Labels and things

The Birkbeck Computer Science MSc I’m currently taking includes a required module on Programming in Java, with the quite sensible purpose of making sure everyone on the course has a shared facility in a common language (and the MSc is specifically intended for people coming to CS from other disciplines, so it makes sense not to assume this shared skill in advance). I have a fair amount of programming experience, so the aspect of the class about programming in general hasn’t taught me a huge amount (though I have learnt about some of the peculiarities of Java), but it has been useful to observe what people find difficult in learning to program, and to think about ways in which a programming course could ease some of these difficulties.

Once thing that definitely seems to be causing people difficulties is figuring out what names refer to at different parts of the program; for instance, what writing name = "Tim" means exactly, or what happens when you have variables with the same name in different functions. I’ve been thinking about how to structure a programming course to make this as clear as possible.

Expressions and evaluation

I think it makes sense to start witht the idea of expressions and evaluating them. You can start with a simply expression like 5 + 5, in order to introduce the idea that when a program runs, a lot of what it does is taking these expressions and evaluating them, that is, working out a result. You can then go on to consider compound expressions, like (5 + 5) * 10, which gets across the important idea that the program uses the result of evaluating one expression in working out the result of evaluating another expression. This might seem obvious, but I think being very explicit about this right at the beginning would provide a solid foundation for the next few stages.

Labels and things

The next concept to introduce is variables. Like I think many people of my age (i.e, people who started learning to program with BASIC), I was introduced to variables through the metaphor of boxes: a variable is basically a box, oh and by the way it also has a name. I think this view of variables is too low-level to be helpful at the early stages of teaching programming (I should note in passing that I think this may have been something that confused students on the course I’m currently taking: it introduced the distinction between primitive types, stored on the stack, and objects, stored on the heap, very early on, but in Java this is an implementation detail that is almost always irrelevent); my preference would be to introduce variables as a connection between a label and a thing. A variable name, like name is a label, and it is attached to a thing, like the word Tim or the number 100. More specifically, a thing is the result of evaluating an expression; and, neatly, the result of evaluating a label is just the result you got when you evaluated the expression in its definition.

I think it would make things clearer to treat variables as immutable at this point, and perhaps therefore to teach in a language that enforces that (a concise syntax for introducing an immutable binding would be helpful, like val name = "Tim" as used by, among other languages, Kotlin). The question of “what happens when a label refers to different things at different points in the program is a complicated one, and one that should be introduced in its own right.

(You could also introduce the language’s basic IO functions at this point, to allow students to write interactive programs. A very lightweight IO syntax, like Python 3’s print() and input() would be nice.)


I think there are two fundamental operations in how we usually think about programs, the first of which is conditionals. I don’t think these are particularly challenging for people learning programming (but I might be wrong). Following on my recommendation above to teach immutable variables first, I guess it would make sense to teach functional-style conditionals that return a value, rather than the if statements that you get in the imperative languages usually used for teaching. I wonder if there’s any difference in ease of understanding between something like:

val isOddOrEven = if (n % 2 == 0) "Even" else "Odd"

As opposed to:

if n % 2 == 0:
    odd_or_even = "Even"
    odd_or_even = "Odd"


The second of the two fundamental operations in programming is repetition, which is more complicated than conditionals because it requires introducing the idea that the same code can do different things. Well, you can begin with a simple unconditional repetition, like the classic logo program to draw a square:

But the critical point, and I think the harder one for people learning programming to grasp, is the conditional loop, like, say:

while (number != 1) {
    if (number % 2 == 0) {
        number = number / 2;
    } else {
        number = 3 * number + 1;

There are two ways of explaining this kind of fully general loop - mutable variables, as I’ve used in the example above, or function calls, as in:

collatz number = 
    if number == 1 then 
        if even number then
            collatz (number `div` 2)
            collatz (3 * number + 1)

What both share, and which I think makes them tricky to understand, is this idea of re-binding variables; that the same symbol (in these examples, number) will refer to different things at different times. I’m tempted to say there are two hard problems in teaching programming - the idea that labels refer to things, and the idea that labels refer to different things at different times. That’s why I started this post by proposing to introduce the distinction betwee labels and things very explicitly early on. But having done this, it seems to me that there’s a significant further hurdle in introducing the idea that labels change what they refer to in predictable but potentially complex ways. Thus I’d like to introduce the idea of re-binding in a limited and controlled way before moving to the full generality of mutability or function arguments.

And it occurs to me that theres an easy to grasp special case of repetition which might make a good introductory step to an explicit discussion of re-binding of variable names: repetition over sequential numbers.

Is it time to revive the BASIC FOR…NEXT loop as a pedagogical tool?

FOR I% = 1 TO 10
    PRINT I%