Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Coding in National Schools Isn't a Good Idea

See, kids? Coding is fun!
The Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, has written to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to request that the NCCA consider the teaching of coding in national schools. This is a bad idea, for three reasons.

The Basis of Coding is Already on the Curriculum
The basis of coding is already on the curriculum. It is called “maths.” Maths and coding go hand-in-hand. If you can do one, you can do the other. Both work on the notion of orderly thinking. If this, then that. It is possible for a talented coder to have been poor at maths in school but that coder’s mind for maths will have clicked just when the coding clicked for him or her. The two are intertwined like Maguire and Patterson.

Sadly, we teach maths the same way we do most other things – arseways. OECD studies regularly show that Irish standards of literacy and numeracy are consistently poor. The Irish Times reported at the start of the year that Ireland ranked 18th of 23 countries in literacy, and 21st out of 23 in numeracy, among 16- to 19- year-olds. It also reported “about one in five university graduates can manage basic literacy and numeracy tasks – such as understanding the instructions on a bottle of aspirin – but struggle with more complex tasks.” University students.

These are terrifying figures. The OECD reports can be behind the curve timewise, and advocates of Project Maths will claim that once that initiative kicks in the results will go right up. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Project Maths course simply adds another layer of confusion to a subject that is intimidating to begin with. It’s a grim prospect.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All
The only way a minister could dream of better publicity than talking about this strange thing, ‘coding,’ would be if he or she were to announce that the DoE were bringing in some specialists from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as consultants to discuss adding transfiguration, charms and potions to the curriculum. Coder is the astronaut job of our times, the job that is done by pioneers who create the future.

But reader, a job market where the jobs are made up entirely of coders – or astronauts, or witches and wizards, for that matter – is not exactly ready to survive in the choppy seas of Ireland’s open economy. How many coders do we need per head of population? Probably not as many as we need nurses, or doctors, or teachers, or shopkeepers, or a thousand and one other jobs that are just as relevant if not quite as buzzy.

Short-Term Populism is the Curse of Irish Politics
Why, then, with a need for diverse skills in an open economy, with basic literacy and numeracy red-letter issues in education, to say nothing of dealing with eternally bolshy teachers’ unions and getting teachers trained as coders, did the Minister write this letter to the NCCA? It is impossible to look into another man’s heart but the politician’s eternal quest for good publicity is a reasonable assumption.

Twenty-five years ago, gay marriage was a taboo subject. Now, Irish politicians are tearing the backs of each other trying to photographed having a pint in the Pantibar. Is this because a wave of social liberalism has swept through Leinster House? Or is it because every politician knows this is guaranteed good, criticism-free publicity and you can’t have too much of that?

The success of the coder dojo, a movement that introduces children to coding at an early age, has been mentioned as a reason for coding to be introduced at a more general level in primary schools. But a certain amount of – delicious irony! – what statisticians call “response bias” is at work there. The children who are doing well at coder dojos are the children who would do well at pretty much any academic subject, and who enjoy the priceless support of a home environment that encourages that sort of endeavour. The OECD stats suggest that such an environment is sadly atypical of the nation’s children in general.

But what difference do facts about literacy and numeracy gaps, diverse talents in a diverse economy or response bias make to a politician who wants to get in the papers? None at all. He or she is certainly due for claps on the back the next time he or she is out on the town, because politicians typically socialise with people who send their children to coder dojos, and ballet, and hockey, and the Gaeltacht. These people are also those who write for and edit newspapers, so it’s winner all round. And when the thing grinds to a halt, what odds? It'll be some other minister’s problem by then.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Suggested Changes to the Rules of Gaelic Football

Gaelic football has become impossible to referee. The nature of the game as reflected in the rulebook is at odds with the game as it’s played in reality. The games are under more scrutiny than every before, with greater levels of TV coverage, better cameras, social media and the rest. Therefore, the rules must change to both keep up with the times and to secure the fundamental nature of the game, lest it turn into some sort of poor man’s rugby league.

I expect precisely none of these rules to ever be implemented, as the GAA’s bureaucracy is up there with the Vatican’s, but still. It’s easy to mouth off about what’s wrong. These are my suggestions on how to put things right. Some are amendments to the playing rules, some to the administration of the competitions. Here we go.

Bring in the Australian Rules Tackle
There are two tackles in Gaelic football – slapping the ball from the hands of the ball-carrier, and a shoulder-to-shoulder contact. Pulling a jersey, pushing in the back, striking or attempting to strike an opposing player are all fouls of increasing levels of severity.

However. Modern football, and I suspect historical football, would look like ballroom dancing if the rules against pushing, pulling and – sorry, Father – striking were enforced. Those laws are unenforceable and therefore should be repealed.

An obvious successor is the tackle as defined in Australian Rules. Contact anywhere between the knees the shoulders, the ball-carrier must lawfully release (that is to say, deliver a foot or a handpass) or else it’s a foul and possession is handed over.

Simple, easy to understand and enforceable. No slobbering about someone not being that sort of player or not really meaning it.

Replace the Black Card with a Sin Bin
Nobody knows what a black-card offense is. Admit the whole idea of the black card was a mistake, drop it and move on. Go back to the idea of the ten-minute sin bin a la rugby for persistent and cynical fouling. Besides; we’ll need the bin again later.

End Appeals to the CCCC
The consistent appeals to the CCCC of the most blatant fouls and, worse, the CCCC overturning the original decisions make a joke of the disciplinary process. Let counties take their medicine. Appoint a Discipline Czar or Star Chamber to review fouls to ensure justice but let his or their word be law and get on with it.

The Czar or Star Chamber should also be empowered to review game footage and hand out bans for events not seen by the referee but seen by everyone in Ireland through TV, social media and the rest. Head-in-the-sand attitudes won’t wash in the 21st Century.

Distribute Money Equally Among Counties
Some counties’ ability to fund-raise is stronger than others. This occurs for different reasons, but it’s chiefly to do with accidents of population. Wouldn’t it make sense for all such monies raised to be distributed equally, or at least to make some sort of effort at revenue sharing?

Building a super team is no good if there’s nobody left for the super team to play against. If the avaricious billionaire owners of American Football’s NFL can manage revenue sharing, then surely the amateur sportspeople of the Gaelic Athletic Association should be able to take a stab at it?

Allow Fighting in Limited Circumstances, à la the NHL
Professional ice hockey, as played in the National Hockey League of the USA and Canada, is the only non-combat sport I can think of in which fighting is tolerated. It’s not strictly legal – if a fight breaks out, the fighters end up in the sin-bin for their troubles – but it is indulged.

The reason is because hockey is a dangerous game, and NHL teams play each other a lot. Bad blood can fester, and things can get out of control. And the idea has evolved that having players drop their gloves and fight it out releases pressure that, if not otherwise released, would result in much more dangerous play that would see body checks to knees and heads that are career- and life-threatening. The NHL sees fighting as the lesser of potential evils.

The evil that faces Gaelic games isn’t to do with noxious rivalries. There are some counties that play dirty against each other, but it’s tolerable.

What isn’t tolerable is the evolution of a particularly dirty type of sledging. It’s surely part of any game to tease your opponent to see if you can put him off his game, but social codes of the past meant that there was a line drawn.

Modern social codes have shattered all societal boundaries, and players have to listen to up to seventy minutes of the most vile abuse, always knowing that the abuser will receive no punishment for it.

It would be nice if sure abuse were reported to the Discipline Czar are mentioned earlier and he could take care of it, but how could that be enforced? All evidence would be hearsay.

Therefore, take a lesson from hockey. If your man says something nasty about your mother, a slap to the chops may cause him to think again. It’s possible the man will slap back, but that’s ok. The GPA always tell us what elite athletes play inter-county now. An exchange of slaps shouldn’t do too much damage until the referee turns up.

Up until now, striking or attempting to strike has been a theoretical sending-off offence in the GAA. In this case, five or ten minutes in the bin for both parties and the game continues on as usual. If nothing else, it should motivate the funny boys to work harder on their material.