This post is a follow up to my :doc`/posts/coding-pedagogy` post. This “series,” addresses how people learn how to program, the state of the technical materials that support this education process, and the role of programming in technology development.
I’ve wanted to learn how to program for a while and I’ve been perpetually frustrated by pretty much every lesson or document I’ve ever encountered in this search. This is hyperbolic, but it’s pretty close to the truth. Teaching people how to program is hard and the materials are either written by people who:
Many programming tutorials were written by these kinds of programmers, and the resulting materials tend to be decent in and of themselves, but they fail to actually teach people how to program if they don’t know how to program already.
If you already know how to program, or have learned to program in a few different languages, it’s easy so substitute “learning how to program,” with “learn how to program in a new language” because that experience is more fresh, and easier to understand.
These kinds of materials will teach the novice programmer a lot about programming languages and fundamental computer science topics, but not anything that you really need to learn how to write code.
People who don’t know how to program tend to assume that you can teach by example, using guided tutorials. You can’t really. Examples are good for demonstrating syntax and procedure, and answering tactical questions, but aren’t sufficient for teaching the required higher order problem solving skills. Focusing on the concrete aspects of programming syntax, the standard library, and the process for executing code isn’t enough.
These kinds of documents can be very instructive, and outsider perspective are quite useful, but if the document can’t convey how to solve real problems with code, you’ll be hard pressed to learn how to write useful programs from these guides.
In essence, we have a chicken and egg problem.
Even six months ago, when people asked me “are you a programmer?” (or engineer,) I’d often object strenuously. Now, I wave my hand back and forth and say “sorta, I program a bit, but I’m the technical writer.” I don’t write code on a daily basis and I’m not very nimble at starting to write programs from scratch, but sometimes when the need arises, I know enough to write code that works, to figure out the best solution to fix at least some of the problems I run into.
I still ask other people to write programs or fix problems I’m having, but it’s usually more because I don’t have time to figure out an existing system that I know they’re familiar with and less because I’m incapable of making the change myself.
Even despite these advances, I still find it hard to sit down with a blank buffer and write code from scratch, even if I have a pretty clear idea of what it needs to do. Increasingly, I’ve begun to believe that this is the case for most people who write code, even very skilled engineers.
This will be the subject of an upcoming post.
1. Teach people how to code by forcing people to debug programs and make trivial modifications to code.
People pick up syntax pretty easily, but struggle more with the problem solving aspects of code. While there are some subtle aspects of syntax, the compiler or interpreter does enough to teach people syntax. The larger challenge is getting people to understand the relationship between their changes and behavior and any single change and the reset of a piece of code.
2. Teach people how to program by getting them to solve actual problems using actual tools, libraries, and packages.
Too often, programming tutorials and examples attempt to be self-contained or unrealistically simple. While this makes sense from a number of perspectives (easier to create, easier to explain, fewer dependency problems for users,) it’s incredibly uncommon and probably leads to people thinking that a lot of programming revolves around re-implementing solutions to solved problems.
I’m not making a real argument about computer science education, or formal engineering training, with which I have very little experience or interest. As contemporary, technically literate, actors in digital systems, programming is a relevant for most people.
I’m convinced that many people do a great deal of work that is effectively programming: manipulating tools, identifying and recording procedures, collecting information about the environment, performing analysis, and taking action based on collected data. Editing macros, mail filtering systems, and spreadsheets are obvious examples though there are others.
Would teaching these people how programming worked and how they could use programming tools improve their digital existences? Possibly.
Would general productivity improve if more people new how to think about automation and were able to do some of their own programming? Almost certainly.
Would having more casual programmers create additional problems and challenges in technology? Yes. These would be interesting problems to solve as well.