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Posts Tagged ‘teaching programming’

When I was asked to create and teach a Python class, I had to ask myself, “where is the starting point for this language?”

When it comes to computer languages, I like them logical, powerful, compact and fast. The language currently at the top of my list is Swift. When it comes to longevity, C++ wins hands down. Python is neither compact nor fast. It is, however, very popular. It’s also very flexible.

The C language has so many children that it’s easy to use analogs. What about Python?

I’ve taken intro CS courses from Harvard, Rice and Stanford all of which use Python. They all teach C programming in Python in my opinion. I get where they’re coming from. You’ve spent years using FORTRAN then Pascal then Java.

Happily, my first language was FORTRAN. You think you need to build all your own data structures if you use C. Consider yourself lucky. But that’s a story for another day. My second lanugage as APL. Go ahead try to teach APL the way you teach C. Knock yourself out. A bit later I picked up BASIC, which after FORTRAN was trivial. Next came Forth. That took a bit to wrap my procedural head around. My experience with APL had taught me that it’s perfectly fine to focus on the data and not the process. Forth’s focus on the stack is strangely intriguing. The fact that it lives on in UEFI and Postscript is a testament to the fact that there is value in that view of the world.

So my approach was to start with data representation. In Python the world is all objects and references. But for some reason, people don’t want to approach the language from that standpoint. They like to talk about how easy it is to write ‘hello, world’ programs or how it’s more readable than Perl. Aside from APL, I don’t know anything that’s less readable than Perl. Except maybe TECO macros.

Now that I had a place to start, life should be a hop, skip and a jump to classes, yes? Not so fast pilgrim. It’s easy to explain that everything is an object and that integers are a sub-class of rationals. It’s easy to explain that 0 takes 12 bytes of storage. You can even justify the lack of a character object. But I think you do a true disservice if you don’t address the fact that strings are Unicode based. I’ve dealt with enough internationalization issues to know that to gloss over this would be a disservice to the student. I probably spent more time working on the string section of my class than any other.

The reason? It’s one thing to present information that raises obvious questions like, “so you’ve told me that there as multiple ways to represent the same grapheme and that these strings will have different code units, but what am I supposed to do about it?” Or “how am I supposed to sleep knowing that a Vai 4 digit isn’t the same as an Arabic numeral 4?” You might as well throw them under a bus if you honestly believe that you’ve discharged your duty as a teacher by telling the students that there are land mines out there and that they should bring an umbrella. You’ve essentially just given them a compelling reason to never use the language.

Once all the ‘core’ data types are out of the way, it’s time for some core data structure like list, tuple, and namespace.

Functions, generators, and lambdas come next. These are relatively straightforward. The trick to generators is to show the equivalent implementation in C++. Yes, they are different beasts, but you can get close enough. Similarly with lambdas.

Now, you’re in a position where classes can be reasonably explained. A point to mention here is that back before embarking on a exposition of data types, keywords and variable conventions were addressed. Now, for most students, this goes in one ear and out the other. Having arrived at classes, all those naming conventions come back like an overeager Sheltie wanting to play. Ignore them at your peril. Enumerations are also introduced here.

For many, all the object bits will now come into focus. This is a good thing. I’ve never liked the approach where students are taught how to use bits and pieces of libraries without the foundation to understand what’s actually happening. They end up with a false sense of accomplishment and may never seek to build an accurate model of the languages world. They’re like Jeff Goldblum’s character in ‘The Fly’ having no clue how things actually work since he just specified what he wanted a given part to do and plugged the parts together. We all now how that worked out for him. It also emphasizes their importance of debugging you system.

I’ve never understood why some people shy away from classes in Python. They act as though organization is an inherently evil thing. They also probably have all their laundry in two piles in the middle of their bedroom (one dirty, one clean).

Classes point us to resource management, but we can’t do that discussion until input / output is covered. That gives us the idea of using classes (file streams) and their methods to process data. Here’s where string formatting and core data conversion comes in.

Up until now, exceptions have been alluded to. Now there’s enough structure to not only address, but give meaningful examples of their use.

At this point, you’re done with the core language. So we’ll address unit testing. We’ve done bits of this along the way since the introduction of classes, but now we can talk about the unit test library.

What remains are sections on sequence and associative containers. An important aspect of this is teaching how to select the appropriate container. Yes, you can use list and tuple alone, but there are better things to do with your life than reinventing the wheel. Technical interviews insisting that people be able to balance binary trees notwithstanding.

Finally, a brief introduction to the standard library. Before Googling, how about being aware what’s already in the box.

You’ll note a distinct absence of web browsers, GUI applications, client-server systems, etc. Just the language here.

Would my class make you a Python expert. By no means. As with all things, you become proficient through years of study and practice. It is my hope that my Python class would give you a good start on that journey.

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The thing about teaching a class is that it can’t actually be done. You can only teach an individual.

I’ve been teaching since I was in middle school. Hard to believe, but true. That effort, to teach my younger sister (by six years) how to do addition was an utter failure. My next major outing was to create a one week segment for my 12th grade physics class on black holes, including a test. I believe that one fared better, although I don’t believe my endeavor to expose my classmates to then cutting edge cosmology was necessarily appreciated.

Throughout college, I was a TA and grader for various CS classes. I spent a summer a the Nature and Conservation director at a Boy Scout camp and two summers teaching programming to teens. By the time I entered the professional arena, I knew teaching (tech transfer) was in my DNA.

A decade ago, I worked for a company where teaching C++ was part of the job.

Fast forward to my current position. I’ve had the opportunity to create and present Modern C++ (C++14) training within my company. This has come in two flavors, one to jumpstart them into C++ (C developers) and one to bring them up to speed on the start of the language (C++98/03 developers). Both classes have about 15 hours worth of material.

The first challenge in teaching modern C++ is that of linearization. C++ has a wonderful breadth. Unfortunately, It can be challenging to present the material in such a way as to be both meaningful and at the same time not resort to appeals to Oz-ian “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” My success in this area I attribute to years of exposure to the materials of James Burke.

The second, far more interesting challenge, is hitting that Goldilocks zone where everyone is learning. Even when teaching C++ to C developers, there will be those who immediately take to its conceptual frameworks and there will be those who probably never will. It would be easy to cater to the former and simply write off the later as Luddites. Alternately, one could obsess on the later group and end up boring the former to tears. A fundamental balance can be achieved by using labs which build upon a coherent problem and lead the student to embrace ever more abstract aspects of the language.

In the case of my modern C++ for C++98/03 developers class, I take an entirely different approach. With them I use a progression from changes in the language, to important element of the standard library, to useful Boost bits and finally to the contributions made by the GSL. Within this progression, I give attention to each feature or class using a presentation / discussion format. Unlike the jumpstart class, I can’t use the labs to modulate the pace of the class. Each group I teach will progress at their own pace. (I limit my class size to about 20). In this advanced class, I also find myself researching answers to specific, real-world issues that the students are encountering. I then fold these results back into the materials I present.

As with any modern company, there is a mix of platforms under development. This has necessitated my doing a bit of bounds checking to be sure that the materials I present will work in a Visual C++ / gcc / VxWorks world. With the advanced class, I present not only the modern (C++14) methods (with a bit of C++17 previews), but also the pre-C++11 mechanisms as not everyone has the luxury of constantly upgrading their tool chains.

Overall, it has been an enjoyable experience. One I’m sure I’ll be repeating in the future.

Note: As a nod to an interesting Stanford professor (Mehran Sahami) and in the voice of Starfire, I have taken up the habit of “the throwing of the candy.”

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I’ve been looking at Swift for about a month now. My first thought when I see a new language is,

How would I teach this language to someone new to programming?

After spending countless hours dealing with the little things in a language that contribute to the lack of patience developers have with non-developers, I still hold out hope that we will have learned from our past and can create a language which will enable those of us who toil in darkness to get out a bit more.

Back in the day, when a new language emerged from the primordial soup, it was accompanied by a language description. This document is ensures that in the case where the creator(s) of the language are run down by a rampaging gaggle of salvage yard geese mysteriously loosed by the supporters of the favorite language de jour will still be available to the six people already using it. [Just like Apple’s linker that was written in Oberon. But that’s a story for another day.] Lest you are under the mistaken impression that this document is the be-all and end-all of the language, I would refer the gentle reader to the first Ada spec which indicated that a unary minus could be present in the middle of a digit string.

Sometime later, a language manual would appear. If you are very lucky, this will be written by a teacher (Pascal User Manual and Report). Alternately, it may be written by a practitioner who is known for their ability to create concise code like awk (The C Programming Language). If you’re really lucky, the author may be both a teacher and practitioner who’s book printings required the deforestation of small pacific islands (The C++ Programming Language). Regardless of the provenance, only those who live on the bleeding edge or college (more recently high school) students embrace these tomes of wonderment.

Assuming that the language becomes popular enough to catch the attention of people other than the full-stack crowd, a book may appear whose clarity will ensure that it is longer lived than the inevitable dummies book. This rare collection includes the A FORTRAN Coloring Book, Basic BASIC, and Programming in C.

So far, Apple has released three documents on Swift. The first was the language reference. The second details Swift-ObjectiveC interoperability. The latest is the Swift standard library reference.

This year’s WWDC included seven Swift-specific sessions and eight others that referred to it. This level of coverage is quite impressive, but then again, they’ve been working on the language for about four years.

Enough background already, how would I teach Swift as a first programming language?

Unfortunately, right now, today, I can’t. You can tinker with Swift in playgrounds. You can integrate Swift and ObjectiveC. You can create swift-based iOS or OSX applications. What you can’t do is write a CLI program that is pure Swift.

Look at any programming language instructional methodology. What’s the second thing they teach? The second? Yes, the second. The first, since K&R, is hello, world.

The second thing that you have people do is prompt for their name and say hello back to them. Output is important, but without input programs are pretty boring. I’m not ignoring the vast and glorious mound of ObjectiveC and by extension C and C++ code that’s accessible to swift, but that’s not the same as being able to create the same things in swift.

Generally, I find swift a compelling language, but today it’s not a first language. I’m hoping that Apple will correct this deficiency in the not too distant future.


So, that was the post. It’s now a week later. Why is it still sitting unpublished? Well, I just wasn’t happy with my conclusion. Having had a bit of a mull, I’ve not changed my mind but I believe that I need to revisit my basic assumption as to what constitutes the baseline for teaching a first computer language.

The idea that to teach a person how to program you should have as little magic at play a possible. What is magic? Elaborate command invocations for one. Just being able to use the word invocation should be enough of a clue. Requiring the construction of things that have nothing to do with the actual language is another. This is probably the aspect that I have the most difficulty with.

“I’ll teach you how to program, but first you’ll need to lash together the user interface.” That would be all well and fine except that print is provided. Why don’t I need to provide a mechanism for stuff to go out if I need to provide one for stuff that comes in?

So, where do we start? The advantage of the pre-GUI age was that there was one true interface to the computer. The way we thought about our programs was dictated by the programming language we used. For a long time after the GUI was introduced we tried to treat our interfaces as extensions of our programs rather than partner environments. Even after we decided that there was sufficient power to run multiple applications at once, we were still mucking about with low-memory globals.

Trying to make the UI an independent entity took the idea of an abstraction penalty to new heights. The things that worked didn’t scale. And, in general, the things that scaled didn’t work. We won’t even talk about speed. Or fragile base classes … I’ll leave GUI evolution posts for another time.

Suffice it to say that the bones of many developers were used to pave the smooth road on which today’s applications travel to get from creator to customer. Somewhere in the process, we went from being a bunch of villages connected by trails to a planet full of complexity and wonder.

So now, we think about desktop, embedded systems, mobile devices, web, distributed systems, databases and games in radically different ways. These ‘once computers’ are now ‘delivery platforms.’ In order to create a product that aims to make use of (or be available on) multiple of these, it is necessary to perform the equivalent of running a restaurant where the staff are all expert in what they do, but each speaking their own language. To complicate matters, sometimes they want to use the same tools in the kitchen (usually the knives) and the customers tend to fight over getting the ‘best’ table.

If I teach someone C, C++, Java, lisp, PHP, python, or [insert language here], I don’t have to teach them the UI language of the system at the same time. With Swift I do. Is this going to complicate things? Probably. Will it take longer? If I want to be sure that they realize that this UI metaphor isn’t ‘the one true’ metaphor, absolutely.

I believe that Swift has a lot of potential. I would hate to see it restricted to being used only in the context of ‘Developing for Apple devices with Swift.’

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