[Edu-sig] Programming in High School

David MacQuigg macquigg at ece.arizona.edu
Wed Dec 10 16:35:53 CET 2008

At 02:37 PM 12/8/2008 -0500, Vern Ceder wrote:

>... here are the reasons I see that more
>schools don't offer programming:
>1) Lack of qualified staff. Sadly a graduate with a teaching certificate
>(as required by the state) usually doesn't have anything like the
>background to teach programming, let alone do the sorts of things that
>Kirby has experimented with.

What we need then, is not programming teachers, but teachers who are enthusiastic about technology, and use programming as a tool.  I would think any teacher of math or science would have no difficulty using Python and integrating it into their teaching.  Don't teach it as a separate subject, but introduce each new statement as it is needed.  For-loops, as an example, could be introduced as a tool to plot functions.  The, when the students are comfortable with that (and if there is time), show them a whole new and more general way of looking at for-loops (for item in collection).

I remember taking a class in typing.  There was a lot of stuff on proper etiquette and formatting of business letters, and emphasis on speed and accuracy, but it was one of the most valuable classes I ever took.  Do they still have something like that, maybe a business skills class?

Python has a special role here, in that it doesn't require a big, focused effort, as would Java.

>2) Numbers - at my school, 6-10 kids in AP Programming is considered a
>good year. In the public schools around town, in a short-sighted drive
>for efficiency, (but see item 1 above also) administration routinely
>kills any elective that can't get 3 times that.
>3) The whole "integration" trend in tech in education - 15 years ago it
>was assumed that as technology became ubiquitous we wouldn't have to
>teach it, any more than you need to know about electricity to turn on a
>light. Of course, that analogy was bogus on both ends, but schools have
>moved in that direction anyway, killing what little programming they did
>have. Only now (and only very slowly) are they realizing that their
>students are the poorer for it.

This fits with Paul's theme that we don't need programmers because it will all be done for us, or Guido's that only the best students should study programming.  I was once asked by a shop teacher why I am still doing programming.  Aren't all the programs already written?

We need lots of examples where programming is useful to non-programmers.  I already mentioned the real estate agent needing to digest some data from the property appraisers office.  For the shop teacher: How about a homeowner wanting to lay tiles, avoid wastage, and slivers that look bad along the edge.  If you know Python, it is quicker to write a little program than find one, purchase and install it, read the manual, struggle with a bunch of stuff you don't really need, and maybe not get what you want in the end.  I can think of lots of examples in engineering, but they are not ordinary problems that would seem relevant to high school students.  What we need is a collection of relevant problems, easily solved with a quickie program.

>These factors (and others of course) combined with the many layers of
>bureaucracy create a negative feedback loop that is next to impossible
>for students, teachers or even parents to beat. In fact, I've talked to
>state education officials that nearly despair of making any headway in
>some of our schools.

I would think the Federal government could play a positive role in encouraging modernization of our curricula.  Are there any proposals for the new administration?  I'm thinking of an effort similar to what the Internet Security Alliance is now making in the area of infrastructure for a more secure computing environment.  There is a whole new enthusiasm replacing the despair of the last few years.

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