How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code

Nobody misses that fact more egregiously than the American College Board, the folks responsible for setting the AP Computer Science high school curriculum. The AP curriculum ought to be a model for how to teach people to program. Instead it's an example of how something intrinsically amusing can be made into a lifeless slog.

ap curriculum outline.png

I imagine that the College Board approached the problem from the top down. I imagine a group of people sat in a room somewhere and asked themselves, "What should students know by the time they finish this course?"; listed some concepts, vocabulary terms, snippets of code and provisional test questions; arranged them into "modules," swaths of exposition followed by exercises; then handed off the course, ready-made, to teachers who had no choice but to follow it to the letter.

Whatever the process, the product is a nightmare described eloquently by Paul Lockhart, a high school mathematics teacher, in his short booklet, A Mathematician's Lament, about the sorry state of high school mathematics. His argument applies almost beat for beat to computer programming.

Lockhart illustrates our system's sickness by imagining a fun problem, then showing how it might be gutted by educators trying to "cover" more "material."

Take a look at this picture:

lockhart's triangle.png

It's sort of neat to wonder, How much of the box does the triangle take up? Two-thirds, maybe? Take a moment and try to figure it out.

If you're having trouble, it could be because you don't have much training in real math, that is, in solving open-ended problems about simple shapes and objects. It's hard work. But it's also kind of fun -- it requires patience, creativity, an insight here and there. It feels more like working on a puzzle than one of those tedious drills at the back of a textbook.

If you struggle for long enough you might strike upon the rather clever idea of chopping your rectangle into two pieces like so:

lockhart's triangle with vertical.png

Now you have two rectangles, each cut diagonally in half by a leg of the triangle. So there is exactly as much space inside the triangle as outside, which means the triangle must take up exactly half the box!

This is what a piece of mathematics looks and feels like. That little narrative is an example of the mathematician's art: asking simple and elegant questions about our imaginary creations, and crafting satisfying and beautiful explanations. There is really nothing else quite like this realm of pure idea; it's fascinating, it's fun, and it's free!

But this is not what math feels like in school. The creative process is inverted, vitiated:

This is why it is so heartbreaking to see what is being done to mathematics in school. This rich and fascinating adventure of the imagination has been reduced to a sterile set of "facts" to be memorized and procedures to be followed. In place of a simple and natural question about shapes, and a creative and rewarding process of invention and discovery, students are treated to this:

triangle area formula picture.png

"The area of a triangle is equal to one-half its base times its height." Students are asked to memorize this formula and then "apply" it over and over in the "exercises." Gone is the thrill, the joy, even the pain and frustration of the creative act. There is not even a problem anymore. The question has been asked and answered at the same time -- there is nothing left for the student to do.

* * *

My struggle to become a hacker finally saw a breakthrough late in my freshman year of college, when I stumbled on a simple question:

If we list all the natural numbers below 10 that are multiples of 3 or 5, we get 3, 5, 6 and 9. The sum of these multiples is 23.

Find the sum of all the multiples of 3 or 5 below 1000.

This was the puzzle that turned me into a programmer. This was Project Euler problem #1, written in 2001 by a then much older Colin Hughes, that student of the ORIC-1 who had gone on to become a math teacher at a small British grammar school and, not long after, the unseen professor to tens of thousands of fledglings like myself.

The problem itself is a lot like Lockhart's triangle question -- simple enough to entice the freshest beginner, sufficiently complicated to require some thought.

What's especially neat about it is that someone who has never programmed -- someone who doesn't even know what a program is -- can learn to write code that solves this problem in less than three hours. I've seen it happen. All it takes is a little hunger. You just have to want the answer.

That's the pedagogical ballgame: get your student to want to find something out. All that's left after that is to make yourself available for hints and questions. "That student is taught the best who is told the least."

It's like sitting a kid down at the ORIC-1. Kids are naturally curious. They love blank slates: a sandbox, a bag of LEGOs. Once you show them a little of what the machine can do they'll clamor for more. They'll want to know how to make that circle a little smaller or how to make that song go a little faster. They'll imagine a game in their head and then relentlessly fight to build it.

Along the way, of course, they'll start to pick up all the concepts you wanted to teach them in the first place. And those concepts will stick because they learned them not in a vacuum, but in the service of a problem they were itching to solve.

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James Somers is a writer and programmer based in New York. He works at Rap Genius. His personal site is jsomers.net.

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