC Micro, which appeared in most schools in the country but required a basic understanding of code for even its most basic functions.

The Micro generation went on to dominate the creative side of the computer gaming industry, but mainly in other countries. Since then Britain’s top three universities for computer science — Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, London — have kept their rankings in a global top 20 predictably dominated by the United States. But for a wasted generation, computer science in schools has languished at the expense of something else entirely.

As Michael Gove lamented in a speech in January, the national curriculum’s vision of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) had atrophied to little more than a primer in the use of Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. What pupils got, if they could stay awake, were simple skills that conferred little competitive advantage and in most cases could anyway be self-taught. What they needed was a rigorous but rewarding grounding in code as a foreign language.

At the Education Secretary’s invitation, industry has produced a blueprint for a new computer science curriculum. It would start early. By the end of primary school, pupils would be able to build an app for a mobile phone. By 16 they would be able to write a program to solve a Sudoku puzzle. By 18, if they took computer science at A-Level, they would be able to write the code to guide a van along the shortest route between two points on a digitised map.

Under this scheme, coding would start at 7. Its advocates say this would produce, eventually, the number of computer-literate graduates that British employers need; equip all pupils with the ability to compartmentalise and sequence their thinking as coding requires; and reflect the new reality that no rounded education is complete without an introduction to programming.

It is a compelling case. Some schools may respond that they cannot possibly have enough qualified teachers ready for a curriculum by 2014, when the successor to ICT is due. That is no reason to push back the deadline. It is a reason to speed up the necessary training. That clock on your computer screen is ticking.

While it has been widely reported that industry have taken the lead on developing the new ICT Programme of Study in England, this is not quite correct. It has been coordinated by the BCS and the Royal Academy of Engineering on behalf of the Department for Education, with input from key stakeholders across education, academia, government and industry. They may have been indirectly referring to Computer Science: A Curriculum for Schools, the CAS curriculum which has been endorsed by industry and the examination boards.

N.B. The Times also cleverly demonstrated that programming is non-trivial, by inserting a couple of typos in the code fragment at the start of the article…

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8 thoughts on “The Times: “Program or Be Programmed”

  1. Phillip Kent says:

    Thanks for posting this (I would not look at The Times normally). I understand the oddly mangled code in the leader item. It’s a Processing program, which was published in an article in The Times’ monthly science magazine, Eureka, some months ago. Evidently there wasn’t enough space for it, so it’s been ‘sub-edited’ to fit!

    Here’s the original:

    void setup() {

    void draw() {

  2. RSA says:

    “a minority for whom it is clear at once that… these lines will create on your computer screen a simple clock.”

    I don’t know Processing, and maybe I’m being dense, but I can’t see at all how these lines create a clock. Am I missing something?

    • Phillip Kent says:

      Processing is a super-set of Java, so the overhead of launching a GUI, defining a window, setting up a drawing loop, etc, is all implicit. If you load the above into the Processing IDE, it makes sense.

      • RSA says:

        Thanks. In isolation, the code looks as though it draws three lines from the origin to (60, h), (120, m), and (180 s). Checking it out… It does! (With automatic updates. Cool.) It looks as though I wasn’t misinterpreting the code but rather “a simple clock”.

      • Phillip Kent says:

        You can see the code running here:

        “clock” is an over-interpretation, I do agree. Here’s something more like a clock:

        I don’t see a way to achieve this without trig functions, hence much more complicated.

        As to why the code got mangled – well, you would be assuming that anyone among the journalists preparing the leader article knows anything about programming (in the best tradition of the English aristocracy: it’s good for one to have opinions about things, but god forbid actually knowing about “trade”).

  3. RSA says:

    “As to why the code got mangled…”

    I had a similar experience with a book publisher; they made their best effort, but it was easy to tell that formatting code was new to their typesetting process. I was thinking that it might have been easier to say, “This is like poetry–changing the way it looks will change the meaning.”

  4. [...] The Times: “Program or Be Programmed” ( [...]

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