“You don’t have to program, you get to.”

August 1, 2009 at 10:32 am 3 comments

Eugene Wallingford had a great blog post about a different way of thinking about student’s desire to build computational artifacts.  “Do I have to do much programming?”

You don’t have to program; you get to program.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Bogost  |  August 1, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Isn’t this the same question students always ask about the part of a practice where the real work lies? Alternate versions of the same question:

    Will I have to do much reading?
    Will I have to do much writing?
    Will I have to do much math?

    We hear these all the time of course, too. I get the reframing, which suggests that the joy of the experience is in the programming (or reading, or whatever). But what about students who really won’t ever find joy there?

  • 2. Mark Miller  |  August 1, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    It seems like this is a cliche. I saw this bit of dialogue in a South Park episode a long time ago:

    Stan (a child) asks, “Does this mean we have to go to church on Sundays again?”

    Stan’s dad says, “It means we get to, son. It means we get to.”

    I am in the “get to” camp when it comes to programming, but this is only because I had many years where I saw programming as a creative, fun activity. If people think it’s drudgery, like the way a lot of people think of mathematics, then they’re going to think “have to”.

    I remember in the late 1990s hearing Cliff Stoll say that schools were doing terrible things with computers, because they were regimenting what kids were learning about them, and that they were killing off arts classes and replacing them with computer labs. IMO this is where “have to” comes from.

    The way I was introduced to programming probably had a lot to do with how my perceptions were formed. I didn’t get introduced to programming in a class. I was about 11 or 12 and I saw a man debugging a graphics program. I became interested in learning to do what he was doing. My first experience was watching someone create through programming.

    When I was in high school I tried my hand at teaching a primary school class on programming in Basic, on Apple II’s, through the school system’s TAG program. I tried to keep things interesting. When I took a class on programming in Jr. high, that was the atmosphere. It was fun and interesting.

    I could tell that the students’ experience with computers was not good. They told me with down faces about how they were learning “keyboarding” and word processing skills with drill exercises–boring stuff. I started off with the simplest stuff, just printing something on the screen. I consciously tried to get them comfortable with the idea that “Yes you can program, too. It’s not hard,” and the idea that “You’ve been using software. Let me give you a taste of how you can control what the computer does.”

    I tried to give them incrementally more interesting things to do, showing them what they can do with text on the screen: “You’ve displayed text horizontally. Now let’s try doing it vertically, or even diagonally.” This gave me an entree to introduce the idea that there were some functions the language offered, and there were others it didn’t, and they’d have to add them themselves. I introduced looping, reading an array, and commands for deliberately positioning text on the screen. It was a long time ago, but I may have even talked about how the command for printing horizontally was really a collection of instructions for doing that, and that the exercise for printing text other ways made this more explicit. This was in the late 1980s, and the expectations about what computers could do were pretty low, so I could get away with text exercises.

    For the students that were ready for the kind of challenges Basic offered, they got interested in this stuff. I got feedback from a teacher saying that a few of the kids wanted to continue learning about programming because of the course. That’s what I was after.

    The number might’ve been larger had there been more kids 10 and above in the class. The school program I was in had no idea about pedagogy for programming at that time. They gave me a small class with about 5 or 6 kids in it, 2nd-4th grade. I can’t remember how many of each I had. The 4th graders caught on well. The 3rd graders got some of the ideas, but had some difficulty. The 2nd graders really struggled. I had to “hold their hand” a lot. Basic was probably ill suited to their level of development.

    What I meant to communicate by this is that there are various ways to get students to see it as a creative activity. In my mind this isn’t accomplished by, “Today we’re going to learn these functions.” In my experience I had success with giving the students insights and goals they found interesting, and then showing them what they needed to learn to accomplish those goals.

    • 3. Mark Miller  |  August 7, 2009 at 7:30 pm

      I realized that I had misremembered the grades of the students I taught. They were 3rd-5th graders. So take what I said about the 2nd-4th graders and shift it up a year. 🙂

      The school system did try having me teach Basic to a class of 2nd graders. The effort failed miserably. Within the first 10 minutes of the first day the teacher sponsoring the class could tell it wasn’t going to work out. The feeling was mutual. Like I said, they had no sense of pedagogy around programming.


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