For those of you who read Douglas Adams, it’s obvious that 42 is the answer. To life, the universe, and everything. But teaching computing? What’s perhaps less well known is that Douglas Adams wrote extensively about technology in newspapers and magazines, and a number of his writings were collected after his death into ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ (book or Kindle), a fascinating read for many reasons. The discussion that made me start drafting this entry appears in several of the articles, including a lecture he gave in 1998 about God. I’m not going to discuss the philosophical discussion behind it, but the thing that stood out to me was the importance that he placed on understanding a bit about how computers work, in order to apply the concepts learned to evolution, and thereby philosophy. It’s the way of thinking that’s important, not the particular programming language or gadget that’s used, and the relevance is far wider than making Scratch the Cat dance.
On understanding the process of evolution as building up from the very simple to the complex: “The silicon chip enables us to… model the… simple processes that are analogous to life in terms of their simplicity; iteration, looping, branching, the feedback loop that lies at the heart of everything you do on a computer and at the heart of everything that happens in evolution… Anybody who’s ever looked at the way a computer program works, knows that very, very simple iterative pieces of code, each line of which is tremendously straightforward, give rise to enormously complex phenomena in a computer… The speed and the means by which enormous simplicity gives rise to enormously complex results… is increasingly part of all our mental grammars, because we are used to the way computers work. So suddenly, evolution ceases to be such a real problem to get hold of.”
Clearly Adams’ exposure to how computers work made it easier for him to understand concepts in other disciplines. This underlines why I believe the inclusion of Computing in the curriculum is important – not because the UK has a skills shortage, but because it helps with a broader way of thinking. Which leads me on to another entry for later – the assertion that we should focus more on the thinking and less on the gadgets.
To close, I leave you with Douglas Adams’ rules to describe our reaction to technology:
- Anything that’s in the world when you are born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
- Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
- Anything that’s invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.
So how do we pursuade teachers over 35 that computational thinking is a worthwhile topic to teach…? And yes, I am over 35.