Someone kicked the anthill with the question about touch-typing, which raised the issue of prerequisites, which brings up the concept of a curriculum, which invokes the area of what in the world are we trying to accomplish anyway?

The program of study that I used to teach had a very definite goal, and a strict time limit: get non-programmers entry level programming jobs in about a year. This used to be dead easy, with many students getting offers before they even finished. We could have been teaching almost anything and they would have gotten jobs. I got a Bachelor's degree in a fairly conventional program of study 30 years ago, same result. But now both paths are pinching off, and it is quite possible that most of the entry level jobs will be "permanently replaced" within a generation.

When I have suggested that education should lead more or less directly to a (first) job, this does not go over well. It also seems that there is little agreement on what paradigms to teach, let alone languages, courses, skills, etc. "It is such a broad field" I hear. Medicine is broad too, but no one argues too much about what surgeons should study, vs dentists, eye doctors... Is there something repellent about the idea of making a decision and choosing what exactly to teach? Maybe we could define some career tracks and curricula? Then we could answer questions better.


I think this would make a good blog post if we ever get there, but it would likely make for lousy questions. It would be hard to make them narrow enough to pass muster and also avoid pure opinion.

Medicine is very broad yes and surgeons are focused, but in an undergrad pre-med degree you study the breadth, preparing you for a wide variety of careers - even research bio-chemistry, for example.

My own preference for undergraduates is to make them broadly educated, rather than focused on one thing. This will make it easier for them if their initial dreams are dashed by a hostile economy at graduation. I'll also note what used to be true at least is that a Liberal Arts major from a top school would likely be the boss of a technically trained graduate of a similar institution. Being able to ask the right questions is often much more important than being able to answer them.

In the US, at least, the undergrad education blends specialization (a major) and generalization (general ed courses: History, etc). I think this is a good system. In Europe, I think the same is done, but earlier in a student's career.

Again, in the US, an MS degree prepares you for a profession. This was the original idea of a medical degree, though it got to be called "doctor", when it really should have been "master". Likewise, a true doctorate prepares you to advance some field.

But too early specialization is IMO a mistake leading to as shallow view of the world and a limited horizon for the student.

Sidhartha: I can write. I can think. I can wait.
(If I remember correctly).

  • $\begingroup$ It looks like the quote is: "I can think. I can wait. I can fast." But fasting is not a pleasant way to wait until you find work. And being able to think is not enough to get many jobs these days. I feel extremely frustrated that the bar for getting a job keeps going up. Why is it happening? Probably because we could not restrain ourselves from inventing 400 high level languages. Was it necessary? Why not focus on building things that get the job done? Why did we allow the Web to be reformed into a free international marketing and productization scheme? Grow some teeth and claws and say NO! $\endgroup$
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 19 '18 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ Correct on the quote. But his point was that he didn't need the job as he could fast until something better came along. The reason for lots of languages is that the "job" doesn't stand still and we continue to need higher and higher levels of abstraction to deal with the complexity. The new problems aren't like the old problems. The capture of the web is problematic, I agree, but it was caused by its openness, actually. Had it remained closed to anyone but academics that wouldn't have occurred. But raw economic power won. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Jun 19 '18 at 20:38

When I have suggested that education should lead more or less directly to a (first) job, this does not go over well.

I think there are very few people who would agree with that statement as broadly as you've presented it there. Consider that computer science (for some value thereof) is now part of the national curriculum for primary education in England and Wales (and probably a number of other countries). Should primary school teachers be thinking about the first job that their pupils will get? Surely not!

Is there something repellent about the idea of making a decision and choosing what exactly to teach? Maybe we could define some career tracks and curricula?

How would that help people who are teaching tracks or curricula which aren't among those we've "defined"? Do the participants in a private website have the authority to impose "what exactly to teach" on the world's many and varied education systems? We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

I think that the root problem here is best addressed by strongly encouraging question askers to be specific about their context, and I think I've left quite a few comments on questions along those lines.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, I am seeing that I'm apparently a naive and parochial person, so I beg your indulgence. I teach adults so that they can change careers (due to necessity) or get a first career under difficult circumstances. Having been without work a few times in my life, college a distant memory, so I focus on how to convey programming to adults who have not previously studied computer topics deeply, so that these people can get work. Now, college age people need jobs eventually too, and apparently the bar for getting a first job is going up. I am reading this book "Inventing the Future". Startling. $\endgroup$
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 26 '18 at 13:09

One way to look at it is in terms of Literacy. I think that this is a nearly useless concept, for many of the same reasons that my idea of determining a set of goals or a curriculum is not likely to succeed. Literacy changes radically over time, and applies to different groups of people differently, so I don't think that it is possible to come up with one basic early curriculum that will serve all, or even most.

At one time, it was 'literacy' if you wanted to drive a car to know how to get it started, involving: turning on the spark, adjusting the timing, setting the choke properly, and then turning the crank in such a way that it didn't break your hand if the engine backfired. Soon, people will know absolutely zero about cars, like someone I know has never heard a dial tone or the calling tones, or even knows why it is called "dialing a phone", let alone "ringing off". Knowledge has an amazingly short shelf life. Computer knowledge doubly so.

It has been said many times, many ways here that we have no idea what sort of knowledge students will need by the time they get a job, or down the road a few years in that job. So what should we teach? "The Basics" seems like a good answer. I see four different kinds of knowledge in general:

  1. Literacy - things everyone needs to know
  2. Strengthening - learning that builds capacity, like Math for CS
  3. Mastery - gaining complete knowledge of an area
  4. Research - creating new knowledge

It would be good to determine "what everyone needs to know", but I am pretty sure that very little to do with computers is in it. Using a computer would be. Programming, perhaps could have been considered a kind of literacy long ago, but the field has become far too complex and technical for that now. As an analogy: driving a car might be literacy for some (for the near future), but flying a helicopter is not, no matter how useful it might be.

To move on to item number 2, a student must have decided that the field that they are seeking strengthening in is one that they will be pursuing. 3 is college level, and 4 is graduate or professional work.


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