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Proposal for a change of approach to programming language teaching

In a previous post I explained why I think developers don’t really know any computer language and in this post I want to outline how I think we should adapt to this reality and radically change the approach taken to teaching students about using a computer language. First a couple of points:

  • The programming community needs to change its attitude towards language knowledge from being an end in itself to being something that is ok to acquire on an as needed basis. Developers don’t need to know much about the programming language they use in order to get their job done, get over it. Spending time learning the ins and outs of a language’s semantics rarely provides a worthwhile return on investment compared to time spent learning more something else, such as the application domain or customer requirements,
  • designing a new, ‘simpler’ programming language is not a solution; the existing languages in common use are not going away anytime soon and creating a new general purpose language is only going to overload developers with more stuff to learn and yet another runtime system to interface to,
  • we need to concentrate on suggestions about what students and developers should be doing and not what they should not be doing. This is not only a good teaching principle it avoids the problem of having to come up with a good list if things not to do (coding standard recommendations are very rarely based on any evidence apart from the proposers own point of view and even the ones that make it through peer review are little more than group think or a waste of time).

The response to the existing state of affairs should be to approach the teaching of programming languages as an exercise in teaching students only what they need to know to do useful work, rather than acting on the belief that students should strive to be experts in the language they use and burdening them with lots of pointless language details. The exact minimum-set of knowledge could vary across different industries and application domains, so the set might need to be a bit larger than the minimum to be on the safe side.

Invariably some developers will need to know more than the minimum-set, so we also need to figure out what ‘template’ knowledge (or whatever term is used, an alternative is behavior patterns or patterns of behavior) should be included in the next level of language knowledge, this can be documented and made available to anybody who wants to read it; there may or may not be more levels before a developer is told to go and read a reference book or the language reference manual to figure out what they need to know.

This is minimum-set approach, with the opportunity to progress to successively more detailed levels, is often used for learning human languages, computer languages are not any different.

I would expect there to be some variation in the minimum-set between different languages and would resist the temptation to try and create a ‘common minimum’ until some experience had been gained in teaching single languages.

How would the the minimum-set of language knowledge be chosen? Simple. Students need to learn those construct they are likely to use most of the time and that question can be answered by measuring a large amount of existing source code. Results from measurements that have been made typically show a small number of constructs are used a large percentage of the time. For instance, measurements of C source find that the 33.2% of for-loops have the form: for (assignment ; identifier < identifier ; identifier++), where identifier might be two or more different identifiers; allowing the central test to have the form identifier < expression takes the percentage to over 50%. I would expect the same pattern of usage to occur in source written in other languages but don't have any number to back up that assertion.

Perhaps the most important pattern of (developer) behavior is what its discoverer, Jorma Sajaniemi, calls the roles of variables (each variable is used to hold a particular kind of information, e.g., most wanted holder, stepper, container, etc).

One pattern of behavior that I am more or less completely in the dark about is class/package usage. There is the famous book on design patterns which the authors did a good job of promoting, but I have yet to see any empirical evidence showing the claimed benefits. The analysis of class/package behavioral usage is non-trivial, but it can be done.

Would I insist that developers only use constructs list in the suggested minimum-set (plus possible extras)? No. The purpose of this proposal is to help students and developers learn what they need to know to get a job done. Figuring out what language constructs, if any, should be avoided at all costs is a very tough problem which at the end of the day might not be worth solving.

A minimum-set knowledge of the language being used does not imply poor quality code. Most code is simple anyway, the complicated stuff invariably revolves around the algorithms that need to be used and a skillful developer is one who uses straightforward language constructs to create easy to maintain code, not one who writes code that relies on detailed knowledge of some language feature.

I expect this proposal to adopt a minimum-set approach to language teaching will draw an angry reaction from the cottage industry that makes its living from writing and giving seminars on the latest trends in language-X. Don't panic guys, managers are well aware that this kind of knowledge rarely has any impact of developer performance and the actual motivation for sending employees on such seminars is to keep them happy (it can be a much more effective way of keeping staff than simply giving them a pay rise).

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