Informatics: the third “power” revolution and its consequences (Part 2)

In the first part of this article, I presented my view of Informatics as the third “power” revolution in the history of mankind, after the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution. And I introduced the educational initiative “Informatics for All” we have presented at the European Commission.

In this part I will further dwell on the consequences of this revolution in terms of digital education. In the past, an excessive emphasis has been put on technological skills (for example with the European Computer Driving License), that are certainly important, but which in this area risk to spoil the educational efforts.

More recently, on the one side we hear about introducing “coding” in all schools, since “coding” is the “new English” (needed to work everywhere) or the “new Latin” (needed to reason in any field). On the other side, they say what needs to be taught in all schools is “computational thinking”, the new discipline needed for every student, whichever will be the field she will work in.

Both approaches are partly right, but cannot be considered definitive, since they provide only a partial view of the issues at stake. I have to say that this situation is more typical of Europe, since in other countries, e.g. USA or China or Japan, people speaks about teaching “Computer Science” and not “coding” or “computational thinking”.

First of all let us consider “coding”. Informatics is not (just) coding, as Mathematics is not (just) “table of Pythagoras”. Multiplication is (just a) part of Arithmetic, which is (just a) part of Mathematics, together with Geometry, Algebra, Probability, Statistics, Analysis, and so on. Similarly, coding (or programming) is (just a) part of the software development process (which includes Analysis, Design, Coding (Programming) – Testing, Debugging) and software is (just a) part of Informatics, together with Data Representation, Algorithms, Programming Languages, Computing Systems, Distributed Computing, Human-Computer Interaction, and so on.

Also, the purpose of teaching “table of Pythagoras” in primary school is not at all that children knows by heart that 3×2=6 o 12:4=3. The purpose is that children understand that when 3 girls have 2 sweets each the total number of sweets is obtained by a multiplication, while if 12 biscuits have to be distributed to 4 girls the number of biscuits per girl is obtained through a division. We are not teaching a tool but a way of understanding and operating in the world: we can call it “mathematical thinking”.

Well, somebody may say, let’s then teach “computational thinking” (CT) in schools. Speaking about teaching CT is a very risky attitude: philosophers, rightly, ask what do we mean by “teaching thinking”; mathematicians appropriately observe that many characteristics of CT (e.g., abstraction, recursivity, problem solving, …) are also proper of mathematics (which they do not call “mathematical thinking”); pedagogists ask how can we be sure CT is really effective in education; teachers want to know which are the methods and the tools for teaching this new discipline and how they can learn to teach it; and parents are on one side happy because it appears school has finally started to align itself to the digital society, but are on the other side worried what will happen to their kids in the future if they just learn to code with the language of today.

I am convinced this approach is misleading: in the long run it will do more harm than benefit to informatics. In schools they do not teach “linguistic thinking” or “mathematical thinking” and they do not have “body of knowledge” or “assessment methods” for these subjects. They just teach (and assess competences in) “English ” and “Mathematics”. Subsequently, the various linguistic (resp. mathematical) competences gained by study of English (resp. Mathematics), beyond being used in themselves, find additional uses in other disciplines. Between CT and Informatics there exists the same relation. Therefore we should discuss what to teach and how to evaluate competences regarding Informatics in primary/ middle/ secondary schools.

The main problem, in my view, behind these difficulties in appropriately approaching digital education is conceptual. People consider information technology as just another technology, which is wrong  [1]. Automation supported by Informatics substitutes human intelligence with machine intelligence: this is a radical change of paradigm in the entire history of industrialization, which never happened before. Notwithstanding the success of Artificial Intelligence , informatics systems do not have the flexibility and adaptability to successfully tackle an ever changing reality and to learn by one’s own mistakes, like human beings do.

Actually, speaking about CT has the purpose to explain people why informatics need to be taught in all schools. We aim at teaching the scientific and cultural aspects of Informatics: not system and tools, but principles and methods. Differently from what happens with language and maths, we are forced to explicit this distinction since computers are what embodies informatics for most of people.

On these grounds, for example, in the USA computer science (their name for Informatics) has been added, on par with other scientific disciplines, to the “well rounded subjects” that students have to learn in schools. That’s not because they think the “computer scientists’ way of thinking” (a simple explanation of what CT is) is better than others, but just that it offers a complementary and useful conceptual paradigm to describe reality. Informatics provides cognitive insights and a common language for all subjects and professions.

Every discipline has its own set of concepts to describe the world. For a mathematician are quantity, relation, structure… For a physicist masses, forces,  fields… A biologist uses cell, organism, metabolism. An informatician uses algorithm, program, automata, …

Digital society is already here and we are not adequately preparing our students and citizens. They need to learn Informatics so as to be able to understand, participate in, influence and contribute to the democratic development of the digital society. A the same time, this will provide a significantly improved opportunity for recruiting and educating the large number of IT specialists Europe needs to maintain and improve its position in the digital world economy.

We need to act now!

REFERENCES

[1] E. Nardelli, The maintenance is the implementation OR Why people misunderstand IT systems, European Computer Science Summit, Prague, 2010 http://www.informatics-europe.org/ecss/about/past-summits/ecss-2009/conference-program.html

Author: Enrico Nardelli – University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’

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