Zen and the Art of the Computing Curriculum

“The whole is other than the sum of its parts.” Kurt Koffka

There seems to have been a resurgence in debate about curriculum, at least amongst the blogging classes. This interest has perhaps been driven by the freedoms created through a slimmed down National Curriculum and removal of NC levels, and perhaps also by arguments in favour of a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum being made convincingly by some. Whatever the reason, I welcome this shift in focus and see it is an opportunity for teachers to wrestle back some professional autonomy.

In the subject of Computing, however, there is somewhat of an existential crisis which needs to be resolved, as suggested by the fluidity of what the subject is called. We have moved from ICT, to IT, to Computing & IT, Computing or Computer Science. The subject is struggling to settle on an identity and its practitioners to agree on why the subject exists. Without a clear purpose, making sound decisions about what to teach is impossible.

The Govian rationale

Michael Gove was the catalyst for this existential crisis. Almost overnight, the bread and butter of ICT teaching, learning how to use application software, was devalued and debunked. Instead, computer programming was hailed as ‘what the economy needs’. Gove’s vision for an economy leading the way internationally in software development, a nation of programmers rather than secretaries, created a hierarchy of knowledge in the subject whereby using an application was ‘low value’ but knowing how to engineer it was deemed a more worthwhile pursuit.

Many educationalists are repelled by the notion that schools might exist to ensure a future workforce have the skills to generate economic prosperity. I don’t have a problem with this being part of the mission (although in my mind not the primary goal). However, wealth generation is not a mission that gets me out of bed in the morning, and I find Gove’s rationale for the existence of the subject in the school curriculum rather… uninspiring. Besides which, Gove’s economic logic is flawed even on its own capitalist merits. We simply don’t need a nation of programmers; we need an elite group who are highly skilled. What we do need is a nation of people who can use the internet, databases, spreadsheets and graphic applications. These skills might not generate as much economic value but they have high personal value as individuals navigate the modern world and seek employment.

To use or to create?

When viewed from the perspective of what the economy/individuals ‘need’, deciding what to teach in the Computing curriculum is quite simple. On the one hand, the subject needs to equip all students with the ability to use computers for everyday and common work-related purposes. On the other hand, we need to inspire and equip a generation of programmers. The latter purpose requires some introductory computer science content pre-GCSEs before allowing some students to specialise in this side of the subject.

Whilst the above approach is pragmatic, it leaves Computing as a divided subject. Indeed, in our school we call it ‘Computing and IT’, a recognition that what we now have is a forced marriage of two disciplines, with separate purposes, differing origins and distinct pedagogies.

The economic view of why the subject exists has no way of reconciling the divisions within the subject. Whilst we impose a functionalist perspective on the subject’s purpose/s, it will remain a marriage of unequals, the low-status IT forever subservient to the high-value Computing.

To reconcile the divisions described, we need to find a more meaningful reason for the subject of Computing to exist. A starting point may be to consider our relationship with technology. Let’s turn to the 1970’s for help.

Understanding how the motorcycle works

“The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barrier of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is – not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footsteps on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.”
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Computers are things of wonder. What is now possible as a result of digital technology would not only have been unimaginable to past generations but is almost magical to the vast majority of people today. We can comprehend what it is that computers have made possible but few can comprehend how this is actually possible.

We can see the lady sawn in half, we know it is not magic, but goodness knows how it is done!

The almost magical nature of modern technology is due to what is called ’emergent behaviour’ in systems theory. This is the phenomenon whereby the whole (system) has properties its parts do not have. These properties come about because of interactions among the parts. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as the saying goes.

However, technology seems to have progressed beyond simple emergent behaviour. The functionality of computer systems seems so far removed from what should be possible by combining a computer’s component parts that there is a disconnect in our understanding of what we know we can do with computers and how on earth this is possible. [This is evident when you teach binary to children and explain to them that the strings of 0s and 1s are the entire basis for all computer processing – they simply cannot conceive that this is possible given what they have seen computers do.]

Perhaps a better description of the behaviour of modern computer systems is, in the words of Kurt Koffka, that “the whole is other than the sum of its parts”. This quote (mis-translated in common usage, as above) comes from the Berlin School of experimental psychology. The saying has been misappropriated by systems theorists and in fact does not relate to the emergent behaviour of systems, rather the tendency of the human mind to perceive the whole of something as independent of the parts of which it comprises. However, the quote seems apt to our experience of technology today. We can no longer conceive how our experience of the technological world which we are emerged in can possibly relate to the circuits and electrical currents which drive our virtual world.

The disconnect between our experience of technology and our understanding of how it works was identified by Robert M. Pirsig in his novel ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, published way back in 1974. Pirsig highlights the frustration and dissatisfaction with modern life which arises, he argues, from technology becoming so complex that the user ceases to understand it, or to be able to engage with the concepts that underpin its design and functionality.

The motorcycle analogy in the title exemplifies this conflict. The act of riding the motorcycle is, to the romantic, a joyous experience, almost magical. However, there arises a deep frustration with the technology when the motorcycle requires maintenance which, without an understanding of the mechanics of the vehicle, must be carried out by someone else. The narrator promotes an understanding of the engineering of the motorcycle achieved through carrying out one’s own maintenance and, in doing so, coming to understand the ideas behind what the machine is; creating a synergy between the user and the machine, between the materials and the human ingenuity that created the whole.

“You go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It’s the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that’s fundamental. John looks at his motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.”

The ‘dehumanizing’ effect of technology is a theme throughout the book and Pirsig’s nameless narrator seeks a way to reconnect with our creation through experiencing the romantic joy of the technology’s use and understanding how this experience is delivered through an intimacy with the human ideas which lie behind the machinations.

Pirsig’s insight is that technology is “not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both”. This ‘transcendence’ is the Wow! factor which makes the subject of Computing appealing and fascinating to the teenage mind. Pirsig points to the shared cultural transcendent moments, such as the moon landing, but argues that “this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way”.

This ‘personal transcendence’ achieved by an individual fusing their ideas with the available technology to create something new and ‘greater (or even ‘other’) than the sum of its parts’ is a good start to establishing a mission statement for Computing as a subject. But this romantic notion of technology is in itself not sufficient. There must also be a rational understanding of how this technology has come to be and of the concepts and ideas which humans have conceived before this technology could be created. Without understanding how technology comes to be there will remain a disconnect between human and machine, which will breed suspicion and frustration.

Towards a meaningful existence

Pirsig’s novel, and the philosophical ideas upon which he draws, offer us an alternative to the purely economic rationale for the existence of Computing as a subject, and also a potential way to reconcile the two parts of the subject.

As stated previously, we do not have to reject the functional view that Computing prepares students with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed, either as elite programmers, office workers or in managing their personal finances. However, we can aim higher than this in forming a driving mission for the subject.

Perhaps we can begin by seeking to educate students in the ways in which technological machines are greater than the sum of their parts; that the emergent behaviour of the systems we have created is powerful and transformational.

We might then explore how the technological world, the web of machines and the artificial intelligence which begins to arise, is other than the sum of its parts; truly changing the way humans live their lives and even how they conceive of their existence.

At a personal level, we might aim to give each student a transcendent experience, showing them what becomes individually possible when they fuse their human capacity to generate ideas with the technological capacity to deliver them.

And we might teach students to overcome the dehumanizing effect of technology by educating them in the mechanics; not just the technicalities of the machine’s operation, but the big ideas behind its design. The motorcycle maintenance.

I don’t expect that what we decide to teach would be very different as a result of this re-conception of the subject. I suspect we would still spend some time creating spreadsheets, teaching binary, understanding networks and learning how to search the internet. But perhaps how we engage students in the subject would change if we had a compelling vision for its place in the curriculum. Perhaps, as teachers of the subject, we might be more united and proud of our subject, elevating it above the shameful Govian ‘skills for work’ brand to a subject which is essential in understanding the world, like Geography or History.

If the subject is ever to be more than the sum of its disparate parts, we need a driving purpose and vision for its place in the school curriculum. And we need to decide what we are going to call it!

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