Tag Archives: Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins on computer science

In a polemic in The Guardian today, Simon Jenkins argues for a(nother) shake up of the UK’s education system, with less focus on STEM and computer science in particular.

This kind of misinformed ranting on the utilitarian view of STEM and why the UK should focus on being a service industry appears to be his CiF modus operandi — see a similar post from February on mathematics education. In particular, he displays a profound misunderstanding of the difference between digital skills/competencies and the rigorous academic discipline of computer science, as well as a lack of awareness of the profound changes to computing education in England from September for all pupils from age five onwards. He also doesn’t appear to be aware of the increasing demands from pretty much every industrial sector for high-value digital skills (both user and creator skills); see the recently published interim report from the UK Digital Skills Taskforce: Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World. As for the perceived high unemployment rates for computer science graduates? Well, this isn’t the full picture and is also discussed in detail in the Taskforce report.

While it is tempting to deconstruct and refute his article line by line, I will just link to an excellent response from Chris Mairs, Chief Scientists at Metaswitch Networks and Chair of the UK Forum for Computing Education.

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Simon Jenkins on mathematics education

There has been much discussion online of yesterday’s CiF article by Simon Jenkins (For Britain’s pupils, maths is even more pointless than Latin). Click-bait aside, he has been here before; ignoring the derivation of the now-pervasive “x is the new Latin” meme, as well as overlooking the majority of the straw men and other logic fallacies, the main thrust of the article presents a false dichotomy. It appears to reiterate an antiquated Two Cultures-type of divide between mathematics and “creativity and social and emotional capacities” (which also frequently crops up in discussions on programming and computer science education). Furthermore, it implies the drive to reform mathematics education in the UK is ultimately misguided, with few jobs requiring advanced mathematical skills (STEM agenda? No thank you!), and we would be better served by focusing on numeracy as well as encouraging “key industries”:

If British schools are to be slaves to Gove’s economic dogma, they should be turning out accountants, lawyers, administrators and salespeople. That is where the money is. Britain needs literate and presentable young people, sensitive to culture and the world around them, skilled in health, entertainment, finance, the law and citizenship. The truth is that Gove, like most of Cameron’s ministers, is an old socialist planner at heart.

 
Now, this is not to say that there are no issues with mathematics education in the UK; ACME has been arguing for a mathematics curriculum fit for the 21st century, supported by Ofsted and reports highlighting the importance of mathematics in the other sciences. Conrad Wolfram has long maintained we have the wrong focus in how we teach mathematics — in a similar way for computer science, contexts and problems must come first. I have long maintained it is socially acceptable to be bad at mathematics — it is rare for people to publicly admit they are unable to read or write, but happily proclaim a lifelong inability to perform basic calculations.

Jenkins has thus thrown together a ragbag of prejudices (a love of the arts, a dislike of international education markers, a sympathy for progressive education) with personal anecdote and concocted an argument completely detached from reality. As epitomised by this quote:

I learned maths. I found it tough and enjoyable. Algebra, trigonometry, differential calculus, logarithms and primes held no mystery, but they were even more pointless than Latin and Greek. Only a handful of my contemporaries went on to use maths afterwards.

 
…which reminds me of this xkcd comic:

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