One of my interviewees recently directed me to an academic paper about programming skills as a function of thinking styles. (Here’s a summary and discussion.) In short, it claims to have found a superbly accurate test to determine whether someone would succeed or fail in computer science classes based on whether that person thinks in terms of abstract rule sets.
It’s an interesting idea, but I’d have to take a closer look at the paper to comment on its methodology, and I’m a little wary of the authors’ implication that this test should be applied as a weed-out mechanism. Introductory computer science classes are already conceived of as weed-out classes at many schools, which leads me to wonder if the high failure rates among CS students and people who took this pre-test say more about people’s response to different teaching styles than about their inherent abilities, let alone their capacity to learn new things.
My line of thinking on this right now, at least, is more in line with the people behind Scratch at the MIT Media Lab. The Boston Globe has an article online about Scratch, MIT’s free programming language developed for educational purposes (link via Slashdot):
The goal: turn a daunting subject usually taught in college and considered the domain of geeks into an integral part of education for the grade-school set. MIT researchers hope the program will promote a broader cultural shift, giving a generation already comfortable using computers to consume content online a set of new, easy-to-use tools to change the online landscape itself. […]
“With Scratch, we get rid of a lot of the overhead and let students sink their teeth into the concepts — literally after a day of programming in Scratch they have their own games and own artwork,” [David Malan] said.
This is a clever idea. I remember working with Logo back in elementary school, but I had no idea what the purpose of those exercises was at the time. Making project goals apparent and letting students see the fruits of their labor early will likely make the experience more rewarding and perhaps compel some to learn more powerful languages.
I’m not entirely dismissing the possibility that there may be some observable psychological habits peculiar to “geeky thinking,” and perhaps I should be exploring such claims further. Another interviewee just suggested to me today that the highest concentrations of people with autism are in Boston, Austin, and the Bay Area, which is reminiscent of things I’ve read before about the prevalence of Asperger Syndrome in Silicon Valley. Even so, I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that people shouldn’t bother pursuing things that don’t come naturally.