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.

4 comments on “Raspberry Pi in the sky

  1. When will education wake up to the fact that we are all different and celebrate this for the sound evolutionary reason that we absolutely need diversity to grow, individually and collectively?

    I am not against programming and extreme geekery, the problem is that politicians have seen this as an opportunity to exploit the geeks who think it is exclusively the most important thing and are marketing it as the latest golden bullet to solve all our problems.

    We need to keep shouting it’s not “education education education…” it’s “good teachers, good teachers, good teachers…” Bottom line, without capable, well supported and valued teachers no centralised initiatives or new bit of kit, however cheap and cheerful, will make a blind bit of difference.

    Schools should absolutely not be forced into blanket teaching of computer science (even if we could find the teachers to do it). We urgently need to provide a diverse and rounded experience of digital literacy. Fundamentally it (IT?) is as much to do with end user experience as it is to circuit boards and Unix code. In this respect ICT (which along with D&T was the only area of the NC originally defined as a true capability) was spot on. The problem, as with D&T, 21st century science, PSHE and many other integrated initiatives, was that teachers were not prepared or supported in delivering it.

    And rather than bashing the education system, why are we not celebrating the fantastic digital achievements we have already conceived nurtured and developed in the UK, from ARM holdings, through Jonathan Ive, to BBC online, none of which I suspect stemmed from mono dimensional school based experiences of computer coding!

    Personally I think the opportunity looks more like this:

    But the relative importance is entirely personal and it seems to me that it’s education’s job to find out what each learner finds most compelling and help them develop their interests appropriately. Not force them down cul-de-sacs that will put them off any of it forever.

  2. Meanwhile Derrick comes up with a 21st century approach: ‘Thinking about this..an app that recreates the physical computer board of the simple computer and then has an interface that shows what basic coding is would be much easier and cheaper to distribute. Dragging and dropping the parts to assemble the computer from its components…. ‘.

  3. Further thoughts from Derrick and Tony:

    Is coding more important than creativity?

    Is coding the new woodwork?

    I don’t think coding and creativity are “either-ors” but “ands”. Coding is a medium, like drawing or painting, you can do it by numbers, or turn it all inside out and break the conventions in your drive to make something worthwhile…

    And if coding is the new woodwork, it can be follow my leader pipe racks or memphis room dividers. Sadly without lots of support I think there are likely to be more coded pipe racks in schools than post modernist assemblages.

    I absolutely agree with Derrick’s virtual Raspberries. Skip back to the 90s and we had a wide range of exciting virtual tools for kids to explore this, WIdget Workshop http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m5iooep4Eg Logal science explorer etc etc.

    Crocodile clips Yenka software and Lego mindstorms offer some of this already on a desktop. But I have to say again, good though all this stuff was/is and we sold a lot of it at TAG, I know the boxes sat on shelves with the cellophane unopened and the software resources uninstalled well away from the hungry minds of young people…!

  4. It does seem it’s a technology-led product – especially when being pushed as “great for media players” and the like – but the Foundation claim to be producing material for it to be used for education.

    It’s a great gadget – especially for geeks – but to meet the educational aspirations there needs to be a lot more to it than just the hardware or price. It fits with current government thinking that ‘what this country needs is programmers’ but I’m not convinced of that and I have my suspicions that this was just the vehicle to enable the Foundation to achieve its low costs of hardware from suppliers.

    The Foundation seems to be missing in action since the first sale but hopefully will be back and showing what they intend to produce for the educational market which they claim is their rationale for their existence.

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