Lottie Dexter on Newsnight

This post was originally a Facebook post in response to the following article and the appearance of Lottie Dexter, the director of the Government’s Year of Code initiative, on BBC’s Newsnight. The clip can be viewed on this website: http://politicalscrapbook.net/2014/02/tory-boss-of-government-coding-education-initiative-cant-code-lottie-dexter/, and the page on the government initiative is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/year-of-code-and-500000-fund-to-inspire-future-tech-experts-launched.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate here: I don’t see this as a major issue. Firstly, she doesn’t know how to code, but she’s going to go through the process of learning, so she’ll have first hand experience of learning modern coding standards and technologies. Hopefully the process will be similar to, or a replica of, how they intend to teach it in schools, allowing the government to see what works and what doesn’t. Arguably, this process should have happened prior to creating the curriculum, but was obviously rushed through to get it out before election time.

Secondly, it’s not her job to actually teach children how to code. She’s in charge of running a campaign to raise awareness of why we need to learn to code (which she was asked in the interview and gave a decent response to), and to show people that learning to code is accessible to everyone. Really, she’s the ideal candidate for the job – she has prior experience running campaigns and communicating with the public, she’s young, and most importantly, she doesn’t know how to code. If you’re trying to get young people interested in something, you need someone they can relate to, and I’m pretty sure a young person with no coding experience would relate to a young person with no coding experience far more than a seasoned programmer who started talking about unfamiliar terms like variables and functions as soon as they were asked about code. For a young person, surely seeing someone say they don’t know how to code but that they’re going to learn because it’ll open up so many more possibilities, and then actually learning, is the best thing to inspire them?

I think the whole ‘learning to code in an hour’ was a bit of a bad choice, but it was likely more aimed at getting teachers involved. From the government’s own site on the Year of Code:

“The Year of Code campaign will see a series of events take place over the next 12 months to promote computing. It will include a week-long programme in March encouraging all schools to teach every pupil at least one hour of coding in that week.”

I think this is what she was referring to. They’re trying to get schools to teach at least one hour, but hopefully more. By saying you can learn to code in an hour, it’ll encourage teachers and schools to find an hour during that week to give pupils an introduction to coding at least. But yeah, it’ll take more than an hour to learn anything useful.

I also take issue with this statement on the above site:

“And after an embarrassing pause while she struggled to explain what computer programming was, she told Paxman:

“It doesn’t mean anything to you, or indeed to me yet because I don’t know how to code””

The pause wasn’t really that embarrassing, she was just taking the time to construct a well thought out answer that anyone can understand, which I think she did perfectly. BTW, the site left out her actual answer to the question, which was:

“Code is the language you use to instruct computers, so it’s how you make computers do things.”

Now, I think that’s a perfectly fine, non technical answer that anyone can understand. It’s a shame that our current expectation of anyone in government is to answer questions without taking the time to actually think, and that when someone does pause to think it’s seen as an embarrassment.

I agree she should have been a bit more prepared for her appearance on Newsnight, but I think people have misunderstood what her role is. I’d say let’s see how well she does learning to code. It’ll be a good test of the government’s curriculum, and will be a lot more visible a lot sooner than any Ofsted report.