Hugh Reynolds
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 13, 2012 10:34 am

liz said:


DavidS said:


I assume that these are an entrance exam questions for a 4 year old?  Why would any school target such a low point that should be taught at home when the child is very young???


I did GCSE Maths in England in 1992, and I remember very similar questions (there was also another paper which those students who wanted to get a mark above a C grade had to take, with the odd quadratic equation and some Euclidian geometry in it, but the whole affair was very heavy on the most basic of arithmetic, and the expectation for kids up to a C was a lot like what you see above).

Thing is, people aren't even being taught to this standard. Until a few years ago, I was working for an educational publisher which specialised in adult basic skills. The statistics are horrific; 1.7m adults in the UK have reading skills below those that the National Curriculum expects of 11-year-olds. I was building materials for plasterers which explained to them how to calculate the number of tiles they needed to cover a certain area of wall; and for cleaners which explained how long they could spend on each cubicle of a lavatory they were cleaning without going over their time allotment.

I don't have an answer to this stuff (God knows that I sweated blood over it in my old job and got precisely nowhere). As I've said elsewhere, I don't think the Raspberry Pi Foundation does either, but I do hope we can be a catalyst for change and a raiser of awareness. Those of us posting here are a tiny, immensely privileged demographic. And judging by some of the stuff I read here, very few of us realise it.



Rhetorically: So why does the 'profession' of teaching accept such low attainment and such low aspiration of attainment?  I accept it is a difficult job but I don’t accept that they individually or collectively behave professionally.  I except there are many exceptions but they allow(?) their good work to be undermined.

I was astonished when I heard that Michael Gove had _raised_ the target of achievement to 50% of pupils getting 5 A-C grades at GCSE.  I am astonished it is so low.  And your comments about how lowly a C grade achievement can be only raises my worries.

I attended Kinston Poly and graduates in the early 80’s we were ‘taught’ for 32 hours per week.  In the late 80’s my company was sponsoring students at Kingston and we were involved in a review of the syllabus during a redesign of the course.  (More micro-processing and less power engineering).  The proposal was to cut the teaching time to 16 hours, close two of the 3 laboratories and replace one of them with a VDU room!  My point being that the loss of quality has been long coming and at all levels.

Michael Gove has an unenviable task: 1. A big budget under pressure; 2. A party that believes fracturing the comprehensive schools will let best practice flourish; 3. A political class that sees education as unlikely to win votes.  i.e. “education, education, education” was the mantra before election and then going to war seemed more important afterwards; 4. An inherited policy that new buildings would improve teaching quality and that new teaching practices or existing teaching practices were not more important than buildings; 5. A policy of using new building at inflated prices as a way of subsidising the building industry; 6. A policy of inflating teaching salaries by inventing additional non-teaching roles that the best teachers would take on instead of teaching...shall I go on?  (No! please don’t I hear...).

I hope that the Foundation can catalyse some change in the ICT disaster that has inhabited my children’s schools.

Hugh Reynolds
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 13, 2012 10:38 am

And as this is a thread about BASIC I should have included some mention of that oft used phrase "back to BASICs", a phrase with so many meanings and so little content.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 13, 2012 11:44 am

1aws said:


Chromatix said:


Those problems are more complex than the ones I was being given at school when I started to learn programming.  I think I turned out all right.

What age group were they aimed at?  That might be the really shocking part.


The questions were for the end of course examination for 15 year olds at a FOUNDATION level. These two questions were two of the harder ones that I could find. That is a measure of the level that teachers of 15 year old have to deal with. Some even fail this exam. I was just trying to bring some perspective back.



Okay, that *is* shocking.  I would have found such questions (and the cartoonish graphics they are organised in) vaguely interesting when I was about 8.  I am only slightly comforted by the assurance that such questions lead to a D grade at best.

But students who can only achieve such a level at such an age are not candidates for learning programming - I sincerely hope.  This is an excellent example of why it should be an elective.

Something I have heard is that there are students who cannot succeed at anything - not because of a lack of inherent ability to learn, but because they refuse to *try*.  Attempting to accommodate these students in the curriculum leads to continuous dumbing-down and cheats the more able students - and yet the pass rates don't go up significantly, because the failures keep failing at even the simplified exam.  (They might even go *down*, because the brighter students are now bored and restless, as I was in Toxteth.)

So what's missing is the idea that if you don't put the effort in, you will fail and won't be rescued.  In an elective course this concept can be realised without fear of political reprisals, so pass rates and actual achievement can be correspondingly high.

Some might even draw parallels with wider society.

So, when we're talking about the target audience for programming languages, can we please consider only people who are likely to get C or above grades when the time comes?
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 13, 2012 12:13 pm

Chromatix said:


Okay, that *is* shocking.


Oh yes. My nephew does this in school and he's seven.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 13, 2012 1:45 pm


liz said:



Those of us posting here are a tiny, immensely privileged demographic. And judging by some of the stuff I read here, very few of us realise it.


It's very easy to be sidetracked into the 'education has dumbed down since I were a nipper' argument; but I think that it has very little connection with reality for two reasons:


My children have recently taken GCSE and GCE (A & AS level) maths. Compared to my own O and A level experience I'd say that GCSE maths is about the same, and A level is a bit harder. Because A levels are split into AS and A level modules, the transition from GCSE in year 11 to AS in year 13 is probably harder than it was back in 1981 but I'd find it very hard to criticise the curriculum in any meaningful way. The earlier arguments in this thread relate to foundation level GCSE maths - broadly equivalent to CSE in my day.
The students who went on from A levels to take a degree were very much a part of the privileged elite in the early 80s. A large proportion of 16 year olds went from school to work or training and a big chunk of 18 year olds went from sixth form to work or on to professional qualifications. Political changes since then mean that most students are strongly encouraged to stay in full time education until 18 or beyond. As it seems unlikely that the learning ability of recent cohorts has changed much in the last 30 years, the education system has had to cope by providing a way for a bigger proportion of students to gain qualifications that can be used to enter courses for subjects that are less academically challenging. That doesn't mean that the 'elite' aren't learning hard stuff.

As an employer of computer programmers, I am immensely cheered by the attention that ICT is receiving and with any luck it will be unceremoniously dumped. Computer science should be taught at school instead (I managed to do an O level in it when there were relatively few practioners and certainly no teacher/practioners so it must be possible even if we don't have teachers with CS degrees).

Back on topic - BASIC more harmful than useful?

I'm on the side of useful. I had no choice about the languages I was taught but I think that I'm a good programmer all the same:

1978 - CESIL (weird ICL assembler language for schools and we had to fill in forms that were sent to Cambridge Tech to be turned into punched cards and run as a batch job).

1979 ICL BASIC (O level)

1981 Pascal (BSc)

My first job was writing software for an educational publisher in Cambridge and this started off as BBC BASIC and then switched to 6502 assembler. I've got a row of about 20 titles on the shelf behind me that were written in BASIC. I now happen to be using C, but I've used all sorts over the years.

Rather than argue about the merits of one language or another, I'd like to know how to ensure that that new programmers get a basic (!) grounding in design patterns, how to structure an application and, importantly, some experience of coding as close to the metal as possible.


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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 13, 2012 4:03 pm

Chromatix said:


1aws said:


Chromatix said:


Those problems are more complex than the ones I was being given at school when I started to learn programming.  I think I turned out all right.

What age group were they aimed at?  That might be the really shocking part.


The questions were for the end of course examination for 15 year olds at a FOUNDATION level. These two questions were two of the harder ones that I could find. That is a measure of the level that teachers of 15 year old have to deal with. Some even fail this exam. I was just trying to bring some perspective back.


Okay, that *is* shocking.  I would have found such questions (and the cartoonish graphics they are organised in) vaguely interesting when I was about 8.


I certainly wasn't expecting that to be from a test meant for fifteen-year-olds…

When I was in primary school, this was exactly the sort of thing that was being given to us (I won't say "taught", because that makes it sound like we were being taught to pass tests, when luckily we weren't taught that way at all) as being quite basic when we were about eight or nine.

This gives me some perspective on how lucky I was.

[/off-topic] (Sorry, everyone!)

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sat Jan 14, 2012 12:35 am

The hypothesis on which this thread seems to be based is that there is something about the current variants of BASIC that are limiting in a way that would potentially limit the learning of programming concepts.  Now let us look at modern BASIC (as implemented in FreeBASIC) verses C (as implemented in the GNU tool chain) in what BASIC is lacking or not enforcing that C has or enforces that backs this hypothesis.  So we shall begin with the similarities between the two:

1) Both require forward declaration of all variables and strongly recommend forward declaration of procedures.

2) Both strongly enforce the scope of Variables.

3)Both support structured data types.

4) Both have the same set of operators (though some of the tokens are different [eg. & vs AND]).

5) Both support inline assembly.

6) FreeBASIC supports OO and inheritance (as does G++).

7) Both support macros.

Both support automatic bounds checking, and both recommend against using automatic bounds checking.

Now I will have to defer to someone else to show what BASIC is missing or does not correctly enforce as I am not aware of anything.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sat Jan 14, 2012 12:40 am

And I almost forgot:

9) Both support pointers to any variable or procedure type as well as untyped pointers (void in C, and ANY in BASIC).
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sat Jan 14, 2012 12:48 am

Jaseman said:


You could say something like 'Well done, that's a good program you've made.  You might be interested to see what I've done here as an alternative method.'

Keep it positive, and give encouragement to people that might not know as much as you do.  We're all at different skill levels.


Indeed, that's exactly what you want. Programming, and IT in general, is a continual learning exercise. Showing students that asking questions, collaboration and utilising the work of others is what you need to do.

I think we forget that writing an effective program to do some specific task is the result of a trade-off between a sometimes complex set of requirements; and that is quite legitimate. In other words, a good program is more than just finding a good implementation of a particular algorithm.

For example if you are familiar with one language and don't have time to use a better one, meeting the requirements in that language is more than appropriate.

Many problems in IT arise from seeking the perfect rather than the practical and effective. Look at a few failed government IT projects for examples.

The worry I have with teaching programming to school students is that the level of sophistication in the game, web and social apps they might be familiar with, is way below that which individually they will be able to achieve in programming at school. I know some will "get it" and do some amazing stuff, but many will be put off. Difficult though it may seem in a current school environment, to achieve the best results in educational terms it may be necessary to move away from individual to collective achievements.

While increasing the number of competent programmers is a very good national aim, it equally important they we create a set of people who understand IT more broadly and are able to apply it well in government and business. That is a different set of skills.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sun Jan 15, 2012 1:23 pm

1aws said:


Simon, may I direct you to the official document.


OK, that's a lot more sensible, although it was almost certainly written by someone with a background in BASIC, and it has a few glaring errors.  And it unfortunately doesn't take things anywhere near high enough to actually help those who have any kind of aptitude – they'll be bored shitless.

1aws said:


Education cannot be run for the few.


and then


You appear to be thinking only of the brighter children.


No, not at all.  I'm thinking of the children who have an aptitude for programming.  They are far from the majority, but they are relatively easy to spot early on.  As pvgb points out:

pvgb said:


There is a school of thought that anyone can be taught how to program. Personally, I don"t believe a word of it.


and


Given the choice of having an elite few who can actually program really well, or an elite more who can program really well and a whole bunch of people who can program but less well I know which I would choose.


Part of the problem, as I see it, is trying to produce a "one size fits all" curriculum for ICT.  Even if we assume that 100% of children are going to end up working in IT, some of them will be programmers, some will be web designers, some will be hardware engineers, and so on.

Half[1] the population have an IQ below 100, and programming is based on mathematics.  Not easy mathematics, but really quite hard mathematics.  Far harder than the two questions you posted earlier.  There's no way you're going to be able to teach a class that ranges from "moron" to "genius" to be able to program without totally losing the upper and lower percentiles (at a guess, ~ 30% either side of the median[2]) due to boredom and complete inability to comprehend.

What's being suggested by Gove[3] for ICT appears to provide some of the flexibility required to actually do what's best for the majority of the children, rather than trying to dumb everything down[4] and get "better results".

The downside, of course, is that I doubt the utopia of an ICT curriculum aimed at doing what's right for the kids will actually happen. Partially because it will be seen as "streaming", and partially because it means a lot more work overall – teachers will have to be able to teach everything from web design and wordprocessing through to high-level computing concepts (stuff that's way, way above what's suggested in the document you linked), and examining boards would have to work out some way of actually testing the abilities in a fair way (after all, if it's all wrapped up together, a kid with a high level of aptitude for web design shouldn't be marked lower than someone with the same level in actual computer science).  What would really fix it would be teaching computer science as a separate subject, but that's not been suggested (maybe I'll assuage my political conscience and go back on [3] below after all).  Lumping everything together is not a solution, it's like trying to teach combined Maths, Biology and Art.

In short, my belief is that everyone should be given a chance to excel, but you can't expect everyone to manage it, or *anyone* to manage it if you're trying to forcibly pull the low end of the bell curve upwards.  Yes, the technically competent, the programmers, are (viewed from a certain angle) an elite, and they always will be.  Aiming to help them meet their potential is not a crime, and certainly doesn't mean running education "for the few".

Simon

[1] Well, just under half the population, actually, but it's close enough.

[2] Yes, I do mean 30% of the total on either side of the median.  Yes, that means you're aiming at 40% or so of students, the "mediocre" ones.  Running education "for the few", and ruining it for the rest in the process.

[3] As a lifelong marxist, I can't believe I just complimented something that's come out of a Conservative government, but there you go.

[4] I never really believed the "dumb down" arguments, but if what you posted are actually considered "hard" for 16 year-olds, then I may have to reconsider.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sun Jan 15, 2012 2:04 pm

tufty said:

programming is based on mathematics.  Not easy mathematics, but really quite hard mathematics.
I think it's that impression ( which has been around for decades ) is one of the things which discourages people from embarking on computer sciences because, if they find "really quite hard maths" difficult, they believe they won't be able to program and maybe never even try to.

I would say the great majority of programs have little to do with maths and more about logic, process flow, and manipulating data in a non-mathematical way. Obviously some classes of application are very heavily rooted in mathematics but there are equally classes of application which require very little maths ability.

Perhaps though I'm misundersanding in how you mean by "programming is based on mathematics" ?

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sun Jan 15, 2012 2:49 pm


What would really fix it would be teaching computer science as a separate subject, but that"s not been suggested (maybe I"ll assuage my political conscience and go back on [3] below after all).


Actually it has, very specificially, been suggested - by the Royal Society report released very recently.  Edited by Steve Furber, no less.

To be precise, they strongly recommend not talking about ICT any more, but about "digital literacy", Information Technology, and Computer Science as distinct concepts.  Web designers would go under IT, programmers would go under CS, both of which should be elective courses (in later school) taught by specialists.  Office work goes under digital literacy and doesn't really have a "subject of study" any more, its just skills that go with everything - just like literacy and numeracy.

And I think it's a great idea.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sun Jan 15, 2012 4:36 pm

From memory: ( all approximations )

20% of the adult population of Britain is functionally illiterate.

My guess is that more are functionally innumerate. I cannot fully support support the idea that programming is only mathematics, but I believe that the same sort of cognition skills are required.

Even more are functionally digitally illiterate ( we are going to have to develop a phrase for that )

A large number of people - including many teachers - are at least mildly technophobic and are quietly terrified of having to use computers even for the disciplines that they are genuinely expert in, and could gain real benefit from using technology support.

Only 30%  of the population can perform abstract reasoning (as opposed to concrete reasoning)

I see little chance of someone who cannot do abstract reasoning being able to be a programmer. ( I have heard it said that it is also the basic qualification for getting a degree .. )

The problem with programming courses is the "appalling" fail rates - in a system where 100% pass rates is a sign of a job well done ( as opposed to a sign of academic fraud on a grand scale ) there is a reluctance to run programming course. "Poor" success rates is always taken as a sign that the teacher/lecturer is doing something wrong and puts funding at risk. It also puts you in the line for extra visits from the Inspectors.

I fully believe that the education system should allow help participants to find an area that they can excel in, but at the moment it looks like "one size fits all" economies of scale suits the suits.

Trouble is, as soon as you start offering "minority interest" subjects then class sizes go down below sustainable (financially) levels.

Can anybody think of a way to bring these people together ?

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sun Jan 15, 2012 9:00 pm

tufty said:

... programming is based on mathematics.  Not easy mathematics, but really quite hard mathematics.
IMO most programming only needs two forms of mathematics: logic and algebra.  Neither would I consider to be difficult.  Logic should be graspable by any 11-year-old, and algebra shortly thereafter.  Recursion is more difficult, as its mathematical basis is proof by induction.  It also branches into philosophy, since IMO it requires that you believe it works in order to make it work.

That said, quality of mathematics instruction varies widely and I personally benefited from quite a few very good maths teachers through my education.  But IMO every citizen should understand logic and algebra so they're not bamboozled by unscrupulous marketing.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sun Jan 15, 2012 10:35 pm

hippy said:


tufty said:


programming is based on mathematics.  Not easy mathematics, but really quite hard mathematics.


I think it's that impression ( which has been around for decades ) is one of the things which discourages people from embarking on computer sciences because, if they find "really quite hard maths" difficult, they believe they won't be able to program and maybe never even try to.

I would say the great majority of programs have little to do with maths and more about logic, process flow, and manipulating data in a non-mathematical way. Obviously some classes of application are very heavily rooted in mathematics but there are equally classes of application which require very little maths ability.

Perhaps though I'm misundersanding in how you mean by "programming is based on mathematics" ?



Many years ago I attended a programmers seminar conducted by a longtime friend of mine who at the time was a regional rep for Borland. Before his presentation, he started a little networking exercise by getting us to introduce ourselves and exchange cards with the other attendees immediately around us. After that he said, "I bet just about all of you have something in common that you've never discussed". he then asked for a show of hands. "How many of you are musicians?" Out of a group of around 250, all but about 6 raised their hands.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sun Jan 15, 2012 11:31 pm

You can't sell me on that old saw that you have to be a mathematical genius to be a programmer. The most talented programmer I ever met was foul tempered cop who was notorious for his poor mathematical skills. He always said "That's what God made calculators for".  We constantly ragged him when he was fully immersed in his work by asking him to add or multiply something. His standard reply was a robotic "Go f*** yourself", and if you pestered him enough you'd better duck because he'd pick the heaviest object within reach to hurl at your head.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 12:33 am

Currently, most universities ask for an A-level qualification in Mathematics and/or a closely related subject (such as Physics) for entry into a Computer Science undergraduate course - much as they do for most engineering subjects.

This is at least partly because there is no decent pre-university qualification which is Computing-specific *and* is a reliable predictor of programming ability.  So they look for mathematical skill as a tolerably good indicator of logical and numerical aptitude.

There is still a high drop-out rate even so - no doubt some people discover too late that they will never *enjoy* programming - but it works better than anything else they can think of.  They can't exactly start giving programming tests to people who have never had much chance to learn to program before.

Most likely, if there was a decent Computer Science education stream through secondary school up to A-level, universities would be able to use the resulting qualification as a prerequisite - thus reducing the dropout rate while still having a decent number of candidates.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 12:56 am

Chromatix said:


Most likely, if there was a decent Computer Science education stream through secondary school up to A-level, universities would be able to use the resulting qualification as a prerequisite - thus reducing the dropout rate while still having a decent number of candidates.


Spot on!

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 1:04 am

scep said:


Chromatix said:


Most likely, if there was a decent Computer Science education stream through secondary school up to A-level, universities would be able to use the resulting qualification as a prerequisite - thus reducing the dropout rate while still having a decent number of candidates.


Spot on!



Moreover, I've always noticed that students entirely obsessed with programming focus on having a "real world" application for mathematics and other disciplines and simply hurdle over them.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 1:15 am

FatBuzz said:


...why does the 'profession' of teaching accept such low attainment and such low aspiration of attainment?  I accept it is a difficult job but I don’t accept that they individually or collectively behave professionally.  I except there are many exceptions but they allow(?) their good work to be undermined.


I can't even start a dialogue here, because this shows such a profound ignorance of what teachers do and such a fundamental misunderstanding of how the education system works that there is no common point of reference.  It would be like trying to describe a cube to a stick man.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 1:45 am

I got started on GFABASIC on the Atari ST. It was a good German "engineering BASIC" (extensible, compilable, handled classes and user-typed custom variables an' all that if you wanted it). It was great, and the code was fast. And by fast, I mean that my optimised code ran noticeably faster and more solidly than stuff other people had written in "proper" languages. I used it to write an alternative user-interface for Windows3.1, and there was a surreal moment when I realised that all the souped-up components that I'd written were actually running noticeably faster than the MS originals that they replaced.

I ended up doing real-time DSP on the Atari with routines than ran fifty times faster than comparable software synthesis programs written in C. 128-operator synthesis, improved DX7 emulators, resynthesis, real-time. Okay, so a lot of that was down to code optimisation, but the language let you do extreme optimisations, right down to compiling and calling your own assembler code. You could use GFABASIC to write and compile your own languages, and people did. GFABASIC was written in GFABASIC.

The biggest mistake I ever made in programming was investing in the "proper" industry-standard tools. I actually bought MSVC++1.0, and it was the biggest pile of malfunctioning, badly-designed, bloated rotten poo I'd ever seen. I abandoned my alternative Windows front-end a few weeks form completion when MS announced the Chicago project, which sounded like it'd be due in eight months. In the event, Chicago didn't turn up until late 1995 (as Win95), partly because MS had tried to write the thing using its own tools, and had then had to hand-code great chunks of it in assembler to get it to run adequately well on normal hardware.

VC++ did improve a bit, when they gave it a new third-party compiler ... from the same company that had supplied the compiler for GFA BASIC.

So I get kinda unimpressed when modern computer geeks wax lyrical about the latest faddy language, because as far as I can tell, unless there's some specific reason to optimise the source code for a specific purpose (as in javascript), it seems to me that most of them are simple alternative front ends for the same underlying code, while proliferating the number of incompatible syntaxes, for no obvious reason other than ego and creating new layers of jargon to keep outsiders at bay.

It feels a bit like the industry keeps inventing a new language with yet another new cryptic syntax every couple of years, just to create a moving target so that outsiders don't get to realise just how damned easy computer programming can be.

This isn't 1965. We now have large screens and cheap memory, and we debug onscreen rather than on paper. You don't have to try to fit as many lines of code onto one line as possible, and try to reduce the number of keystrokes to the absolute minimum even if it makes the result unreadable. If you want to have a command triggered by a single character, you can use keyboard macros.

For me, the moment when I realised that most computyer propgrammers seem to want their subject to be their little secret was when Microsoft brought out VB, and had to keep progressively crippling it, because people were finding it too easy to use, and it was alienating their hardcore programmer-base. there was a risk that programmers would avoid other MS tools because they hated what MS was doing with VB. I remember one guy compaining that the other day, he'd found out that his manager had wanted some task done, and instead of asking the programmer to do it, had knocked up something hisself in VB to do the job. A manager! Writing his own code! People kinda shook their heads and agreed that this was a sign of the end of the world, and Somethign Had To Be Done.

And that's what killed the BASIC revolution. The MS product became dominant, the variants disappeared, and then MS deliberately poisoned their own "child" to placate the people who bought their professional tools.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 9:39 am

John Beetem said:


tufty said:


... programming is based on mathematics.  Not easy mathematics, but really quite hard mathematics.


IMO most programming only needs two forms of mathematics: logic and algebra.


Also modulo arithmetic and number bases. I've used very simple calculus twice, but only because I'm rather at the sharp end. There are other exceptions; 3D graphics requires geometry and matrices.

So nothing beyond GCSE level maths is required to program, which is fortunate since I failed my A-level. (So in today's world I would not have got to university. Fortunately I also had a good Computer Science result. Yes the situation has degraded in the last thirty years.)

OTOH, tuffty is correct that the basis of programming is complex. I'm reading the Turing's seminal paper at the moment (in heavily annotated form), and it is quite an adventure.

To drag this back on topic, the requirement for matrix maths is maybe a point in favour of BASIC, but I think it's been dropped from most dialects.

andyl
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 10:38 am

Chromatix said:


Currently, most universities ask for an A-level qualification in Mathematics and/or a closely related subject (such as Physics) for entry into a Computer Science undergraduate course - much as they do for most engineering subjects.

This is at least partly because there is no decent pre-university qualification which is Computing-specific *and* is a reliable predictor of programming ability.  So they look for mathematical skill as a tolerably good indicator of logical and numerical aptitude.


A CS degree is (or should be - it was in my day) a computer science degree not a programming degree.  Part of that degree course may well involve some more interesting maths in certain modules.  For example understanding lambda calculus (not just its implementation) and other bits in the theory of computation. Some may teach functional analysis, statistics, graph theory and type theory.

It is quite possible to be a good programmer without knowing all of that.

1aws
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 11:02 am

Simon, I like your thinking.  Sorry to take so long to reply, but I was busy yesterday.
"There's no way you're going to be able to teach a class that ranges from "moron" to "genius" to be able to program without totally losing the upper and lower percentiles (at a guess, ~ 30% either side of the median) due to boredom and complete inability to comprehend."

The reality is that all classes, in my experience, are at least bi-level; in smaller schools most are tri-level. The idea is that the teacher has appropriate materials for each of the levels for each aspect of the course.  This tends to minimise "formal teaching". Group teaching becomes the norm. It is really hard to do with programming.  Pupils' rate of progress varies enormously after the first few communal lessons, at which point the group teaching has to kick in.  This is more troublesome with the tri-level class. Even the inspectorate have stated that tri-level is undesirable.

Simon you said: "programming is based on mathematics.  Not easy mathematics, but really quite hard mathematics."  Personally I found that the pupils who were good at English (compositions in particular) were also good at programming. The reason becomes obvious when you stop to think about it. These pupils were accustomed to preparing designs for their essays. That skill transfers to program design in pseudo code.  The change into a programming language is then just a translation from one language to another; yet another language skill. I also found that most of these pupils were also competent in maths; something that was less true the other way around.

Streaming is a non starter in most state schools. Setting (streaming within a subject) is acceptable. In my old school some form of ICT was compulsory, but computing wasn't. This meant that as an option choice, only a proportion chose the subject. Now "choosing" a subject is not as open as schools would make the pupil and their parents believe.  Choosing is done with STAFFING in mind.  Many pupils find themselves being "persuaded" to choose another related subject by well meaning guidance staff.

All qualifications are not of the same calibre. Computing was always one of the harder subjects (along with Physics, Latin etc.) It tended to disuade some pupils, but management tended to encourage less able pupils to take the subject to balance staffing.

In my old school, subjects were not allowed to run unless they covered ALL ability levels. The only exceptions to this were Physics and Chemistry, who both supplied a Science course for the less able child. I agree that Gove's initiative for ICT appears to provide some of the flexibility to do what's best for the majority of the children. The question I am left asking is "How many schools will embrace this?" I suspect there will be howls of protests from both teaching staff and management with the status quo being adopted for the time being.

Simon you appear to recognise progress will at the least be slow because: "… teachers will have to be able to teach everything from web design and wordprocessing through to high-level computing concepts …" and that the solution is not being considered; "What would really fix it would be teaching computer science as a separate subject, but that's not been suggested … " Staff training is a major issue. Even 10 years ago this budget line was cut severely. Therein lies a major problem.

Please remember these are the rants of a old retired teacher (nearly a decade ago now).  Much has probably changed over the past ten years and that my observations were mainly from the last century.

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croston
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Mon Jan 16, 2012 11:08 am

riFFraFF said:

Many years ago I attended a programmers seminar conducted by a longtime friend of mine who at the time was a regional rep for Borland. Before his presentation, he started a little networking exercise by getting us to introduce ourselves and exchange cards with the other attendees immediately around us. After that he said, "I bet just about all of you have something in common that you've never discussed". he then asked for a show of hands. "How many of you are musicians?" Out of a group of around 250, all but about 6 raised their hands.
I have discovered quite the same thing from going to computing conferences and from the population of software engineers at work - there is a substantial overlap between good musicians and good programmers.  I think this is because to become a good programmer/musician you need lots of individual practise and attention to detail to become proficient.  There is a similarity between someone that can only play a CD of music and a copy+paste code monkey.

I have also noticed a similar thing with maths and music - I can't explain this though.  It may be something to do with IQ.

Back on topic - it is good to understand BASIC (or scratch) as a complete beginner (like playing a recorder in music at school to teach the basics).  Once you have mastered it, there are more expressive and powerful languages out there to use.

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