Should we go back to teaching programming?

“I teach statistics to people who don’t want to learn it.”

This is my cocktail party response to people who ask what I do for a living. Even though I usually only teach one course a year, it is a quick way to answer the question and get back to drinking.

Having faced up to the fact that students in education, social science, business – really, any major but statistics – really don’t want to learn statistics, it seemed like years ago when all the point-y click-y interfaces came in, heralded by SPSS, shortly followed by SAS Enterprise Guide, Excel Statistics Add-in, Statistica, Stata and other offerings too numerous to mention, I thought it was a good thing making my students’  lives easier. Now, at least, they did not need to learn programming to get their statistics.

Using both SAS Enterprise Guide and SAS syntax with the web editor this semester, looking at them side by side it has seemed that it is not that much harder to teach programming. Enterprise Guide DOES make it easier to understand what is going on, what is the dependent variable – because it’s labeled.

Today, I read this and, in an article with the obvious title “Teach US kids to write computer code”, and  it really made me think

“Programming a computer is not like being the mechanic of an automobile. We’re not looking at the difference between a mechanic and a driver, but between a driver and a passenger. If you don’t know how to drive the car, you are forever dependent on your driver to take you where you want to go. You’re even dependent on that driver to tell you when a place exists.”

I’ve been teaching since 1985. For seven years of that, I was full-time, tenure track – the five years before and fifteen years after that I taught as an adjunct. In all of that time, social science, education and business majors have not – generally – been that excited about learning to code. I took my first two programming courses as an undergraduate business major, because they were required.  God bless whoever at Washington University in St. Louis back in 1975 who decided that would be a good thing for students to know.

They definitely did not have the concept of students as customers, but as students. Some faculty committee decided that whether students wanted to learn programming or not, they should, because it was good to know.

Something to think about.

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  1. “9. Kids are already doing algorithms, the basic building blocks of computer programming. Once they learn long division, they are ready to start programming.”

    Do US kids still learn long division?

  2. Since a chunk of my students regularly have trouble grasping the difference between the independent and dependent variables no matter HOW many ways I try to explain it, I fear I would be failing even more if they had to program as well.

    Then again many of these students really need a course in statistical LITERACY (what is a study, how do they work, why do we do them, how are statistics used to support that process, what questions should you be asking when you read a study) rather than one on calculating the statistics. They tend to get lost in the math (or fear of it) and not learn the why’s that would really help them in the future.

    BTW, SPSS and menu driven things are more akin to driving an automatic rather than a stick; you still need a clue, but there are fewer places to screw up the really fundamental stuff (order, punctation, etc.) You still need to KNOW which variable is the dependent variable to get the right result.

  3. Yes, kids learn long division in school. I happen to know this for sure because we just finished a program to teach mathematics to fourth and fifth graders and long division is part of the state standards.

    Rebecca – as far as teaching programming, I think it depends on the type of students and the type of programming. I teach doctoral students and I think SAS is a lot more accessible as a first program than say javascript or ruby (or, in my case, Fortran)

  4. I read the same article on the CNN news site. The author points out: “Computer Science is not just a STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — subject, but a liberal art as well.”

    My CompSci degree (earned 20+ years ago) IS a Bachelor of Arts – because I attended a liberal arts college. More and more, programming is an essential activity that helps us to achieve our goals, but it’s not THE career in itself. That’s why “programmer” is not part of my job title.

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