During next week’s DojoCon Netherlands, the annual conference of the Dutch CoderDojo community, Felienne Hermans will be one of the keynote speakers (I’m one of others). Preparing for the conference I looked at the other speakers, and Felienne’s twitter stream ( pointed to her presentation at R Studion Conference 2019 early this year. It’s just under an hour long, but I watched it with pleasure.

The hand drawn slides are cool (can’t imagine the time that went into it, or at least the time I’d need for something like that.), and so is the story, about how to teach (children) programming.

Starting from the quote ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?‘, she says in contrast to e.g. reading, we don’t know much of anything about teaching programming. There’s no body of work (which is what she’s now building at Leiden University).

  • That the way many of us acquired our own tech skills strongly shapes the assumptions about learning to code. Many people growing up in the 70s and 80s learned to work with computers by spending endless hours behind the keyboard, without parental oversight or guidance from knowledgeable adults. I definitely fall in this category too.
  • That those experiences covertly influence the way the field thinks about teaching coding, where exploration and getting stuck and unstuck on your own is the way to go.
  • Research of children learning Scratch suggests however that there are many drop-outs that way, that the acquired skill level flattens out quickly, and that there’s no efficiency gain visible in consequent activities of the children involved.
  • Her research shows that age-old reading teaching tactics such as vocalisation and repeating out loud do work and show consistent results. And that tests work well too. Not to grade children, but to find out as a teacher where you are at.
  • Oh, and that creating applications in Excel is real programming too. Don’t say, or let people say, that some form of something isn’t real work / the real thing.

I feel vindicated by that last point (made early in the keynote) 😀 My meanest programming feat still is building the first intranet (2001/2) of my then employer by hand from scratch using the browser as a window on / to interact with Excel, the folder structure on the shared drives, and back-office systems like time writing, and having the browser grab stuff from Excel files. It was a jumble of HTML, Perl, Visual Basic, and Excel formulas, but it worked and helped cut significant time out of quality assurance processes and made things like starting a new project way easier and actually helpful for my colleagues, instead of being dreary bureaucracy for them. I’d never call myself a real programmer. But it was real programming. Even the tiniest little bits, like yesterday’s simple hack, are real.

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