Teaching Programming To A Highly Motivated Beginner: The Difference between Anecdote and Data
Phillip Guo has a piece in Blog@CACM on how he tutored a single adult to learn to program. He contrasts it with the MOOC approach of teaching thousands. There’s another important contrast–between anecdote and data.
Phillip’s story is interesting and compelling. He raises some key insights, like the value of motivation to drive someone to come to a new understanding. But some of his claims are just too broad, like the one he boldfaced below in his original, “I don’t think there is any better way to internalize knowledge than first spending hours upon hours growing emotionally distraught over such struggles and only then being helped by a mentor.”
Phillip could be right. (I don’t think that he is.) But to suggest that there isn’t a better way based on the study of one learner is over-generalizing. There is a research methods for produce case studies, which is the closest research method to what Phillip did. There’s only so much you can claim from a single case study, though.
Brian usually did 10-15 hours of programming on his own before each 1-2 hour Skype call with me, so he always had plenty of urgent questions and newly-written code that he wanted me to help him debug or improve. If I had just given him lectures without any context, he would not have internalized the lessons as thoroughly. He would have probably nodded his head and been like, “uh huh, ok that makes sense … cool. what’s next?” Instead, because he was usually struggling with concrete, code-related problems before our tutoring sessions — often to the point of frustration and discouragement — he would respond more like, “OHHH, WOW! Now I totally get it!”, whenever I guided him over some problem that seemed insurmountable to him at the time. His joy and relief were always unmistakable. I don’t think there is any better way to internalize knowledge than first spending hours upon hours growing emotionally distraught over such struggles and only then being helped by a mentor.