Teaching Python vs HTML

So, I was talking to a colleague the other day and he was asking me about my experience teaching Python at secondary schools, mainly – “is Python forgiving”? My simple answer was – No! Python is not forgiving at all in comparison to HTML.

I now primarily teach the web trifecta – HTML, CSS and JavaScript and the question came about because of the forgiving nature of HTML. Students can submit some shockingly ill-formed code that will still display in a browser.

For instance –

<p>hello world</p>

will display “hello world” in a browser. Yes, it works, but it is far from well-formed or best practice, such as –

<!DOCTYPE html>

<html>

<head>

<title>better code</title>

</head>

<body>

<h1>Hello, World!</h1>

</body>

</html>

Python, on the other hand, is far more pedantic about its syntax rules. Often a simple misplaced / or : or “ instead of ‘ will render the code useless. I would spend hours of teaching code locked in debugging to find where a student had forgotten that colon! Don’t get me wrong, I love debugging – no, I really love debugging, and I am good at it because I enjoy it. However, debugging code because a student cannot copy from a book without dropping a colon is not so much fun.

If I am to compare the two languages in a teaching environment, teaching Python is probably easier. Why, you ask? Well, because-

·        it has to be right to work!

·        It has to be indented

·        It has to be well-formed

·        It has to be structured

·        It has rules that must be followed

·        The syntax is exacting

Sure, this is harder to teach – forget “free will” and “conform” your code, can stump the more creative students, but you are industry ready if you learn it right. Good old slap happy HTML will often work no matter how badly the code is written or formed. This makes it harder to teach because they know they can get away with –

·        A lack of structure

·        No indents

·        Ill-formed code

·        Missing syntax

·        A real “DIY” mentality

Therefore, teaching HTML that works is very easy – teaching HTML that is industry ready is really not!

“Well my webpage works doesn’t it sir?”

“Well…erm…yes, but it is a mess and the code are all over the place and is very hard to follow”

“Whatever, sir…it works and that’s good enough for me, so the heck with it!”

OK, so back to the anecdote – Python.

After getting so frustrated with putting colons and the alike into student’s code, I started playing a game. We had loads of old keyboards at school so I got a load and removed the .,?;:”’ etc from them. If a student asked me why their code wasn’t working, I would look. If it was logic I would explain and work with them on it. If it was syntax, I would go to my desk and pick up the corresponding marked key and place it on their desk. Obviously, if the key they were given was a colon, they knew they had to look for the missing colon in their code. This would encourage them to look for syntax errors themselves, rather than have the embarrassment of receiving a broken keyboard key placed on their desk.

Gosh…I miss teaching Python. However, I love teaching the web trifecta here at The Training Room.

No matter what language you learn – learn to code!

#ttrLearnToCode #ttrIT

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A future skills gap in the wake of the new Computer Science GCSE?

As a former Secondary School Teacher, I was part of the government’s move away from traditional Information Communications Technology (ICT) toward Computer Science as a GCSE.

The change has been profound and caught many teachers off-guard. Many older teachers of ICT could not easily make the transition to teaching computer science. Why? Well because it is now a science! A science based on computational thinking and the logical creation and analysis of algorithms and coded solutions. In simplistic terms… it’s out with Microsoft Office and in with Python IDE!

Computer Science then is a completely different course to ICT. Obviously there exists some latent crossover, but for the most part, it is a much more relevant science/industry-based qualification compared to the more business based ICT course. Much of what was ICT is now only a small part of the E-commerce side of Comp Sci. It has moved from learning how to use software – such as MS Office – to create documents and websites. It is now much more about how to build apps, programs and e-portfolios alongside maintaining computer systems, networks and cyber-security. As such, breaking down a problem and planning a sequenced plan or algorithm is now fundamental to the “art” of computational thinking.

 

My experience of teaching both ICT and Computer Science has taught me that not all students are capable of Computational Thinking and understanding algorithms. Not all can think sequentially and logically, many can only process freeform, nonlinear thoughts and can make little sense of a computer that can only do what it is told, in a specific order using a specific structured language or code.

This leads the teacher to have to focus more on trying to teach the students how to create algorithms and flowcharts and of course coding. There does exist many high-quality educational aids for learning to code –

·        https://code.org/learn

·        https://scratch.mit.edu/starter_projects/

·        http://www.alice.org/index.php

·        https://www.codecademy.com/learn

·        https://www.kodugamelab.com/

·        https://codecombat.com/

Students, in my experience, find it difficult to code effectively because of the strict syntax. Although PYTHON is very forgiving, it is exacting in its syntax – in other words, if it expects a colon or comma, then it MUST have a colon or a comma! – but why? “Well, it just does” can placate some students, but frustrate others. Trying to get the students to code effectively takes up a lot of teaching time at the expense of much of the theory. Most of the time we had to rely on students doing the theory for homework, which inevitably, was 50/50 hit and miss with many students not bothering. The ability to create a working solution to a problem almost always forms the basis of at least one of their final Controlled Assessment’s in which the student must plan, code and test a solution efficiently with no guided help from their teacher or peers. Because this is crucial to a good final grade, it is obvious that teaching and learning how to code and troubleshoot code is a classroom priority.

So, you may ask, why am I writing this blog? Well, because I believe that there will continue to be a skills gap when our present and future cohorts of GCSE Computer Science students leave school. I am convinced that they will certainly better equipped than their ICT qualified peers, however, with too much time given over to learning Python I think they will be lacking solid industry skills. Don’t get me wrong; I think their learning Python, Computational Thinking and Algorithms are a massive step forward in the right direction. However, they often lack the ability to translate the learning of Python into other “C” based languages and HTML, SQL, JavaScript etc. No matter how hard we try to drill the students on the importance of planning and writing algorithms that were not retro-engineered, they always wanted to code first and then try to make up a plan to fit the program.

Any way I digress… I am not trying to push a solution – after all, there is no single solution – I am just pointing out my observations in order to try and start a discussion on the future of the industry and whether others have noticed a skills gap in GCSE students?

I hope this article has gone some way in helping start a discussion on possible future skills gaps. If it has…please LIKE, SHARE or FEEDBACK the post. Thank you.

About the Author – Dr Richard Haddlesey is the founder and Webmaster of English Medieval Architecture in which he gained a Ph.D. in 2010 and holds Qualified Teacher Status relating to I.C.T. and Computer Science. Richard is a professional Web Developer and Digital Archaeologist and holds several degrees relating to this. He is passionate about the dissemination of research and advancement of digital education and Continued Professional Development #CPD. Driven by a desire to better prepare students for industry, Richard left mainstream teaching to focus on a career in tutoring I.T. professionals with real skills that matter. Thus, catering more to the individual learner’s needs relevant to their career pathway than the National Curriculum taught in schools is presently capable of.

#ttrIT #ttrcareerinIT #ttrLearnToCode

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