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Coding as conversations: Pair programming

January 26, 2019

Recently, I saw Aatish Bhatia share this excellent TEDxCalgary talk from Marie-Claire Shananhan and Pratim Sengupta about coding in public spaces.

My favorite quote from the video was, “Learning to code isn’t about acquiring a thing or a skill. It’s about participating in rich and meaningful conversations together.”

I’ve seen this quote in action in many ways this year, in conversation with colleagues at UiO and across the world, on twitter, via Skype and more. But I think the most powerful way in which I’ve seen coding as a conversation has been with two former advisees, H and Y, both of whom are now juniors in college studying computer science.

H and Y were extraordinary advisees, and somehow we ended up keeping in touch once they went to college, scheduling Skype/Google hangouts a few times every semester. Both of them have given me great insights into what college-level STEM courses are looking like these days and many ideas for how we can improve our teaching and student life at my school. We’ve talked about finding summer internships, ethics in computer science, cool class projects they’re working on and much more.<

Recently, I’ve been working to learn React and Firebase to build an app I’ve wanted to create—Physics Coach (blog post forthcoming). For a good part of the fall, I spent a lot of time reading books on React, watching videos, and honestly, not making a ton of progress. It doesn’t help that it seems like the React/Javascript/web development ecosystem is evolving at such a fast rate that notation seems to be changing on a monthly basis.

Earlier this fall, I had the the bright idea to reach out to H and Y for some advice and invite them take a look at some of the code I’d written. Thanks to Zoom and Visual Studio Code Live Share (ZOMG—VS Code is the most amazing code editor ever), it was super easy to set up a pair programming session.

After six or so pair programming sessions with H and Y, I’ve made tremendous progress in developing Physics Coach, and in my understanding of React and Javascript. I think I’ve also given them some good practice for coding interviews as they’ve answered some of my questions and helped to troubleshoot code. We always start our sessions with me setting out a small goal, like setting Firebase up to write the homework sessions into its database or incorporating Google’s awesome material-ui into a login dialog. In all of these sessions, I feel like I’m 10x more productive when pair programming then when I am working on my own—this comes from being forced to explain my thinking and voice the things I’m uncertain of, and having someone else who able to ask questions, share different perspectives and help me talk through the logic of a particular coding challenge.

I think H and Y would say these sessions have been equally valuable for their learning, but I’ll let them speak for themselves in the comments. I also am thinking about how I might be able to bring something like this to my computer science classes. Might it be useful to pull students into a pair programming session with the teacher from time to time? I could see many ways to make this work—from live coding sessions where the student is the driver and the teacher and student are working together to implement a program that is just beyond the student’s current understanding, to having the student as the co-pilot on a more challenging project where the teacher serves as the driver, giving the student an opportunity to see how larger software projects are developed. I also think pair programming sessions with the teacher might help students to understand the value of pair programming better—something I’ve found that beginning students tend to discount when they think the programming challenges are easy and they can solve them themselves.

In the meantime, I think pair programming can be a way to grow the computer science teachers community, especially the <a TeachersCoding movement that Evan Weinberg has written about that seeks to help teachers understand how code can be a powerful tool to help their teaching. So if you’re ever interested in doing a bit of programming, usually after 10 pm Central European Time, hit me up!

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 27, 2019 4:18 pm

    Our peer programming sessions have made me more confident about the information I do know and how to learn/problem-solve in the face of the unknown. We never know what errors or bugs we may face. I think this is what has been missing from my college classes. Most of my STEM courses have focused on concept retention and regurgitation. I have seen students who may understand the concept but are not confident to “test” it out. They subscribe to these new libraries and languages as if sent from God and refuse to break them, test them or discuss them. Instead, I’d offer them a nugget from our session where we decide on a goal for the session and dedicate the rest of our time to discussing, thinking and programming. Coding only constitutes a VERY SMALL portion of what we do. I leave our sessions having used communication, coding and problem-solving skills that extend to my work with other non-IT teams. The thing is, the details of programming do not matter. It is how we exercise the mind by working on technology that makes peer-sessions fun.

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