TITLE: Aptitude as Controlling Factor in Learning to Program AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 07, 2004 5:24 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I'm busily preparing to leave town for PLoP, and I haven't had time to write lately. I also haven't had time to clarify a bunch of loose ideas in my head on the topics of aptitude for computing and the implications for introductory CS courses. So I'll write down my jumble as is. A couple of months ago, I read E.L. Doctorow's memoir, Reporting The Universe. As I've noted before, I like to read writers, especially accomplished ones, writing about writing, especially how and why they write. One of Doctorow's comments stuck in my mind. He claimed that the aptitude for math and physics (and presumably computing) is rare, but all people are within reach of writing good narrative. For some reason, I didn't want to believe that. Not the part about writing, because I do believe that most folks can learn to write well. I didn't want to believe that most folks are predisposed away from doing computing. I know that it's technical, and that it seems difficult to many. But to me, it's about communicating, too, and I've always held out hope that most folks can learn to write programs, too. Then on a mailing list last weekend, this topic came up in the form of what intro CS courses should be like. These guys are among the best, if not the best, intro CS teachers in the country, and they make their claims from deep understanding and broad experience. The ideas aren't mutually exclusive, of course, as they talk some about what our courses should be like and about the aptitude that people may have for the discipline. I'm still trying to tease the two apart in my mind. But the aptitude issue is stickier for me right now. I'm reminded of something Ralph Johnson said at a PLoP a few years ago. He offered as motivation piano teachers. Perhaps not everyone has the aptitude to be a concert pianist, but piano teachers have several pedagogies that enable them to teach nearly anyone to play piano serviceably. Perhaps we can aim for the same: not all of our students will become masters, but all can become competent programmers, if they show some interest and put in the work required to get better. Perhaps aptitude is more of a controlling factor than I have thought. Certainly, I know of more scientists and mathematicians who have enjoyed writing (and well) than humanities folks who enjoy doing calculus or computer programming on the side. But I can't help but think that interest can trump aptitude for all but a few, so long as "merely" competence is the goal. -----