Does turtle graphics have the wrong associations?

Peter Nilsson airia at
Fri Nov 13 04:13:18 CET 2009

"Alf P. Steinbach" <al... at> wrote:
> One reaction to <url: <url:> has
> been that turtle graphics may be off-putting to some
> readers because it is associated with children's learning.

[I'll be honest and say that I merely glanced at the two
pdf files.]

Who is your target audience? The opening Getting Started
paragraph would probably put off many beginners right from
the get go! You're talking about a 'first language' but
throwing 'syntax', 'windows', 'graphics', 'networking',
'file and database access' and 'standard libraries' at them.

The success of 'XXXX for Dummies' is certainly not their
accuracy, but rather that they make far fewer assumptions
that people already know the subject being tought! That
assumption seems almost ingrained in every 'beginner'
programming book I've ever seen!

> What do you think?

Whilst everyone knows children tend to think visually more
than abstractly, the same is precisely true of adults.
However, the ultimate problem with Turtle is that it ends
up teaching a 'mathematical' perspective and it's far from
intuitive how you map that perspective to tackling more
real world issues. It's simply substituting one difficult
abstraction with another.

My recollection is that many children struggled with Turtle
graphics because they had very little concept of trigonometry.
[Why would they? Many wouldn't learn for another 2-10 years.]
Adults tend to have even less concept since they almost never
use trig (or much else from school ;-) in the real world.

They can see the patterns and understand there's a logic to
it, but they struggle replicating it. Get an angle wrong
and you end up with a mess where it's not clear whether it's
your algorithm or the maths that's at fault.

The visual aspect might pique interest, but may put just as
many people off. In any case, it won't relieve the difficulty
of having to teach what is fundamentally an abstraction that
doesn't have very good parallels with how people approach
problems in the real world. Humans simply don't think like
mathematicians^W computers. :-)

I've met a lot of mathematics and comp sci teachers who
honestly believe that you can't teach these subjects without
a mathematical perspective. That stands in contrast to the
number of people I see using spreadsheets with a very high
proficiency who would never dream of saying they were good
at mathematics or programming.


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