Thursday, 18 October 2007

What makes X hard?

Mark Guzdial has written a nice article, What makes programming so hard?

But I say, "Programming: Easy. Dancing: Hard." What he is really talking about is the bimodal nature of skill acquisition. In many areas: Some people really get it; and others don't get it at all, and then there is the group in the middle who kinda get it.

Of course this, split is not accepted in certain fundamental skills: Talking, walking, self-feeding, toileting, where only those with significant disabilities are excused a reasonable competence.

In fact, everyone will find many things hard and many things easy. For example, when I audited a drama subject as part of a teaching degree I found a bunch of (lovely) people who united in their terror of mathematics. In my mathematics subjects, I am sure that I would have found some who felt the same way about getting up on stage.

So what are the elements of (basic) programming?

* Composition
* Decomposition
* Visualization
* Precision and clarity
* Use of and acquisition of formal language
* Memory
* Planning
* Logic
* Numeracy

Deficiency in any of these is likely to lead to frustration. But I maintain that there are two qualities that are necessary for any kind of learning:

* Wanting to learn X
* Patience when an element of X does not come easily

Another factor is having learned something in the past which interferes with the new area of learning. Examples:

* Tennis requires a firm wrist on impact; squash a flexible wrist
* Riding a bike caused me to almost throw myself off an adult-sized trike
* My English grammar makes it hard for me to adapt to Hebrew
* "You can teach anyone Lisp in 1 day, but it takes 3 if they already know C" (the use of parentheses is radically different)

If someone really wants to learn something, and is patient and quietly determined, and has access to an instructor who can help in the basic areas, learning is possible, and may be surprisingly fruitful.

One test of a dance teacher is whether (s)he can teach someone who lacks a sense of rhythm or is uncoordinated can teach these fundamentals, not just so that they can be applied in learning dances, but are transferable to other areas.

Similarly for other teachers.

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