05 June 2011

A Computer Scientist's Lament

Here are a couple of recent articles on learning CS that I found interesting because, rather than focusing on the classroom setting or enrollment numbers, they talked about the challenges facing a motivated self-study student.

In Andrew Binstock's "Lax Language Tutorials", he discusses the current state of programming language tutorials. In summary, most books being published appear to be confused between an introductory tutorial and a treatise on every feature of the language. This leads to absurdly large volumes that may be a bargain in terms of dollars-per-page, but are overwhelming for anyone who just wants to get started and learn the basics.

To paraphrase Messrs. Twain and Pascal:
"I didn't have time to write a concise programming language tutorial, so I wrote this bloated monstrosity instead."
James Somers' article in The Atlantic, "How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code", describes the issues he had with these language tutorials:
For a while I thought I didn't have the right kind of brain for programming. Maybe I needed to be better at math. Maybe I needed to be smarter.

But it turns out that the people trying to teach me were just doing a bad job. Those books that dragged me through a series of structured principles were just bad books. I should have ignored them. I should have just played.
And then continues with an indictment of the AP's CS curriculum:
Nobody misses that fact more egregiously than the American College Board, the folks responsible for setting the AP Computer Science high school curriculum. The AP curriculum ought to be a model for how to teach people to program. Instead it's an example of how something intrinsically amusing can be made into a lifeless slog.
He also makes reference to Paul Lockhart's A Mathematician's Lament (which comments on how uninspiring most math instruction has become) and draws comparisons between math and CS instruction.

Somers persevered with his attempts at programming and found inspiration in the programming website Project Euler, but it's easy to imagine that many of these motivated students simply give up, thinking that programming is too hard for them.

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