Hands up who likes PHP? The role of popular programming languages in Computing Education
I was at the NSF CS10K Evaluators meeting earlier this summer, and we got to talk about important research questions. Someone suggested the issue of learning progressions. How do students move from Scratch or Alice or Blockly to Java or C++? One of the evaluators, whose background is entirely in education and evaluation, asked, “Professional programmers don’t use Scratch and Alice?” We explained what professional programmers really do. “Then why are we teaching Scratch and Alice, especially if we don’t know how the transfer works?!?”
The tension between what languages are “useful” (read: “we use them today in industry”) and what languages are helpful for learning has always existed in CS Ed. I’ve recommended the blog below to several people this summer, including reading the comments from the developers who push back — “Yeah, stop with Alice and teach real languages!” I agree with the post’s author, but I see that, even in the CS10K project, the notion that we should teach what’s vocationally useful is strong.
At the NSF CS10K Evaluators meeting, I got to wondering about a different question. Most of our evaluators come from science and math education projects, where you teach the way the world is. If you have trouble teaching students that F=ma, you better just find a new way to teach it. I told the evaluators that I hope their results inform the design of future programming languages. Computer science is a science of the artificial, I explained. If you find that mutable variables are hard to understand, we can provide programming languages without them. If the syntax of curly braces on blocks is too subtle for novices to parse (as I predict from past research findings), we can fix that, too. I got confused looks. The idea that the content and the medium could be changed is not something familiar to this audience. We have to figure out how to close that loop from the evaluators to the designers, because it’s too important an opportunity to base our language design for novices on empirical results.
It is a school’s job to churn out students who will be able to walk into a job in industry on day one and work in whatever language/paradigm is flavour du jour.
WRONG! We’re here to teach children the core concepts of Computer Science. Working on that basis to produce someone with employable skills is your job. Do you expect Chemistry students to walk out of school ready to begin work in a lab? Should we stop using Scratch as a teaching language because nobody programs with it in industry? Of course not, so please stop recommending that we should be teaching using Scala/JSON/whatever is currently flavour of the month.