Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What Programming Language to Teach First?

Have you ever been asked a question that you have been asked time and again but suddenly decided you have a different answer for? One of the questions I hear a lot is what programming language should be taught first and this question was asked of a panel I say on last week. Except for me it was an impressive panel. Don Slater of Carnegie Mellon and the Alice Project, Michael Kolling, University of Kent and creator of Greenfoot for teaching Java, and David Klappholz from Stevens Institute of Technology who got his PhD while I was still picking a major in college. So of course I asked to answer first because that was the only way I had a chance of adding value. Plus I had suddenly realized that I had a new answer – one that I had not tried out in public before. And I wanted to give it a go.

Normally of course I would have launched into a great explanation of why Visual Basic was the best and language wars would likely have erupted. But that just did not feel right. So I answered that it depended on a number of things such as the goals of  the course, the type of student but most importantly it depended on what language the teacher was most comfortable with and had the most passion for. The first programming course is hugely important. It is during this course that many students will either be turned on to computer science or turned away from it. This is the first impression and it needs to be a good one. If the teacher knows the language, is comfortable with the language, can have fun with the language and really enjoys the language the students will have a better experience. Everyone wins

I remember teaching Java for the first time. It was not a good experience for me (I was not ready for it) and I am sure it was not a good experience for many of the students. I did then a disservice. In hind sight I should not have agreed to teach the course. But I did and I tried my best but it was not ideal. Teachers easily, and without thinking about it, transfer their feelings about material to their students. Recent reports say this is true of math for example. (Study finds female teachers' fear of math can be catching) I doubt the same is any less true for computer science education. This is why we need well trained and confident computer science teachers in our schools.

There are other considerations BTW. Michael Kolling pointed out that supporting tools are very important. Greenfoot and/or Alice for Java for example. I personally think the Visual Studio IDE makes learning Visual Basic and C# much easier than they would be using a command line and text editor. Plus the drag and drop editing of graphical user interfaces make creating real looking Windows program easy and fun. There are also curriculum materials available for some of the better tools. The Greenfoot site has some for that tool. has some for Alice. The Scratch web site has many resources as well. The Microsoft Faculty Connection has curriculum resources for VB and C#. And there is the newly revamped beginning developer learning center. Python which is a language that has a lot of proponents  (I like that it is dynamic) but not as much in the way of a support environment for teaching. Yet.

I know that a lot of curriculum is slaved to the AP CS curriculum these days but I really strongly believe that APCS is too much for a first course. Students need a gate way course that will introduce them to programming in a fun, exciting, dynamic and enthusiastic way. For that course it is best if the teacher uses a language and a platform that they love. Communicate the love not fear, the enthusiasm not the necessity of a specific language, and share passion not pain.

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