TITLE: StrangeLoop 8: Reactions to Brett Victor's Visible Programming AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 30, 2012 12:45 PM DESC: ----- BODY: The last talk I attended at StrangeLoop 2012 was Bret Victor's Visible Programming. He has since posted an extended version of his presentation, as a multimedia essay titled Learnable Programming. You really should read his essay and play the video in which he demonstrates the implementation of his ideas. It is quite impressive, and worthy of the discussion his ideas have engendered over the last few months. In this entry, I give only a high-level summary of the idea, react to only one of his claims, and discuss only one of his design principles in ay detail. This entry grew much longer than I originally intended. If you would like to skip most of my reaction, jump to the mini-essay that is the heart of this entry, Programing By Reacting, in the REPL.
Programmers often discuss their productivity as at least a partial result of the programming environments they use. Victor thinks this is dangerously wrong. It implies, he says, that the difficulty with programming is that we aren't doing it fast enough. But speed is not the problem. The problem is that our programming environments don't help us to think. We do all of our programming in our minds, then we dump our ideas into code via the editor. Our environments should do more. They should be our external imagination. They should help us see how our programs work as we are writing them. This is an attractive guiding principle for designing tools to help programmers. Victor elaborates this principle into a set of five design principles for an environment: Victor's talk then discussed each design principle in detail and showed how one might implement the idea using JavaScript and Processing.js in a web browser. The demo was cool enough that the StrangeLoop crowd broke into applause at leas twice during the talk. Read the essay.
As I watched the talk, I found myself reacting in a way I had not expected. So many people have spoken so highly of this work. The crowd was applauding! Why was I not as enamored? I was impressed, for sure, and I was thinking about ways to use these ideas to improve my teaching. But I wasn't falling head over heels in love. A Strong Claim First, I was taken aback by a particular claim that Victor made at the beginning of his talk as one of the justifications for this work:
If a programmer cannot see what a program is doing, she can't understand it.
Unless he means this metaphorically, seeing "in the mind's eye", then it is simply wrong. We do understand things we don't see in physical form. We learn many things without seeing them in physical form. During my doctoral study, I took several courses in philosophy, and only rarely did we have recourse to images of the ideas we were studying. We held ideas in our head, expressed in words, and manipulated them there. We did externalize ideas, both as a way to learn them and think about them. But we tended to use stories, not pictures. By speaking an idea, or writing it down, and sharing it with others, we could work with them. So, my discomfort with one of Victor's axioms accounted for some of my unexpected reaction. Professional programmers can and do manipulate ideas abstractly. Visualization can help, but when is it necessary, or even most helpful? Learning, Versus Doing This leads to a second element of my concern. I think I had a misconception about Victor's work. His talk and its title, "Visible Programming", led me to think his ideas are aimed primarily at working programmers, that we need to make programs visible for all programmers. The title of his essay, "Learnable Programming", puts his claims into a different context. We need to make programs visible for people who are learning to program. This seems a much more reasonable position on its face. It also lets me see the axiom that bothered me so much in a more sympathetic light: If a novice programmer cannot see what a program is doing, then she may not be able to understand it. Seeing how a program works is a big part of learning to program. A few years ago, I wrote about "biction" and the power of drawing a picture of what code does. I often find that if I require a student to draw a picture of what his code is doing before he can ask me for debugging help, he will answer his own question before getting to me. The first time a student experiences this can be a powerful experience. Many students begin to think of programming in a different way when they realize the power of thinking about their programs using tools other than code. Visible programming environments can play a role in helping students think about their programs, outside their code and outside their heads. I am left puzzling over two thoughts: Mark Guzdial has written a more detailed analysis of Victor's essay from the perspective of a computer science educator. As always, Mark's ideas are worth reading. Programming By Reacting, in the REPL My favorite parts of this talk were the sections on creating by reacting and abstracting. Programmers, Victor says, don't work like other creators. Painters don't stare at a blank canvas, think hard, create a painting in their minds, and then start painting the picture they know they want to create. Sculptors don't stare at a block of stone, envision in their mind's eye the statue they intend to make, and then reproduce that vision in stone. They start creating, and react, both to the work of art they are creating and to the materials they are using. Programmers, Victor says, should be able to do the same thing -- if only our programming environments helped us. As a teacher, I think this is an area ripe for improvement in how we help students learn to program. Students open up their text editor or IDE, stare at that blank screen, and are terrified. What do I do now? A lot of my work over the last fifteen to twenty years has been in trying to find ways to help students get started, to help them to overcome the fear of the blank screen. My approaches haven't been through visualization, but through other ways to think about programs and how we grow them. Elementary patterns can give students tools for thinking about problems and growing their code at a scale larger than characters or language keywords. An agile approach can help them start small, add one feature at a time, proceed in confidence with working tests, and refactor to make their code better as they go along. Adding Victor-style environment support for the code students write in CS1 and CS2 would surely help as well. However, as I listened to Victor describe support for creating by reacting, and then abstracting variables and functions out of concrete examples, I realized something. Programmers don't typically write code in an environment with data visualizations of the sort Victor proposes, but we do program in the style that such visualizations enable. We do it in the REPL! A simple, interactive computer programming environment enables programmers to create by reacting. Programmers from the Lisp and Smalltalk communities, and from the rest of the dynamic programming world, will recognize this style of programming. It's what we do, a form of creating by reacting, from concrete examples in the interaction pane to code in the definitions pane. In the agile software development world, test-first development encourages a similar style of programming, from concrete examples in the test case to minimal code in the application class. Test-driven design stimulates an even more consciously reactive style of programming, in which the programmer reacts both to the evolving program and to the programmer's evolving understanding of it. The result is something similar to Victor's goal for programmers as they create abstractions:
The learner always gets the experience of interactively controlling the lower-level details, understanding them, developing trust in them, before handing off that control to an abstraction and moving to a higher level of control.
It seems that Victor would like to perform even more support for novices than these tools can provide, down to visualizing what the program does as they type each line of code. IDEs with autocomplete is perhaps the closest analog in our current arsenal. Perhaps we can do more, not only for novices but also professionals.
I love the idea that our environments could do more for us, to be our external imaginations. Like many programmers, though, as I watched this talk, I occasionally wondered, "Sure, this works great if you creating art in Processing. What about when I'm writing a compiler? What should my editor do then?" Victor anticipated this question and pre-emptively answered it. Rather than asking, How does this scale to what I do?, we should turn the question inside out and ask, These are the design requirements for a good environment. How do we change programming to fit? I doubt such a dogmatic turn will convince skeptics with serious doubts about this approach. I do think, though, that we can reformulate the original question in a way that focuses on helping "real" programmers. What does a non-graphical programmer need in an external imagination? What kind of feedback -- frequent, even in-the-moment -- would be most helpful to, say, a compiler writer? How could our REPLs provide even more support for creating, reacting, and abstracting? These questions are worth asking, whatever one thinks of Victor's particular proposal. Programmers should be grateful for his causing us to ask them. -----