Teaching python (programming) to children

Cliff Wells logiplexsoftware at earthlink.net
Mon Nov 12 21:19:12 CET 2001

On Saturday 10 November 2001 08:33, Laura Creighton wrote:

> I have a problem. I can't pick the _students_ that come into my
> classroom.  And wherever I have come across a student that learned
> calculus from the graphing-calculator school, I have found somebody
> who does not understand, really understand, what 'this function is
> increasing' _means_.  They are incapable of doing their own visualization
> of that.  Fortunately for me, I don't run into these people that often.
> But they are crippled, so much that it shows.  It is evident in trying
> to have the simplest of conversations with them.  They have little or
> no mathematical intuition at all.

But this does not necessarily reflect bad teaching methods.  It's simply a 
fact of life that some people will lack mathematical intuition, and it seems 
unlikely that any teacher will find a way to surmount this.  In any class, 
you will have some students who excel, some who manage and some who fail to 
grasp the fundamental concepts.  What does this say about the teaching 
methodology?  Not much.

> So either a) the method is bad, and cripples minds (period)  or
> b) the method, if not taught according to some vigorous standard and
> in conjunction with some other methods, cripples minds (or doesn't
> allow them to expand properly).  (For purpose of argument only I am
> willing to believe that _somewhere_ it is working.)
> If the second is the case, then high school teachers must not be
> allowed to pick and chose what to do, because with the best intentions
> in the world they will produce a program that will produce people are
> mathematically naive.  Which is my experience.  We have people who
> never made the leap from arithmetic to mathematics.  They are human
> calculators, tied to machine calculators, but have no mathematical
> intuition whatsoever, and a great difficulty in thinking abstractly.
> It is frightening.  They do get correct answers, as long as their
> calculators have batteries, but they can't understand them.

Not all students taking math classes /want/ to learn mathematics.  They are 
taking them as a course requirement and only care about passing.  If you 
rearrange class curriculum to cater to these students, you are going to 
inhibit the education of the few students who are sincerely interested in 
mathematics.  IMO, there is a strong correlation between a student's desire 
to learn and his or her subsequent depth of understanding of a subject.  If a 
student is unwilling to spend the energy to deeply understand a subject, why 
should educators be forced to alter their curriculum to assist them?  

> One must never design educational policy thinking only how the best
> teachers will educate the most exceptional students (exceptionally
> good or exceptionally poor.)  The policy must instead focus on the
> worst third of teachers.  This is hard on the gifted teacher, indeed,
> but the alternative is hard on _everybody_.

Hm.  Poor teachers are indeed a problem, but I fear the impact of such a 
"policy" upon the gifted teachers.  My own interest in math and programming 
were inspired by a single teacher.  Prior to that I had no clue that I would 
have ever been interested in such a subject (in fact, I dropped out of high 
school at 15 due to my total lack of interest - it wasn't until I went to 
college that I encountered this instructor).  I think a major problem with 
teachers is that many of them are mostly interested in /teaching/ - not in 
the /subject/ they are teaching.  The instructor who inspired me loved math 
and computer science and his enthusiasm for the subject was catching.  His 
degree wasn't in education, but in mathematics.  In fact, he revealed to me 
that he had a somewhat difficult time obtaining his degree because all he 
wanted to take was math classes and was slow in finishing some of the other 
required courses.  
I have serious doubts about programs designed by fiat.  The problem hasn't 
been solved, it's simply been taken out of the hands of the teachers and put 
into the hands of a committee composed of... well, quite possibly mediocre 
teachers.  So now we will be enforcing a curriculum designed by mediocre 
teachers onto brilliant teachers.  Not so good.  I agree that something needs 
to be done, but I think perhaps it should be done at the time of hiring 
teachers rather than trying to fix them after they've been hired.

Think about this:  if such a curriculum could be designed that it wouldn't 
matter if the teacher were excellent or mediocre, why couldn't that 
curriculum be issued as a software program that the students could follow 
without a teacher?  Doesn't seem likely, does it?  No curriculum will ever 
replace the need for good teachers, and no curriculum will ever make a poor 
teacher into a good one.


Cliff Wells
Software Engineer
Logiplex Corporation (www.logiplex.net)
(503) 978-6726 x308
(800) 735-0555 x308

More information about the Python-list mailing list