Sunday, 25 October 2009

Learning in relation to programming

To some extent, this is a shameless plug for people to read my PhD thesis (Thompson 2008). However, because of the nature of a thesis or dissertation, there are many ideas or ideas that don't reach the written page. One of my supervisors said that a PhD can set up the research agenda for the remainder of your academic life. I would like to think that in my case, it might continue beyond retirement as I take the principles that I have learnt about learning and apply them in a range of contexts.

The focus of my these was on understanding practitioner perceptions of the programming paradigm behind the language. I have held the belief for quite some time that the way that a person understands a task dictates how they perform that task so my goal in my research was to understand the differences that exist in the way programming practitioners understood or expressed their understanding of the programming task. I restricted my study to one paradigm although a number of my more experienced participants freely expressed views related to other paradigms. Although there is diversity in the way that practitioners expressed their understanding, there were common threads or critical aspects that helped identify the differences in awareness.

Ramsden (2003) and Biggs and Moore (1993) talk about the influence of the learner's perception on the learning task. Marton and Säljö (1997) and Marton, Dall'Alba, and Beaty (1993) have conducted studies on conceptions of learning. There are many other studies that could be referenced that further support the concept that in teaching, we need to help the learner change their conception of learning and of the subject matter.

What I claim my thesis does is help uncover some of the critical aspects and their variations that need to be addressed if we are to help the learner achieve the level of understanding that we desire.

For me, the work needs to be continued to further understand the critical aspects for understanding programming that apply across the programming paradigms. My work focused on object-oriented programming. More importantly, the results need to be applied in planning teaching so that the appropriate space of learning (Marton and Tsui 2003) is opened up to the learner and they have the opportunity to come to the level of understanding that we desire. The teaching strategy shouldn't simply be planed and used, it should be evaluated to determine whether it is opening up the correct space of learning and whether it is bringing about the desired change of awareness in the phenomenon being learnt.

However, I see a wider use of the research and teaching approach that I am envisaging. The core foundation is in the variations that are presented to the learner (Marton and Tsui 2003, Marton and Pang 1999). It is through the careful selection of variations in relation to the phenomenon that the learner becomes aware of the critical aspects that we want them to understand. In a programming context, these variations may be in the type of problem to be solved with a particular programming construct or the variations in the constructs used to solve a specific problem. There may be other variations as well.

The question that still challenges me is whether we can address a number of societies social issues and international disputes by looking at the variations in the way people are aware of specific issues and then presenting variations that help the participants see the alternative perspectives that exist. The goal would be to bring an understanding of the diversity of perspectives and the underlying critical aspects that bring about the differences. Hopefully instead of forcing people to conform, we might see greater acceptance of diversity and a willingness to work through the issues that tend to divide us rather than draw us together.


Biggs, J. B., & Moore, P. J. (1993). The process of learning (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.

Marton, F., Dall'Alba, G., & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19(3), 277-300.

Marton, F., & Pang, M. F. (1999). Two faces of variation, 8th European Conference for Learning and Instruction. Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1997). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell & N. J. Entwistle (Eds.), The experience of learning : implications for teaching and studying in higher education (2nd ed., pp. 39-58). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Marton, F., & Tsui, A. B. M. (Eds.). (2003). Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah, NJ; London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North.

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