Is Teaching Programming Not Enough?

The Atlantic has an interesting take on the programming/computer science/computational thinking debate, with several points for disagreement. I’m going to pull out various quotes from the article, and interleave them with some of my own thoughts.

Who Needs Java or JavaScript Anyway?

“Educators and technology professionals are voicing concerns about the singular focus on coding—for all students, whether learning coding is enough to build computational thinking and knowledge, and for students of color in particular, whether the emphasis on knowing Java and JavaScript only puts them on the bottom rung of the tech workforce.”

That last bit’s a jaw-dropper. A mastery of two of the most popular programming languages in the world would surely not leave you on the bottom rung of the whole tech workforce! I think this quote is a misinformed summary of some of the later comments, and thus a very unfortunate quote to repeat in the byline. Research like that from Sweller’s talk suggests generic cognitive skills like computational thinking cannot be directly taught. Even if they can be instilled, through transferring learning from another domain, programming may well be the best place to transfer from.

The Self-Programming Computer

“The artificial-intelligence system will build the app… Coding might then be nearly obsolete, but computational thinking isn’t going away.”

I can foresee that increasingly powerful programming tools, higher-level languages and code-reuse (e.g. micro services) could reduce the number of programmers needed, but the idea that AI will write the code seems incorrect. I don’t think any efforts to take the programming out of creating computer programs have ever really succeeded. It always ends up with programming again, just at a different level of abstraction.

The Relation to Mathematics

To avert the risk of technical ghettos, all students must have access to an expansive computer- science education with a quality math program… It’s a myth to think that students can simply learn to code and flourish without a minimum level of mathematical sophistication.

This is a perennial point of contention, as to whether mathematics knowledge is required for programming, and/or whether the skills in them correlate. The assumption that they are intrinsically related is a personal bugbear, and I’m not sure there’s strong evidence either way. Not that I’m arguing against the notion that all students should have access to a quality mathematical education!

Self-Teaching

This issue of privilege is interesting, though. Historically, many programmers are self-taught. This means that programmers are primarily those with access to computers, who are encouraged (or not discouraged) by their families, which means you get less women (who are less likely to be encouraged to try it) or those from poorer backgrounds (who are more likely to need to get a part-time job, and thus have less time available for self-teaching). The UK’s gambit of teaching it to everybody has the potential to partially correct this artificial selection. However, it is a very touchy subject to suggest that self-taught programmers are automatically inferior, which is what one interviewee implies:

Further, [Bobb] recommends combining the endless array of out-of-school programs for coding and hackathons with learning opportunities in schools. Brown echoes this point, adding that coding to the uninformed can take many forms, but “you simply cannot learn the analytical skills… without a formal and rigorous education.”

This chimes with the potential disagreement with Sweller’s talk. Is computing special (because you can learn from the computer’s feedback) so that self-teaching can work more effectively than in other disciplines? The legions of self-taught programmers in the workforce surely shows that self-teaching must be possible. It may not be the most efficient method to teach yourself, but I think claiming that only formal education can teach the necessary analytical skills for programming is surely incorrect.

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