Like captured fireflies

I dealt with boredom and unhappiness in my A-levels by playing with computers and algorithms.

My friends and I sat in maths lessons trying to devise fractal formulae, plotting the results with pencil on graph paper. In a computer lesson, rather than learn how to use an early version of Microsoft Word, a friend wrote a program that created a folder, entered it and created another. This iterated along until the growing tree of folders crashed the school network. In a lunch break we discovered we could access the printer system, and changed the welcome message on the headteacher’s printer.

Several of us went on to learn to program through open source projects. Two of us wrote the prototype code for an online encyclopedia, but ours was no match for Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia. We never went on a formal course, we just learned by reading, playing, and observing others’ work. The open source culture of collaboration, play and excellence set us in good stead.

I was reminded of this when on a visit with London Assembly Members and staff to ‘Tech City’ in east London. Faced with a skills gap that universities and colleges aren’t filling, entrepreneurs have set up their own bootcamps to teach people to code in just a few months.Their ethos is infused with open source programming culture, and they teach the very latest technology.

Schools are starting to get in on the act, too, teaching children to program from a young age. But what are we teaching them? How can we possibly know what skills an 8 year old will need when they leave university? The latest skills shortage is data science – unforeseen by most a few years ago. What will we need in ten years time when that 8 year old leaves school?

Could the Tech City bootcamps and school coding clubs teach not just the skills used today, but the open source culture that led me to keep learning?

I ended up studying philosophy at university, and working in journalism, sustainable construction and politics. Had I asked a career advisor in the late 1990s, I wouldn’t have been encouraged to learn programming or GIS. But in recent years I’ve used both skills to understand and communicate political failures on air pollution, traffic reduction and rising rents.

What I learned at school, when I wasn’t paying enough attention to the teacher, was the value of play, exploration and collaboration. I can’t begin to predict what skills I’ll need in ten or thirty years time, but I’m going to enjoy learning them. I still enjoy a sense of wonder when I find I can apply a new skill to unlocking a problem faster, or more creatively, than before. I’ve learned how to learn for myself, and I’m inflamed by curiosity.

That’s probably the most valuable thing that schools, universities and Tech City bootbamps can instil in pupils. As John Steinbeck put it, we should bring new facts or truths shielded in our hands like captured fireflies.