Teaching Kids to Program, Redux
Last October I mentioned a board game called c-jump, with the following commentary:
I think this concept of “teaching kids to program” meaning teaching them C-like syntax is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the industry; the idea that knowing how to program means only knowing the syntax for a language, being able to put together a file about which the compiler doesn’t complain.
More recently (okay, January) I ran across a very different concept for teaching kids to program, a development environment from Carnegie Mellon called Alice that answers my objections neatly. In Alice, there's no emphasis on the syntax itself; the environment prevents you from needing to know the syntax by enforcing correctness rules (at any given time you can only make changes that result in a legal program). The point is that then you can concentrate on what you want the program to do, rather than how you get the program to do what you want.
I think this approach would be much more successful at teaching kids programming; what's really impressive is that it includes some concepts that are rarely if ever actually taught in classes (such as concurrency and event-based programming) but that can be very important in the real world.
While I'm on the subject, I read another very interesting article recently. Coding Horror linked to an academic paper about predicting which students can become successful programmers, and which can't. Apparently between 30 and 60% of incoming C/S students fail their first programming course, not because they're not smart or hardworking (although there are those, too ;)), but because they either cannot form a consistent enough mental model to understand the system, or they reject the whole exercise as nonsense. It was actually kind of a shock to me to learn that some students not only aren't intuitively able to form a consistent model of assignment (one of the most basic requirements for understanding programming)--not even an incorrect but consistent one--but that they cannot do so even after a formal programming class. Some people, it appears, really can't learn to program. I guess what that says about me is that I have a high tolerance for nonsense. ;) The test (and answer key) is available at the paper's site, if you want to test yourself.