Semmy Purewal

Semmy Purewal spent about a decade teaching computer science and working as a freelance JavaScript consultant. During that time, he worked with a diverse group of clients that included startups, nonprofits, and research labs. These days, he primarily works as a software engineer in San Jose, CA.

A concrete approach to learning how to program

A solid foundation on which more meaningful learning can happen

578px-Perspectiva-1.svgAs someone who has previously taught computer programming for nearly a decade, I’m often asked questions that involve “what’s the best way to go about learning to program computers,” or “what’s the best way to get a software engineering job,” or “how can I learn to build mobile or web apps?”

Most of the readers of this blog have probably faced the same question at some point in their career. How did you answer it? I’ve seen many different responses: “come up with an idea for an app and build it,” or “get a computer science degree,” or “go read The Little Schemer,” or “join an open-source project that excites you,” or “learn Ruby on Rails.”

The interesting thing about these responses is that, for the most part, they can be classified into one of two categories: top-down approaches or bottom-up approaches. Top-down approaches are informed by the opinion that it’s better to be thrown in the middle of an application or a framework which encourages the learner to piece together knowledge in that context. Many books and online tutorials use an explicit top-down approach, often starting with the basics of a popular methodology, framework or technology. The most visible example of this are books on Ruby on Rails — they almost always inevitably begin with a description of the Model-View-Controller design pattern, but defer the incredible number of non-obvious ideas that make it up (Object-Oriented Programming, for instance).

On the other hand, a bottom-up approach starts with the basics/fundamentals of programming and then slowly builds your knowledge over time. In contrast to top-down approaches, bottom-up approaches try to minimize the number of these non-obvious ideas that the learner has to take for granted. Khan Academy and Code Academy are two examples of online sites that use a bottom-up approach to teaching programming. For the most part, they completely leave out any specific framework and focus on fundamentals of programming.

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