Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Recipe for Disaster? Part 1

Of late, there has been much in the media about teaching young people, especially women, to code or, in less arcane language: to program or write software for computers, for example:

code.org http://www.ted.com/talks/mitch_resnick_let_s_teach_kids_to_code


The primary justification for this enterprise is, unsurprisingly, economic. The logic is simple and specious: computer technology is ubiquitous so there are lots of jobs related to computers, therefore we can help solve the current lack of jobs problem by scooping up our youth and training them to become programmers. I believe this approach has a strong potential for producing snafus even worse than the initial rollout of Obamacare. Now please don’t think that I believe that teaching kids to program is a complete waste of time. I strongly believe that programming is a rewarding and empowering activity that combines the logical thinking of the mathematician, the creativity of the poet, the pragmatism of the engineer and the patient stubbornness of the detective --- so it is definitely worth studying. But I do worry that we’re pushing this bandwagon for the wrong reasons.

When I first came to teach Computer Science at SUNY in 1978 I had the same idea that it would be useful to teach young people how to program but for entirely different reasons. I thought that learning to program would an excellent technique for teaching problem-solving methods to college freshman. I believed that programming is an empowering, creative activity that, like any good creative activity is immensely absorbing and satisfying.

Things went swimmingly for several years resulting in several papers that I delivered at regional, national and international conferences. But I was starting to have doubts. The question that kept nagging at me was: “Does programming develop general problem-solving skills or is it the other way round --- students who already have good problem-solving skills tend to be good at, and hence drawn to programming?” I could easily see that the good programmers in my classes also had good problem-solving skills but I wasn’t sure which one was the cause and which was the effect. Then, by chance I attended a talk by Edsger W. Dijkstra at Union College and posed my nagging question to him. I, like most of my colleagues, considered Dijkstra, one of the giants of Computer Science. Amongst his many accomplishments, he spearheaded the development of Structured Programming, a methodology that would allow a programmer to produce more reliable programs. He was a great believer in the idea that one should develop a logical plan for an algorithm (the essence of a program) before sitting down and doing the coding. In any case, his answer to my question was upsetting; based on his own experience, he believed that good programmers came to programming as already-formed, good problem solvers. If correct, the very foundation of my research for past several years was fatally flawed and I had perhaps done a great disservice to many of my students.

On further reflection, however, I realized that there was no hard evidence in either direction. The main problem is getting everyone to agree on precisely what they mean by “problem solving” and even if there is some overlap across different definitions there still remains the question: Is it even possible to teach general problem solving? A strong case can be made that while the problem-solving skills of an engineer and a computer programmer seem to be very similar, it is much harder to show the correspondence between a poet’s and an engineer’s problem-solving skills. And, as a formerly trained mathematician, it seems intuitively obvious to me that there is a great deal of overlap between a mathematician’s, physicist’s and poet’s problem-solving skills. At the same time, I noticed that every single one of the students who dropped the course gave me not only the reason for dropping it but hastened to add, “...but it really improved my appreciation for just how difficult it is to write software.” To which I would add, “Yes! --- and especially large software projects like operating systems and even spreadsheets. “ This is still true today: no matter what language you are coding in, it is extremely difficult to write clear, coherent, reliable and economical code. More next month.

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