Tuesday 14 December 2010

Programming Freedom: From therapy to emancipation via computer science

I've recently spent some time helping struggling students to learn Java in my university. In the UK (as I guess elsewhere) many young people who struggle with the traditional academic curriculum find their way into studying technology courses: this is often driven by schools and colleges themselves, who see this as the best way the students can get 'a result', and consequently the league table score of the institution will also benefit. It's often justified by the students and their parents that learning a technology skill will help gain them employment. This is true in a sense - but it really depends on what we mean by 'skill'. In particular, it demands a distinction is made between 'easy' skills (from browsing the web, for example - to maybe creating a mashup - which is perhaps at the harder end of easy skills) and 'hard' skills. In computing, the hard skill is programming, and in my university - which is a university which focussed on giving life chances to these types of students - less that 15% of the year's intake typically develop anything like solid proficiency in the hard skill of programming. This inevitably impacts on their ability to find employment.

I conducted a little survey with these students: http://tinyurl.com/progquest.I was interested in how they approached 'hard' things. How did it make them feel? If it stressed them, how did they deal with this? How did their achievement of deeper goals in life depend on being able to deal with difficult things better? What opportunities might they see in learning to program which could help them to deal with difficult things in general? The responses were interesting.

One of the key things which leaps out from the responses I got was the sheer leap of faith that students commit to when embarking on education. When asked "how are you going to achieve what you want", a common answer was "through hard work". But it was also clear that 'hard work' stressed them out in a way which was not conducive to solving hard problems. This looks like a classic double-bind: "I can only achieve success in difficult things through hard work" vs "hard work will stress me out and stop me being able to solve difficult problems". There is a prohibition in being able to talk about failure because the reason why they're allowing themselves to be caught in this is "I need to get a degree".

In conversation (amd maybe only in conversation) I found that I could explore this more deeply. But the double-bind does seem to revolve around difficult things, hard work and the management of emotion when dealing with living.

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