Would Anonymous Functions Help in Learning Programming/Python?

Cristian super.sgt.pepper at gmail.com
Fri Sep 21 23:37:18 CEST 2007

A friend of mine is an engineer and he's been needing to do more and
more programming as he goes on with is career. I convinced him to
learn Python instead of Perl and he's really started to like it. He
usually comes to me when he can't accomplish a task with his current
knowledge and I introduce him to a new feature in Python. FYIW, he
thought List Comprehensions were freakin' awesome. He's started
writing his own personal scripts for tasks like web scraping. So, from
personal experience, Python truly is a great first language to learn.

Although his learning experience has gone mostly smoothly, he's hit a
lot of speed bumps with functions. Specifically, he's having trouble
thinking of functions as first order data (don't worry, I haven't
confused him with such terminology yet). He had a little trouble
understanding that you can pass functions as arguments to other
functions (e.g., passing a key to the list.sort method). He also had a
little trouble grasping functions within other functions. Last but not
least, he had trouble grasping methods in class declarations,
especially the required self as the first argument (I'm sure he wasn't
the first).

Now, my friend's a smart guy so I know it isn't any lack of brain
cells on his part. I still remember many students in my CS classes
having trouble grasping the very same concept. And, after we finally
get a hold of first order functions, we appreciate its incorporation
into languages. It would be a shame if my friend just learns the
motions and never incorporates first order functions into his
programs. I began to wonder if there was anything Python could do to
help newcomers grasp the power of first order functions or, as
Pythonistas put it, everything is an object.

To me, the biggest setback for new programmers is the different syntax
Python has for creating functions. Instead of the common (and easy to
grasp) syntax of foo = bar Python has the def foo(): syntax. So, when
a new programmer is first introduced to functions they are immediately
confronted with the notion that functions are "different". After all,
they have their own special syntax. This seems to only further the
separation newbies make between "data" and "functions" or "stuff" and
"actions". Now, the vast majority of us learned this dichotomy when we
first began to program, so we are ingrained to assume and even expect
a different syntax for function declaration, but in a program like
Python there doesn't seem to be any other reason to have it.
Furthermore, I think it actually inhibits the learning of the
uninitiated. We can, of course, keep the current syntax as sugar.

To someone who's learning to program wouldn't a syntax like the
further give them all they need and also reinforces the idea that
functions are data just like everything else?

my_function = function(foo, bar): pass
an_instance_method = function(self, foo): pass
a_method_declaration = method(self, foo): pass

The last one is mostly my pet peeve of having Python "magically"
create methods out of (what is essentially) a function declaration.
When I first learned it, it felt wrong but you had to press through it
because there was really no other way of declaring methods.

What do you think? Have you hit this roadblock when helping others
learn Python? Does the current syntax make you feel that functions are
still treated as second class (get it?) citizens?

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