Is Code School the New High School?

Learning to Code, 2016

Once upon a time, in the days of Napster free music downloading, and the huge controversy and debate that engendered, about digital rights and intellectual property, around then, I was invited to teach a code school set up by the police department in Hillsboro, Oregon, in the heart of the Silicon Forest. Why?

The police were frustrated as their new role was to come in to the public schools and lecture on the evils of stealing or “pirating” as we were learning to call illegal copying. The intellectual property lawyers were keen to instill strong capitalist values in the coming generation and what better time than in school?

However these police were well aware of GNU / GPL, Linux, Creative Commons and all the open source stuff happening, intentionally free stuff. Might we tell the kids about all that, encouraging them to stay on the Internet in a way that was advantageous to growing a skill set? Why scare them away from their favorite new intellectual endeavor?

The Hillsboro police chief at the time, of Chinese immigrant heritage, authorized a “tuXlab” (Linux-learning classroom) be built in West Precinct, not unlike what the Shuttleworth Foundation had set up around the Republic of South Africa (RSA), along with Freedom Toasters.

Freedom Toaster, By Lioshenka — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I would learn more about tuXlabs in coming chapters, such as when I actually joined Mark Shuttleworth and his international team, for a confab in Kensington, Greater London. Guido van Rossum was there, the inventor of Python, along with experts in various pedagogical techniques and computer languages. Alan Kay, of Squeak and Smalltalk fame, also joined us, conveying regrets from one of Logo’s inventors, the South African born Seymour Papert (February 29, 1928 — July 31, 2016), feeling too old for international jet travel.

Kids from the post-Apartheid projects, from the ghettos, the townships, were very hungry for hands-on experience with computers and would not tolerate schooling without them. Every South African deserved an opportunity to master the power tools of their generation, as a birthright that none should deny them — that was their attitude.

I worked with the Hillsboro police through Saturday Academy, along with Jerritt Collord, then of LinuxFund, to staff up the police chief’s code school for a pilot run. Let’s get some school aged students and give it a whirl.

I’ve provided more details in my journals, as to how all that went (mixed results, would have made more sense in the schools).

For me, the Hillsboro experience was another gig in a series of pilots, including later at Reed College, where I got to pioneer my Digital Mathematics in much more detail. My Heuristics for Teachers is at Wikieducator.

Later still, many years after gigs in Chicago, London, Sweden and Lithuania (all Python related), came the full time gig with the O’Reilly School of Technology, staffing their multi-level Python track (Python is a computer language). That school, a code school, also taught JavaScript, Perl, PHP, C++, Java, XML/HTML, Android, and a few other topics (the course materials are still online).

I’ve by now seen code schools from many angles, serving people from many walks of life and at many age levels. That doesn’t mean I’ve seen it all or that I won’t keep learning more. I’ve also been a high school mathematics teacher full time too. So no wonder these institutions all blend together, at least in my own grey matter.

Code School in Portland, Oregon

More recently, I was invited to give a guest course inside Portland’s Business Accelerator building, in support of a fledgling code school just down the street, one PDX Code Guild managed by Sheri Dover. I was to give some overview, then dive into Python, all within the space of a few evenings. My audience included people brand new to coding. Not all were that good at typing either. Coming up with an outline was a bit of a challenge and I started my intro with the story of The Turk.

The Turk was a hoax, a magic trick, which made it appear a machine was actually controlling this manikin with a turban, and winning at chess against real humans. In fact, a diminutive expert chess player and puppet operator was squeezed into the box, the co-conspirator of the showman in charge.

Hoaxers kept this magic act alive for several years, and even managed to score a gig playing against Napoleon, who lost. I’ve always wondered how Napoleon’s metaphysics might’ve been forever changed in that moment, as he realized the looming power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) before its time.

The idea, of automated intelligence, was believable even then. The archetype goes back to Greek times and before. We’ve always felt at least part robot.

Nowadays we take chess-playing computers for granted, and Google has one that plays Go, even harder to program, as it had to teach itself.

I like telling this Turk story because I think it brings up the ambivalence we feel towards automatons and automatic processes even to this day. As job doers, role players, we’re in competition with our machines, our computers, to the extent our work is machine learnable.

Given the Calvinist teaching that only those who work deserve to live, the rise of AI is today perceived as an existential threat, as Protestant memes are still prevalent.

However, our machines don’t just replace us and turn us loose to go graze in the fields or surf the net. They place us in the predicament of needing to coexist and cooperate with them. They require a lot more than mere maintenance; they require programming.

Mastery of automation means learning to code, and that’s why the kids in South Africa so wanted those tuXlabs, so they might develop this mastery. In Hillsboro, the police saw the same hunger, especially in children of immigrants. Having a piece of the American Dream would necessitate such skill-building. The police were for sharing, not scaring.

Maker Space: Hedron (Portland, Oregon)

What we jokingly referred to as “the three Rs”, reading, writing and arithmetic, have always been the business of schools to pass on. The torch of civilization goes from generation to generation via this process we call “getting an education”.

However, these days, the “three Rs” have a new face, thanks to the rise of the printing press, typography, computers, telecommunications, and storage media. We’re all desktop publishers today, at least potentially, and our handiwork is freely world readable, copiable, downloadable thanks to “the cloud”.

Computer literacy is just plain literacy anymore. We don’t value reading, writing and arithmetic the same way, if that means doing all these things manually. We need to do things industrially. Our communications stay at a disadvantage if we don’t express ourselves in ways that scale.

As a consequence of this drive to economize and industrialize, the tabulation of data is nowadays handled with Structured Query Language (SQL), which was designed to be intelligible to clerks and secretaries. Not only SQL gets used, I realize. Graph and document databases have entered the everyday workplace.

Learning shorthand was no easier. We’ve always had levels of literacy, with the technology always changing. Some people type faster than others, or read faster, or take more concise meeting minutes. We’re not all clones of one another, even with similar opportunities to learn. People choose different foods in a cafeteria. I’m not saying one size fits all.

By the 1990s, your average office worker needed word processing, spreadsheet and database skills. I got to train those fifty five and older who might still benefit from such training. Many skilled office managers just needed to pick up the skills. That code school was called CUE (Center for Urban Education) and contracted directly with the government.

With the advent of the Web, knowledge of HTML and CSS became essential, along with a programming language (at least one), and that’s where we are today.

If we use some older benchmarks and look at the high school diploma as a first credential with value in the workplace, then we see where these new code school topics have entered in: at least they teach the three Rs.

Privileged schools with computer science curricula serve students with their own personal computers, while on the other side of the digital divide, students get herded from room to room, with only a few minutes to visit their lockers, no time to really think, no personal workspace in which to study and write code.

Many high schools devote almost no time to teaching reading and writing, in the HTML + SQL sense. The scientific calculator, with no word processing capabilities, becomes a token piece of “technology in the classroom,” and for many, a permanent substitute for any real tuXlab tools. No bash shell. No command line, period.

Nowadays a high school diploma is not as likely to impress HR (human resources) because we all know the three Rs are no longer taught in high school, or rather get taught in old ways that don’t really help all that much.

The code schools have inserted themselves, after high school, as less expensive than college and more focussed on supplying the basics the high schools may have missed.

Learn the three Rs in a tuXlab-like setting, and you’ll have that SQL + NoSQL. In data science or even math class, you’ll learn Python. You’ll get those computing skills your old timey high school perhaps neglected to share.

To what extent are high schools and code schools on convergent trajectories then?

That’s a question to address with empirical research. I’d rather not pose as all-knowing and just share the query, inviting debate and discussion.

code school lesson in using Unicode

What I anticipate is more high school teachers will come to see professional development as an ongoing and permanent aspect of their work, and some code schools will gear themselves to work more specifically with high school teachers seeking these learning opportunities.

The college and university schools of education work with teachers in training, but many are already on the job. Boosting teacher skills has many benefits, whereas recruiting all new teachers to bridge the digital divide seems less realistic. We don’t have that much time.

Where computers shine especially, and calculators do not, is in the realm of spatial graphics, likewise the realm of physics engines.

Sometimes the graphics are mostly planar, as in MIT Scratch. However there’s nothing wrong with harnessing a ray tracer and/or a 3D printer to make Math and Art happen in tandem. From the Mandelbrot set we move to the Mandelbulb.

Geometry is the beginning of architecture, chemistry, and engineering. In learning to code using geometric concepts, we bridge lexical and graphical, left brain and right brain. Our holy grail is their synergy.

“Mitey Cube” (Mite = space-filling MInimum TEtrahedron)

A sign that code schools are the new high schools will be a greater focus on 3D printing and 3D graphics. Some might say “4D” with respect to the animations, given the added timeline and perhaps soundtrack.

Video editing goes hand in hand with making ray tracings and other art. Doing 3D graphics requires knowledge of the XYZ coordinate system, at the heart of high school math.

As students build their portfolios, they need space to share them, and that will be another sign of convergence: the evolution of a school around its server-shared internals.

As the recordings come in, of sporting events, theatrical productions, debates, science fairs, the server becomes the shared organizational memory of the school. Course material goes to the server as well, as do student projects. High schools and code schools have much the same needs.

To summarize, our ambivalence towards technology is two-fold: it threatens to change the character of what we call work-study; it threatens to deprive us of opportunities to “earn a living” (as some religions hold we must do).

What we mean by “the three Rs” is no longer what it was. Getting work requires knowing when and how to use automation.

As a digital divide opens, between those getting the “right stuff” versus those herded from room to room, we see the reality of the “school to prison” and “school to military” pipelines.

In the military may come more opportunities to master automation. Some prisons may also provide educational opportunities but that should not become a motive for committing crimes.

high school math class: learning materials