Posted by: CJ | January 11, 2011

Coding and Incoherency

A good friend of mine, who left for a new job in NYC this weekend, had a conversation last week about teaching kids how to think logically. I’d told him another friend and I had a theory that it would be much, much easier to teach students pure reasoning and problem solving abilities by teaching them to program in middle/high school, ideally before they actually needed those abilities in math and science classes.

But my friend had a very good response. He said that sometimes if you showed some students some code some of the students would have coherent ideas of what the code did, and others wouldn’t. So suppose the code was

x=3

x=4

print x.

The output of running that program is “4”. Because x is first assigned the value 3, then the value 4, and it’s printed while it still has the value 4. Shown that code, some students might wrongly think it prints out 7(=3+4) or 12(=3*4) or even 3.5(=(3+4)/2). Regardless, of those people who don’t actually understand what the code does, some of them recognize the code as having a specific rule that’s always followed–so that they’ll give the same sort of wrong answer if the numbers are changed, while others don’t even understand that a specific rule is being used. They either don’t understand or don’t believe that the computer is a completely deterministic machine that follows specific rules and doesn’t do anything “just because”.

My friend went on to illustrate this idea by mentioning that I, of course, must have seen this before. Just think of all the people I know who treat the computer like a black box o’ voodoo and don’t have a deep down belief that the computer doesn’t do thing by chance and that via experimentation they can discover what the computer is doing.

In any case, trying to think about people who lack coherent worldviews is very difficult for me. Even more difficult if their views aren’t at least locally coherent–i.e. they make complete sense if they’re talking about topic A or topic B alone, but their views on topic A and B are at complete odds with each other. Without at least a local coherency, such people are potentially impossible for me to understand.

And I’m not sure what make a person desperately want their views to have some coherency. Is it an innate personality trait, something learned from social context, or something discovered as one learns more material and tries to integrate it all together?

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