Training vs Learning: Computer Science in Schools

The Difference Between Learning and Training

Learning is usually an open format for exploration, without absolutely specific goals, knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It's what we learn in schools and universities, we learn the curriculum as foundation for further expansion of knowledge.  Learning is about levels of knowledge, which in academics merit different grades.

Training is usually about specific skills and "doing". At the end of a training course participants should be able to complete distinct tasks or functions, have developed skills they didn't have before.

There is a growing belief from some in Britain, such as the £2bn a year computer games industry and UK Education Minister Michael Gove, that computer science should be offered in the curriculum of second level education. It's interesting to see if it will be a traditional learning course or greater integration with aspects of training.

Raspberry Pi Gives a Taste for Coding

Raspberry Pi Model B

The Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized, simple computer aimed at schools and teaching pupils the lost art of computer programming.  Kids are very computer literate these days with smart phones and iPads, but they have no idea of their inner workings - only how to wield them as a tool. Many devices won't even let you play with the code or have any access to the hardware what so ever, one of the reasons why many more technically minded people prefer Android phones over iPhones. The former lets you play with the code like a computer of old, where as the latter has it locked away and you need to 'jail break' the phone to alter or amend the system.

A Spark or a Dud

Could this idea be a catalyst to the goals of the 'knowledge economy'? Kids in Britain learn Microsoft Office in their ICT courses (Information and Communications Technologies) which is nonsense as by the time they're adults that could be a footnote in history. They need to teach more widely applicable and insightful knowledge about the building blocks of such technology, that won't go out of date.

In Dan Meyer's TED Video, 'Math Class Needs a Makeover',  he argues convincingly that present math classes are like episodes of the least imaginative sit-coms; thin, highly predictable and always resulting in overly neat and unrealistic outcomes. They create "an impatience with irresolution".  Students are always given just the right amount of facts they need, unlike real life where we have too little or too much information. Instead Meyer starts a conversation, which clarifies the problem and then the maths structure in applied later when the students are engaged with a more realistic situation. This reordering of the questions' presentation creates greater interest in the students and develops patient problem solving.

Too much immediate gratification is unhelpful, but it must be balanced with timely rewards. If the pay off for work or effort is too far down the line or too small, there will be a lack of interest and huge drop-out rates (except from the people who would go to computer science in university anyway).

That said, it is better have the computer science course than not have it. It could be the experience to spark an ongoing fascination with computing, or the broader impact of conveying to kids that there are multiple ways of thinking and approaching problems.  Processes that used to take days of grunt work even five years ago now take mere hours by software automating large blocks of code behind the scene, which is useful even for professional software engineers.

This allows greater time for novel application and creativity. But the crucial difference is that the professionals know what underlies the tools they use. The danger is that pupils will go from one extreme to another, from thin training processes that have little wider application than Microsoft Office, all the way to doing all the grunt work and not getting to the creative part at all. It's a careful balance - you want to delay overly simple gratification, but you still have to give the reward.

The Value of a Good Plan

Gen. George S Patton March 3rd 1943

With our own training in SelfAssemblySites we took the view that we would teach sound guiding principles of building websites and that it would be accessible to non-techies and techies alike. Being accessible is crucial as it removes the fear factor. Many websites that teach "how to design websites" tend to show how to use specific tools, but little else. Users can quickly and easily build bad websites.

Bad in that they don't serve the  owner's purpose well or give value to visitors so the site is not used to its full potential for anyone. They neither know how the tool works nor how to use it, like being given a car and not having a clue about how an engine or clutch work, not to mention being able to drive. We wanted to give more at each end of the spectrum around using the tool. We wanted to give clear thinking and the methods to work out what the purpose of the website is and clear routes to achieve its goals from it's inception. Even a little strategic planning can be crucial. As General George S Patton said;

A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow

Planning isn't sexy, and for non-project managers it's difficult to sell the idea that it's not only helpful but grows results and prevents wastes of time and resources like nothing else. Its like attempting to sail an ocean without a map or a clear destination and then wondering why you're not making good progress, and that's presuming you can sail. So we are adding an option that reduces planning to the absolute core essentials in a bid for people to do some planning rather than none.

Like the Dan Meyer video earlier, we're starting the conversation with 'why have a website?', clarifying the 'problem' we want to work out which in this instance is the goal of the website to be attained, and then applying the 'structure' or in this case the strategy to get to that outcome. Slightly more thought and a small delay in gratification lead to a much more effective reward.

Proof of Unknown Ability


Our QuickStart course is great for building confidence rapidly, people get that initial victory and see through their own experience that it's possible to build your own website. It's not about instant gratification, it takes concentration and a little work but the rewards are significant. The focus and effort gives the reward greater value. Most build the basic structure of a site in about 90 minutes.

From this point of proven ability, people can expand in either direction; the arty stuff of content creation where visitors find the value, or they can start playing with the code fro greater fuctionality. WordPress sits on top of html and css code and we have a number of modules which show users how to alter it, giving insights into how the code sticks together and works. There are many ways of doing things so many possible answers.

So to return to the car analogy, at SelfAssemblySites we're teaching people to drive as well as having a sound knowledge of how the car works, but they won't quite be able to rebuild an engine from scratch. We teach the open exploratory nature of learning evergreen concepts that won't just change with technology and mixing that with the definitive skills of being able to build, manage and utilise many aspects of a website that come from training. The open exploratory learning mixed with a definitive skills set.

Maybe we need more of that in schools. How often do we remember asking of so many subjects, most notably maths, 'why do we need to learn this, when are we going to use it again?'. With more definitive practical applications of training mixed with open ended exploratory learning, maybe we can make a change for the better.

About Alistair McBride

Al is the non-techie of the SelfAssemblySites' founding duo. His first businesses were in cultural tours, then later art dealing and consulting. He was SelfAssemblySites' first user and believes if he can do it, anyone can.

He has a wide and diverse range of interests and passions, core of which are usually art, psychology and innovation, and works on both profit and non-profit projects.

Alistair truly believes that a website can be a catalyst to making any idea reality in the 21st Century. You can create all sorts of non-profit and for profit projects take-off with a good website as your launch pad.

Follow him on Twitter at @WebsiteCoaching.

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