TITLE: Programming != Teaching AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 06, 2011 3:21 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A few weeks ago I wrote a few entries that made connections to Roger Rosenblatt's Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. As I am prone to doing, I found a lot of connections between writing, as described by Rosenblatt, and programming. I also saw connections between teaching of writers and teaching of programmers. The most recent entry in that series highlighted how teachers want their students to learn how to think the same way, not how to write the same way. Rosenblatt also occasionally explores similarities between writing and teaching. Toward the end of the book, he points out a very important difference between the two:
Wouldn't it be nice if you knew that your teaching had shape and unity, and that when a semester came to an end, you could see that every individual thing you said had coalesced into one overarching statement? But who knows? I liken teaching to writing, but the two enterprises diverge here, because any perception of a grand scheme depends on what the students pick up. You may intend a lovely consistency in what you're tossing them, but they still have to catch it. In fact, I do see unity to my teaching. What they see, I have no clue. It probably doesn't matter if they accept the parts without the whole. A few things are learned, and my wish for more may be plain vanity.
Novelists, poets, and essayists can achieve closure and create a particular whole. Their raw material are words and ideas, which the writer can make to dance. The writer can have an overarching statement in mind, and making it real is just a matter of hard work and time. Programmers have that sort of control over their raw material, too. As a programmer, I relish taken on the challenge of a hard problem and creating a solution that meets the needs of a person. If I have a goal for a program, I can almost always make it happen. I like that. Teachers may have a grand scheme in mind, too, but they have no reliable way of making sure that their scheme comes true. Their raw material consists not only of words and ideas. Indeed, their most important raw material, their most unpredictable raw material, are students. Try as they might, teachers don't control what students do, learn, or think. I am acutely aware of this thought as we wrap up the first half of our programming languages course. I have introduced students to functional programming and recursive programming techniques. I have a pretty good idea what I hope they know and can do now, but that scheme remains in my head. Rosenblatt is right. It is vanity for us teachers to expect students to learn exactly what we want for them. It's okay if they don't. Our job is to do what we can to help them grow. After that, we have to step aside and let them run. Students will create their own wholes. They will assemble their wholes from the parts they catch from us, but also from parts they catch everywhere else. This is a good thing, because the world has a lot more to teach than I can teach them on my own. Recognizing this makes it a lot easier for me as a teacher to do the best I can to help them grow and then get out of their way. -----