Raspberry Pi in the sky

A Raspberry that gives kids a taste for tinkering (Telegraph)

Raspberry pi computing under the bonnet (Guardian)

Over the past couple of days there’s been a great deal of press coverage over the launch of something called Raspberry Pi, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that with a single stroke the problem of teaching children how to code had been solved. But start asking important questions such as – err – ‘What exactly is Raspberry Pi?‘ – and suddenly there’s an awkward silence. As usual with a ‘techie’-led device there’s a distinct lack of consideration about communicating its features and benefits to a non-techie audience, or indeed of realities of the use the product might or might not get to be used for.

Indeed, for all you non-techies, perhaps you’ll find this ‘QuickStart’ tutorial exciting, informative  and easy to follow?

Or perhaps not. Anyway, as far as I can make out, Raspberry Pi is a small circuit board with a relatively low-powered computer chip that limits its use to the fairly ‘basic’ programming functions of the early micro-computers of the 1980s. But at the same time it’s also very cheap for such a device – about £20 to £30. The main pitch therefore appears to be that ‘every child should be given one’.

But simply handing each child such a device and expecting them to learn how to write code is a bit like giving every child a Latin textbook and expecting them all to magically become Latin scholars. While this approach will certainly assist those children who have good teachers and a real interest in learning programming, for the vast majority it is going to remain inaccessible and unattractive. Or – to extend the analogy made in several newspapers – it’s a bit like giving a child a car-repair manual with the expectation that in future they will all be able to maintain their own cars – appropriate for some in the 1960s and 70s maybe – but now everything is safely hidden away in a black box where you can’t get at it. And anyway, today most people are much less interested in tinkering with how the car works than they are in where it enables them to go.

Raspberry Pi has its merits and the potential to help a number of teachers to teach a number of children about coding. But maybe it’s a bit more of a Humble Pi in terms of a breakthrough resource? What the media, techies and the politicians forget, or fail to understand, is that in the development of an appropriate IT-based curriculum there needs to be a clear and compelling purpose, supported by a good teacher with a sophisticated ability to mentor and support rather than lead and drill. Teachers also need the creativity to design and scaffold exciting appropriate tasks as well as the technical skills to provide support where necessary and is called for. And that while some children may have a particular aptitude for programming, others are going to be more interested in the potential of developing social media, gaming, and designing websites and apps that satisfy human needs and wants.

Meanwhile it’s essential to realise that the IT industry is not all about being able to sit and write a program. These days, collaborative, creative and agile problem-solving, management and communication skills are just as essential.

Teachers who can deliver all this are few and far between, and are already doing it with Arduinos and Lego Mindstorms and various other control kits as well as with established programs like Microworlds. And schools are already full of PCs that can run these programs.

It’s not more cheap and not particularly cheerful kit and kaboodle we need, but more intelligent and widespread support for teachers to help them use and exploit what’s already available.

And meanwhile perhaps the techies should do a bit more user research?

‘For Eben Upton…it is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to long years of thinking and planning. “We have been working on the Pi for six years, but we have never tested it with children – the target market,” he says.’

Oh, and has anyone out there got the faintest idea as to why it’s called Raspberry Pi?

With thanks to Tony Wheeler for his contribution.