[Edu-sig] Programming in High School

Mark Libucha mlibucha at gmail.com
Mon Dec 8 20:38:39 CET 2008


Here's my small nugget of experience:

My son goes to a prep school in southern CA, and when we met with his
adviser at the end of 8th grade last spring to plan out his high school
curriculum, I was floored to learn that there were no computer science
classes offered at all anymore. Here's the reasoning the adviser gave for
the dropping of the computer courses: The College Board is eliminating the
advanced level AP exam for computer science. (There are two exams, Computer
Science A and Computer Science AB. AB is being discontinued after 2009. Both
use Java, by the way.) And why is the higher level exam being eliminated?
Because not enough people take it.

And here's my philosophical take on the larger issue:

My personal opinion on computer language learning in high school is that
it's not going to happen until something else is eliminated from the
curriculum. And what needs to be eliminated is foreign languages. If that
rubs you the wrong way, just hear me out. Most students are forced to take
two or three years of a foreign language and come away with precious little
for their efforts. Very few can speak it intelligibly or comprehend even
simple conversations. And the bulk of what they do learn fades quickly from
memory. In my opinion, we still force students to do this despite the
failure rate in terms of actually learning the language because (1) we
believe students are learning about a foreign *culture* in their foreign
language classes, and (2) they're doing a type of logical calisthenics. But
learning culture through language is like learning geography through travel.
It results in a deeper understanding, yes, but it's way, way too
inefficient. Foreign cultures can and should be taught directly. As for the
logical work out, foreign languages have much too large a lexicon and are
way too laden with exceptions for that. Their study quickly devolves into
memorization hell.

Computer languages, on the other hand, are small, have limited exceptional
behavior, and are imminently useful. Two or three serious years of study in
high school would make most students "fluent" enough in a language to use it
in a job setting, not to mention the ability to pick up other computer
languages, and to have much better problem solving skills in general. Plus,
every compiler/interpreter is a native speaker eagerly waiting to correct
their syntax.

Required foreign language study made sense when learning "the classics" in
their native tongues constituted being educated. Those days are long gone.

So, to summarize, I believe the "plan of attack" needs to focus on opening
up a hole in the high school curriculum for computer languages to squeeze
into, and the foreign language study slot seems to be the right fit. At the
very least, it needs to have the same status as Latin (how sad is that?), an
option at some high schools for students who don't want to learn a modern
day language.


On Mon, Dec 8, 2008 at 6:57 AM, David MacQuigg <macquigg at ece.arizona.edu>wrote:

> Kirby,
> This is very well written appeal, but in this mailing list, you may be
> preaching to the choir.  What I would like to see is a discussion of *why*
> there is not more teaching of programming in high school.  I can't seem to
> get an answer from the few high-school teachers and students I have asked. I
> suspect it has something to do with requiring all kids to have their own
> computers, not wanting the rich to have an advantage over the poor, etc.
>  I've thought about teaching high school myself, but the bureaucracy seems
> overwhelming.
> At 11:37 AM 12/6/2008 -0800, kirby urner wrote:
> >...
> >
> >As such a manager, I'm frustrated with the schooling around here, but
> rather than just whine and complain, I get access to classrooms and start
> showing off how it might really be done, were those of my breed allowed to
> interact with the kids (rarely happens, rules prevent -- even though I've
> been cleared at the state level to work with kids, with fingerprinting and
> everything, same as any union teacher).
> >
> >But among peers, fellow geeks, this is more just an excuse to tell some
> company war stories, share Python source, and enjoy the science fiction
> feeling of being in a culture that *we* had designed, rather than muggles,
> i.e. those who don't know what SQL means, even after enduring like four
> years of "mathematics" pre-college (not they're fault -- SQL doesn't make it
> past the relevance filters, gotta learn more about factoring polynomials,
> like you'll need on the job (snicker)).
> >
> >What if circus performers designed your gym class?  It wouldn't be like it
> is.  What if Pythonistas taught your junior how to program math objects,
> like vectors and polynomials.  Why, he'd grow up employable, ready to
> rumble, ready for work, maybe without even going to college right away (that
> could come later, on the company's dime maybe).  As a parent, you'd be
> pleased.  Finally, junior is excited about hard fun, programs just for the
> love of it (pretty freakish).
> >
> >...
> >
> >Kirby Urner
> >4Dsolutions.net
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