Experience vs Qualifications

Yesterday I caused a bit of a Twitterstorm in a cyber cup by suggesting to young people that being able to demonstrate their ability rather than their qualifications might give them a better chance at winning a job.

Admittedly it was a tad brash and I do admit to  taking a certain juvenile pleasure in teasing the Twitter attack dogs over breakfast. I received more than 150 replies, got sucked into Facebook “holy wars” and then finally had to get back to work. Like all good Twitterstorms it was a mixture of derision, agreement and knee jerk reactions suggesting that, well, I might be a bit of a jerk.

My tweet was conceived after reading an item on a section of the BBC website aimed at young people titled “It’s not too late to learn code and here’s why you should“. The gist of the message for young people was that if you learn to code you’ll get a well paid job. Another article that caught my eye had the headline “BBC aims to make programming sexy with new coding TV shows for kids” which pretty much had the same message about the road to riches.


It’s coincidental that both of these articles refer to the BBC. It’s not their fault as they can be easily forgiven due to the tsunami of nonsense that has now permeated every conversation, conference or policy that has anything to do with digital technology in education. It’s as if technology was supposed to be the outcome of learning with it, and as for the path to riches angle, they might as well recommend kids to learn to play guitar so they might be a rock star. That isn’t to say  I don’t think kids should have the opportunity to experience computer programming but, in so far as future employment, programming is a craft as much as playing the guitar and if you all you do is copy the notes then you might play music but you won’t be a star.


But why all this latest noise around “coding”?  Well, here in the UK, after much pressure from the business community including privacy dilettante, Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, computing has been made part of the school curriculum where kids as young as 5 are expected to tinker with code. Given that the UK and the BBC have a fondness for nostalgia when we led the world in computer programming as a result of a national programme based around the BBC Micro in the 1980’s this seemed, at first glance, a good idea. And I think that it’s probably a good thing as after our 80s heyday the UK drifted into teaching kids how to become office workers with technology which was also the advice given to government by business at the time.


These rather strange lurches in education policy present a rather polarised view of how our kids might engage with technology and somehow the digital community managed to steal the words “making”, “makers” and even “creativity” to mean exclusively digital pursuits which is as stupid as teaching STEM disciplines without the arts. But then again when kids are genuinely creative or provocative with technology, amassing a huge following along the way, they getcriminalised by a legal system designed to protect property rather than citizens.


The emphasis around computing in our schools shouldn’t really be on coding at all but providing our children with an understanding of how the digital world, their world, the world we created for them, works. By this I don’t mean staring at a Raspberry Pi and naming components which is what we did in the 1980’s when we learnt about computers. What I mean is understanding how proprietary algorithms work and how they shape and bias our view of the world. This, I believe, should be the learning outcome of the new computing curriculum so that our kids leave school with a degree of intellectual self-defence in the digital world.


Perhaps we could commission a YouTube series called “How to Train your Algorithm” for surely these are the dragons that present and future generations might need to slay.


So coming back to my original tweet which is really about experience vs qualifications. Is it more important to demonstrate skills or show a certificate? I wonder if I read about swimming enough I’ll be able to swim?


I don’t think this is an either/or question but if you could only pick one which would you choose?


While you ponder on that I leave you with this talk that I curated from graffiti artist, Evan Roth, who applies a hacker philosophy to an art practice. It’s a 40 minute talk and absolutely worth watching until the end. The clue is on his T-shirt.


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.