02 April 2017

Which programming language to teach? A principled choice

Java is still one of the most popular programming language to teach the young or newbies to programming.  It's a very problematic choice.  See:

  1. The problem of Object Oriented Programming is an education one
  2. Learn Python instead of Java as your first language [1]
  3. Java has deep expression problem for beginning students
  4. Governments mandating which programming language to teach
Having looked at some of the problems and issues before, I want to be constructive and offer some principles for how to choose which programming language to teach instead.

1. Principle of no magical incantations

This can be viewed as a language feature vs. library supplied functionality issue.  The latter is mostly okay, but the former should have no magical incantations that students need to learn.

Magical incantations are language features like the "static" keyword in Java.  You could imagine a student asking:
What does "static" mean in the "main" method declaration?  Why is it "static" and not something else?  What does "static" do?  Why do I need to write "static" when I don't know what it means to make something "static" vs not static?  I don't want it "static", I want it "grounded", can I write that instead?
Now you could imagine a teacher answering:
The answer to why, what, how, etc., would require explaining OOP and how it's implemented in Java and...  Look, just write 'static'.  It's just the way it is.  Just do it this way or else it doesn't work.  It's a magical incantation the Java gods require you to recite.
The more language features required to write even a simple program, the more things students have to learn or be ignorant of but use (i.e. magical incantations).

That makes it more likely that students have to learn everything about the programming language all at once just to do even the simplest thing at all.

2. Minimize concepts required to start doing stuff

The more that foundational programming concepts are required, the more programming language specific things students must think about whilst at the same time thinking about solving the actual (i.e. non-programming-language, "business") problem in its problem domain.

Otherwise, it'd be like students have to learn everything in the programming language all at once in order to do anything at all.

3. Idiomatic code from the start

A programming language that encourages writing idiomatic code from the very start reduces either the magical incantations required in writing idiomatic code, and reduces dumb code written stupidly just to avoid learning the magical incantations.

Otherwise, students have to learn everything all at once just to do anything at all.

Magical incantations are not hidden machinery!

I'm not advocating learning C because it doesn't have the magic of a garbage collector (GC)!  The GC is not a magical incantation: it's mostly hidden machinery.

Hidden machinery works quietly, never broadcasting its own existence, and isn't in your face about what it does.  It doesn't offer an affordance where none is called for, or where it would be inappropriate for the target user.

Magical incantations are flamboyant and in your face.  You know it's doing work because the magician is showing you that work is being done through the incantations, even if what's shown and what's done might very well be disconnected from each other.

To a newbie, the "static" Java keyword (to pick on something as an example) is magical incantation.  The Java GC is hidden machinery that we should be thankful for having every day.

Hidden machinery that makes a language easier for a newbie to learn is great.  Magical incantations that calls out its own existence is not helpful.

Magical incantations are also not Spooky Action at a Distance.  But that's a topic for another day.

I wrote the above years ago (around 2013 February 4), and only now slightly expanded and lightly edited it to share here.

[1] I don't recommend learning Python as your first language anymore for various reasons (but I'd certainly recommend learning Python over Java as your first language!).