How not to teach programming

Through the wonders of DZone I came across a blog post called Don't teach like you code. The target audience seems to be professional coders who are teaching beginners. It’s always interesting to read articles like this and part of that is to understand the perceptions that people have about teaching when they are not full-time teachers themselves. And this article does make some good points about how not to teach. Unfortunately the examples of how people, one presumes the author included, actually code are not what I want new programmers to learn. In fact this post was quite unsettling to me as someone who made his living writing code for 14-15 years and who still writes some when necessary.

The article has a line that reads “”But, good coding isn't like teaching at all. It promotes habits that are entirely counterproductive to the art of teaching.” Really? I’m skeptical. He goes on to say “”Part way through writing a method, you might decide you need to track things in an array. After a few minutes, you'll decide a hashtable works better.” Oh please in the name of all that is good in the world don’t let that be common among professional developers. Yes, that happens sometimes but it should be awfully rare. You should have thought things through in some detail before you started coding. If you are making big data structures in the middle of coding you clearly (in my opinion at least) were not ready to start coding at all.
On the other hand in teaching I would expect this to be more common. Specifically the lecture that worked well with one audience may not work as well with another. A good teacher sees this, adapts and tries to explain things a little differently.

And then there is this gem “Second, coding lets you cheat on the details. We compile our code not because we think we're done, but because we want to find out what we may have missed. ” No! If you run the compiler and get errors and warnings you should be surprised. Or at very least disappointed. Now maybe the author is using crummy tools. I am spoiled by Visual Studio which notices a lot of syntax and other errors as you are typing. And IntelliSense goes a long long way toward helping avoid spelling errors. This makes it easier to avoid missing things. But don’t people read though and self-edit before compiling any more? Some days I think we were all better off when programmers had only one or two chances to compile their code a day. Coding is about details. Cheating on details is a path to destruction.

The last line of the article is priceless. “How do you teach people well? It starts by knowing that what may make you a great programmer will not make you a great teacher.”  Probably true. But you also have to understand what makes a great programmer. I think a lot of programmers have a much higher opinion of their coding ability than is warranted. I never saw myself as a great programmer BTW. In fact I know what a great programmer is and how they work. I’m pretty sure I don’t have it. But I know enough about it to teach it. Like a great football coach who has never thrown a touchdown pass or gotten a sack or kicked a field goal but who can help others do all those things better a good teacher is someone who helps others learn from the mistakes of others.

A great programmer may not make a good teacher because they may not understand how they do what they do in a way that they can translate for a beginner. But someone who speaks the language of software and can translate the concepts and ideas for beginners may make for a great teacher even if only an average (or even fair) programmer themselves. We still have to focus on what makes for a great programmer not what makes a lazy programmer though.


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