Ease of Learning
© 18 Jan 2017 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Does “‍can be learned by a child‍” equate to “‍easy to learn‍”?


I believe that the first two or three computing classes in every college computing degree program I have looked at should have been covered before students ever reached college. And this is no idle belief; many efforts to teach basic programming and data structures topics to primary and secondary school students have met with great success Success in the “‍students succeed‍” sense, not necessarily in the “‍school boards fund it long term‍” sense. . But I as each new semester begins, I wonder if I ought to tell my students this.

If your goal is to make someone feel mentally inadequate, thus raising their stress level and reducing their chance of succeeding, telling them that something they are struggling with is “‍so easy a child can do it‍” may be your most effective strategy. Since my goal is pretty close to the opposite of that …which would have gone without saying in person, but in print it is harder to know what people see between the lines. , I have motivation not to share this little tidbit with them. On the other hand, many students come in to the course with an actual fear of the material, falsely believing that ability to write code has to be inborn or some such nonsense, giving me motivation to share that the material is straightforward and manageable. What’s a teacher to do?

I think part of the difficulty is in an over-simplified view of ease of learning.

Some topics are small and others large. The rules of chess are small: you can learn them in an afternoon. The strategies of chess are large: it can take thousands of hours to learn them well. One might thus reasonably call the rules “‍easy to learn‍” and the strategies “‍hard to learn‍”; size of material defines one kind of ease.

Some topics are intricate and others straightforward. Arithmetics is straightforward: there are many rules, but they are each simple and mostly stand on their own. Relativistic gravitation is intricate: even giving a hand-wavy overview requires half a dozen different pieces of information all to be integrated simultaneously in the learner’s mind. Intricacy of ideas defines one kind of ease.

What I want to tell my students, but often find difficult to express adequately, is that the first few courses in CS are not intricate, but they are large. In Introduction to Programming, for example, we cover in about 50 hours what my friends who teach high-school freshmen cover in about 200 hours. The topics are simple, but there are a lot of them and we can’t afford the luxury of a slow introduction if we want to get through the simple ideas in time to still have a few years for our majors to learn the intricate ones in later courses.

I sometimes wonder what part of the difficulty of other fields is size versus intricacy. I also wonder if correctly expressing this would change how students engage in learning. As ever, more questions than I have time to investigate.

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