I’ve been reading newspapers online from back home. People in the UK are always tinkering with education. Like others, I judge them on their ideas, call them crazy, and laugh about how little they understand about anything.
What’s odd is that we always compare the proposed changes with our own education. Which in my case began some thirty years ago.
I’m a computer programmer. And this is the kind of education I had.
Primary school was divided in two: infants (5-7), and juniors (7-11).
Before that came nursery school. I never understood nursery school. You turn up, you play with other kids. Where’s the schooling? Years later, my mum told me that there was teaching, but that I’d been emphatic about playing. School was for playing I said. Home was for learning.
I learnt a lot at home, from an early age. Having a brother 18 months ahead is a great way to just naturally learn.
At junior school we had this great maths system based on boxes of cards. Each box was a different colour, and contained about three hundred cards. You could work at your own pace. It was fan-tas-tic.
The school probably had three computers. BBC micros, running old educational software like grannies garden. You could expect to use one of these about three times, total, only on special occasions.
Secondary school is 11-16.
Now, my secondary school was considered a good quality school. One of the best in the area. Not posh enough for local boys Beckham and Ive to have been to, but good nonetheless. When I got there it had a room (!) full of BBC micros. After a year, they were replaced with a room of Acorn Archimedes.
Never heard of that? Hmm, surprising. Or not surprising at all, because they were computers intended only for education. That’s right, some smartarse in government thought that kids should learn how to use one kind of computer, just so they’d be completely lost when it turned out the rest of the world used PCs. This is why we point at politicians and laugh.
Anyway, so we had computer lessons. No, I’m joking. There were no computer classes. THEY’D ACTUALLY STOPPED TEACHING COMPUTER PROGRAMMING. Gone. Kapoof. No programming lessons at all. They had them in the eighties, but had stopped them.
How? What? Why?
So what did we have? Well, for GCSE, I could take Office Technology. This involved learning to type. To music. Taking dictation. Writing letters. Oh yes, it was fifties secretarial school. I actually didn’t get the top mark in this. Why? Conversation went like this: me: “Do you think I’ll get an A Star?” her: “A what?” So, yeah, didn’t get one.
Somehow I got a B in English Language. Bastards.
On to sixth form (16-18). This was known to be a shitty school. I was tired of travelling on the train. Went to the local school. No friends. Didn’t care.
But they had PCs. They taught PCs. You know what? It was great!
Databases, programming, hacking.
Computing A-Level, ka-ching! Wonderful.
During this time, my brother borrowed the 1600baud modem from his school. You have no idea how slow this thing was. We couldn’t pay for AOL, so I spent hours online to various bulletin boards. Our monthly phone bill went up from 10 to 80 pounds a month. My parents were very forgiving. I upgraded to 14.4k. Wow. And then 28.8k, 36.6k, 56k. I loved being online.
Anyway, On to university (18-21). A prestigious one.
Oh my god.
Green screen terminals. Only. In the computer department. Some neck beard bleating about how they were better, if only you’d spend every hour of the day configuring it. How cursor keys that actually worked were a dumb idea.
I hated it. You know what, they had colour PCs in the library. I used those.
I really wish they could have caught my interest there. In retrospect the material was useful, but god they made it so hard to stay interested.
More lectures? Just kill me.
They assumed no computer skills at all to start with. Computing A-Level was not a prerequisite. So the first year was three quarters ignorable. Not a good start.
The Internet was taking off, but these guys did not care. I wasn’t allowed to install a phone line in my room to run a modem. It was so hard.
What an amazing waste of 150 energetic ambitious students, who could have done so much.
My education was terrible.
I imagine computer education now must be different because work life is so different. The Internet and OSS bridged the gap between abstract education and applied ideas. I imagine students these days are burning hours on GitHub. Brilliant.
My advice to them: you’ll never again have as much time as you do now. Try everything. Obsess over something. Get into Open Source in a big way, even if you’re just helping on the fringes. Make mistakes. Learn things.
And try to ignore us adults as we tinker with your education.
You see, we grew up in a very different world. No laptops, no mobile phones, no Internet.
And that’s how we imagine school is still.