There are two parts to this post: first, the relationship or non-relationship between the ability to write code and technical literacy; and second, the pedagogical methods for teaching people how to program/code.

In some ways, I've been writing about this and related topics for quite a while: see /posts/objective-whatsis for an earlier iteration in this train of thought.

Programming and Technical Literacy

Programmers and other technical folks talk a lot about teaching young people to code as the central part of any young technical person's education and basic computer literacy. Often this grows out of nostalgia for their own experience learning to program, but there are other factors at play. [1]

In some cases, they even start or point to projects like Codecademy. Which are, in truth, really cool ideas, but I think that effectively equating the ability to write code with technical literacy is fraught:

  • There are many different kinds of technical literacy and writing code is really such a small part. Sure code gives us a reasonable way to talk about things like design and architecture, but actually writing code is such a small part of developing technology.

  • Writing code isn't that important, really. In a lot of ways, code is just an implementation detail. Important as a way of describing some concepts pretty quickly, important because it's impossible to iterate on ideas without something concrete to point to, but the implementation isn't nearly as important as the behavior or the interface.

  • For the last ~40 years, code has been the way that people design behavior and specify interfaces for software. While there are a lot of reasons why this predominantly takes the form of code, there's not particular reason that we can't express logic and describe interfaces using other modalities.

    There are many people who are very technically literate and productive who don't write code, and I think that defining literacy as being able to write code, is somewhat short sighted. Also, there is another group of people who are actually programmers who don't think of the things they do as "programming," like people who do crazy things with spreadsheets, most librarians, among others. These non-coding programmers may shy away from programming or are mostly interested in the output of the program they write and less interested in the programming itself.

This is a huge problem. I hope that this /posts/computer-literacy-project that I've been planning will start to address some of these issues, but there's even more work to do.

How to Teach People to Code

(This section of the post derives from and summaries the "How to Teach People to Program" wiki page.)

Most of the way that programming books and courses teach programming are frustrating and somewhat dire, for a few reasons:

  • Most examples in programming books are dumb.
  • Basic computer science/engineering knowledge is fundamental to the way that accomplished programmers think about programming but aren't always required to teach people how to program.
  • Syntax isn't that important, but you can't ignore it either.
  • Slow reveals are really frustrating.
  • The kinds of code that you write when learning to programming bear little resemblance to the actual work that programmers do.

The solutions to these problems are complex and there are many possible solutions. As a starting point:

  • Separate the way you present core concepts (i.e. data structures, typing, functions, classes, etc.) from actual code examples and from actual explanations of the syntax.

    Interlink/cross reference everything, but if you give people the tools to answer their own questions they'll learn what they actually need to know, and you can then do a better job of explaining the syntax, basic concepts, and practical examples.

  • Provide longer examples that aren't contrived.

    Examples don't need to start from first principals, and don't need to be entirely self contained. Programming work rarely starts from first principals (relative,) and is rarely actually self contained. It's foolish, then to use these sorts of pedagogical tools.


[1]In addition there's a related fear that many people who don't have experience with the technology of the 1980s and 1990s won't have the required technological skills to innovate in another 10 or 20 years.