TITLE: A Small Curricular Tempest AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 01, 2008 4:21 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A couple of weeks ago I linked to Shriram Krishnamurthi, who mentioned a recent SIGPLAN-sponsored workshop that has proposed a change to ACM's curriculum guidelines. The change is quite simple, shifting ten hours of instruction in programming languages from small topics into a single ten-hour category called "functional programming". Among the small topics that would be affected, coverage of recursion and event-driven programming would be halved, and coverage of virtual machines and language translation would no longer be mandated separately, nor would an "overview" of programming languages. In practice, the proposal to eliminate coverage of some areas has less effect than you might think. Recursion is a natural topic in functional programming, and event-driven programming is a natural topic on object-oriented programming. The current recommendation of three hours total to cover virtual machines and language translation hardly does them justice anyway; students can't possibly learn any of the valuable ideas in depth in that amount of time. If schools adopt this change, they would be spending the time spent more productively helping students to understand functional programming well. Many schools will probably continue to teach those topics as part of their principles of programming languages course anyway. I didn't comment on the proposal in detail earlier because it seemed more like the shuffling of deck chairs than a major change in stance. I do approve of the message the proposal sends, namely that functional programming is important enough to be a core topic in computer science. Readers of this blog already know where I stand on that. Earlier this week, though, Mark Guzdial blogged Prediction and Invention: Object-oriented vs. functional, which has created some discussion in several circles. He starts with "The goal of any curriculum is to prepare the students for their future." Here is my take. Mark seems to be saying that functional programming is not sufficiently useful to our students to make it a core programming topic. Mandating that schools teach ten hours each of functional and object-oriented programming, he thinks, tells our students that we faculty believe functional programming is -- or will be -- as important as object-oriented programming to their professional careers. Our students get jobs in companies that primarily use OO languages and frameworks, and our curricula should reflect that. This piece has a vocational tone that I find surprising coming from Mark, and that is perhaps what most people are reacting to when they read it. When he speaks of making sure the curriculum teaches what is "real" to students, or how entry-level programmers often find themselves modifying existing code with an OO framework, it's easy to draw a vocational theme from his article. A lot of academics, especially computer scientists, are sensitive to such positions, because the needs of industry and the perceptions of our students already exert enough pressure on CS curriculum. In practical terms, we have to find the right balance between practical skills for students and the ideas that underlie those skills and the rest of computing practice. We already know that, and "esoteric" topics such as functional programming and computing theory are already part of that conversation. Whether Mark is willing to stand behind the vocational argument or not, I think there is another theme in his piece that also requires a balance he doesn't promote. It comes back to the role of curriculum guidelines in shaping what schools teach and expressing what we think students should learn. Early on, he says,
I completely disagree that we should try to mandate that much functional programming through manipulation of the curriculum standards.
And later:
Then, when teaching more functional programming becomes a recognized best practice, it will be obvious that it should be part of the curriculum standards.
The question is whether curriculum standards should be prescriptive or descriptive. Mark views the current SIGPLAN proposal as prescribing an approach that contradicts both current best practice and the needs of industry, rather describing best practice in schools around the country. And he thinks curriculum standards should be descriptive. I am sensitive to this sort of claim myself, because -- like Mark! -- I have been contending for many years with faculty who think OOP is a fad and has no place in a CS curriculum, or at least in our first-year courses. These faculty, both at my university and throughout the country, argue that our courses should be about what students "really do" in the world, not about esoteric design patterns and programming techniques. In the end, these people end up claiming that people like me are trying to prescribe a paradigm for how our students should think. The ironic thing, of course, is that over the last fifteen years OOP and Java have gone from being something new to the predominant tools in industry. It's a good things that some schools started teaching more OOP, even in the first year, and developing the texts and teaching materials that other schools could use to join in later. (The people arguing against OOP in the first year have not given up the case; they've now shifted to claiming that we should teach even Java "fundamentals first", going "back to basics" before diving into all that complicated stuff about data and procedures bearing some relation to one another. I've written about that debate before and have tremendous respect for many of the people on the front line of "basics" argument. I still disagree.) As in the case of vocational versus theoretical content, I think we need to find the right balance between prescriptive and descriptive curriculum standards. These two dimensions are not wholly independent of each other, but they are different and so call for different balances. I agree with Mark that at least part of our curriculum standard should be descriptive of current practice, both in universities and in industry. Standard curricular practice is important in helping to create some consistency across universities and helping to keep schools who are out of the know on a solid and steady path. And the simple fact is that our students do graduate into professional careers and need to be prepared to participate in an economy that increasingly depends on information technology. For those of us at state-supported universities, this is a reasonable expectation of the people who pay our bills. However, I think that we also need some prescriptive elements to our curricula. As Alan Kay says in a comment on Mark's blog, universities have a responsibility not only to produce graduates capable in participating in the economy but also to help students become competent, informed citizens in a democracy. This is perhaps even more important at state-supported universities, which serve the citizenry of the state. This may sound too far from the ground when talking about computer science curriculum, but it's not. The same ideas apply -- to growing informed citizens, and to growing informed technical professionals. The notion that curriculum standards are partly prescriptive is not all that strange, because it's not that different from how curriculum standards have worked in the past, really. Personally, I like having experts in areas such as programming languages and operating systems helping us keep our curricular standards up to date. I certainly value their input for what they know to be current in the field. I also value their input because they know what is coming, what is likely to have an effect on practice in the near future, and what might help students understand better the more standard content we teach. At first I had a hard time figuring out Mark's position, because I know him to grok functional programming. Why was he taking this position? What were his goals? His first paragraph seems to lay out his goal for the CS curriculum:
The goal of any curriculum is to prepare the students for their future. In just a handful of years, teachers aim to give the students the background to be successful for several decades.
He then recognizes that "the challenge of creating a curriculum is the challenge of predicting the future." These concerns seem to sync quite nicely with the notion of encouraging that all students learn a modicum about functional programming! I don't have studies to cite, but I've often heard and long believed that the more different programming styles and languages a person learns, the better a programmer she will be. Mark points to studies show little direct transfer from skills learned in one language to skills learned in another, and I do not doubt their truth. But I'm not even talking about direct transfer of knowledge from functional programming to OOP; I'm thinking of the sort of expansion of the mind that happens when we learn different ways to think about problems and implement solutions. A lot of the common OO design patterns borrow ideas from other domains, including functional programming. How can we borrow interesting ideas if we don't know about them? It is right and good that our curriculum standards push a little beyond current technical and curricular practice, because then we are able to teach ideas that can help computing evolve. This evolution is just as important in the trenches of a web services group at an insurance company as it is to researchers doing basic science. In the particular case of functional programming, students learn not only beautiful ideas but also powerful ideas, ideas that are germinating now in the development of programming languages in practice, from Ruby and Python to .NET. Our students need those ideas for their careers. As I mentioned, Alan Kay chimed in with a few ideas. I think he disagrees that we can't predict the future by inventing it through curriculum. His idealism on these issues seems to frustrate some people, but I find it refreshing. We can set our sights higher and work to make something better. When I used the allusion to "shuffling the deck chairs" above, I was thinking of Kay, who is on record as saying that how we teach CS is broken. He has also talked to CS educators and exhorted us to set our sights higher. Kay supports the idea of prescriptive curricula for a number of reasons, the most relevant of which to this conversation is that we don't want to hard-code accidental or misguided practice, even if it's the "best" we have right now. Guzdial rightly points out that we don't want to prescribe new accidental or misguided practices, either. That's where the idea of striking a balance comes in for me. We have to do our best to describe what is good now and prescribe at least a little of what is good for the future. I see no reason that we can't invent good futures by judiciously defined curriculum, any more than inventing futures in other arenas. Sure, we face social, societal, and political pressures, but how many arenas don't? So, what about the particular curriculum proposal under discussion? Unlike Guzdial, I like the message it sends, that functional programming is an important topic for all CS grads to learn about. But in end I don't think it will cause any dramatic changes in how CS departments work. I used the word "encourage" above rather than Guzdial's more ominous "mandate", because even ACM's curriculum standards have no force of law. Under the proposed plan, maybe a few schools might try to present a coherent treatment of functional programming where now they don't, at the expense of covering a few good ideas at a shallow level. There will continue to be plenty of diversity, one of the values that guides Guzdial's vision. On this, he and I agree strongly. Diversity in curricula is good, both for the vocational reasons he asserts but also because we learn even better how to teach CS well from the labors and explorations of others. -----