Mad scribblings and inexpert musing

On Learning: Making and Checking Assumptions

published: 2 Apr 2012 01:04:00PM

With increasing frequency, I've been afforded the opportunity to teach people who are completely new to programming and this inevitably leads to me espousing my preferred method for learning anything: Making an assumption and verifying or refuting it through experimentation.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of teaching two fantastic burgeoning developers the concept of method composition in Ruby. For experienced developers, it is as natural as breathing, but too often our memories of our early programming experiences are clouded over with the same terror we see in the eyes of our students.

At almost every stage there were simple questions, questions it would have taken me seconds to address had I given a direct answer. But learning to program (or do much else) needs to go deeper than just assembling facts. In order to do well, we have to have our own mental interpreters and compilers and process the code in our minds. The sooner we start developing this trait in new programmers, the better off they'll be. So my general answer was

"Well, what do you think will happen?"

Queue audience groan. By asking this ad nauseum and forcing them to give me an answer before hitting enter, I'm contributing in a real way to building their mind's Ruby interpreter.

If this sounds eerily like the scientific method, that's because it is! We just condensed it for tiny, one or two line experiments in Ruby!

Not Just for N00bs

I've finally started reading SICP and one of the very first exercises revealed one of my achilles' heels.

I was asked to give the value of the evaluated expression below: scheme (- 9 1)

I can never remember what this shakes out to. Is it 9 - 1 = 8 or 1 - 9 = -8? I didn't know off the top of my head. But before I fired up Racket to see what the answer was, I forced myself to make a guess. Would it be 8, or -8? My guess was 8.

Only after forming that hypothesis did I throw that expression into an interpreter.

As it turns out, it does evaluate to 8. Assumption Verified! A winner is me! Would it have mattered if I'd been wrong? Not really, I would have learned the same lesson.

The rise of Test Driven Development is actually the rise of the application (in a very minor and partial way) of the scientific method in Software Engineering. We're making assumptions about the goals (end-to-end tests) and design (unit tests) of our software and codifying them in form of our tests. These get challenged and verified or refuted whenever we run our tests. As our software changes, so do our hypotheses around it.

So regardless of whether you're writing code for the first time, or a veteran software developer, take the advice of John and John of They Might Be Giants, you need a test.