Latin and programming

May 11, 2006

Miles Berry

I, alas, missed out on Latin in my school days, but feel that a Basic grounding in programming was almost as good at teaching something of linguistic structures, and the creativity-within-constraints that’s been important for lots of real world problem solving.

These days, it’s all too likely that young people will miss out on both, as some deem them too difficult or irrelevant for inclusion in the curriculum. A shame this, and whilst I’d acknowledge that they might not suit everyone, surely personalised learning should include challenges for the brightest and best. Furthermore, I can’t help feeling that by not providing today’s pupils with the opportunities to write code that the BBC Micro generation had, we’re limiting their (and thus our) chances to compete in a global knowledge economy (yes, I’m reading The World is Flat at the moment, qv Friedman’s videoed lecture at MIT).

There’s been an interesting set of discussions on the HMC ICT list recenly about teaching programming, and what are the best languages to use with lower secondary pupils. Logo is great for primary aged pupils, and Papert‘s work seems just as relevant today as it did when Mindstorms was written back in 1980. That said, there must be a place for teaching proper programming too, as such a rich environment for authentic, problem-based learning. The favoured options seem to be:

  • VBA, as a way of extending Excel work, and probably relevant for coursework projects for those continuing on to A-levels in computing
  • Java, for object orientation, and because it’s a grown-up real world language, although there was concern that the learning curve was a bit too steep
  • Python, as it teaches good habits, can integrate with lots of other tools very easily, and has some well designed IDEs; I’ve heard python recommended highly as a good first programming language by other folks too; and
  • PHP, as pupils can do really useful stuff without too steep a learning curve, and there are loads of FLOSS projects that they can start contributing to. That said,  word has it that PHP is just a bit too easy, and so isn’t as likely to encourage good programming habits as some of the others.

I’d be interested to hear what folks think about the relative merits of these, or other possibilities. For computer club this term, I’ve taken up Dale Jones’ suggestion of Alice, which is a highly visual, open source, object oriented ‘language’/IDE, and looks great for writing animations and simple games. We’re still working through the excellent online tutorials, but I hope to be able to share some of this work here in due course.

Back to the Latin: although it’s not on the curriculum here, we’ve had an optional after-school club for Larin, and I can recommend the excellent online materials from the Cambridge Latin Course. They’re well presented, and so well structured that they can almost be used by pupils independently, without much need for teacher input, although I think they’d be much more effective as support for a classroom based course. I’ve also just discovered that there’s a Latin “vicipaedia“, which would be a great thing for a few school classics departments to adopt. Anyone fancy writing a latin language pack for Moodle?