“Fluff” Vs Context: In the Right Environment, Girls Out-Program Boys

At the beginning of January, Motherboard’s Michael Byrne argued that if you had a New Year’s resolution to start learning how to code, you should learn to do it ” the hard way.”

I learned to program in C at a community college and I wouldn’t have done it any other way….. I was hooked on problem solving and algorithms. This is a thing unique to programming: the immediate, nearly continuous rush of problem solving. To me, programming feels like solving puzzles (or, rather, it is solving puzzles), or a great boss fight in a video game….

The point is to learn programming as it is nakedly, minus as much gunk and fluff that can possibly be removed from the experience.

Let’s put aside for a moment the “hard way” vs “gunk and fluff” pseudo-macho, my-head-was-shoved-in-a-locker-in-high-school-and-I-haven’t-got-over-it framing used by guys like Byrne. There are an awful lot of people who’d agree this is the best way to teach anyone who wants to learn. But that’s because it appeals to them, not because empirical evidence backs them up.

Take a recent study by Kate Howland and Judith Good.

Researchers in the University’s Informatics department asked pupils at a secondary school to design and program their own computer game using a new visual programming language that shows pupils the computer programs they have written in plain English.

Dr Kate Howland and Dr Judith Good found that the girls in the classroom wrote more complex programs in their games than the boys and also learnt more about coding compared to the boys.

Why did girls do so much better? Here’s what Good thinks is happening:

Given that girls’ attainment in literacy is higher than boys across all stages of the primary and secondary school curriculum, it may be that explicitly tying programming to an activity that they tend to do well in leads to a commensurate gain in their programming skills.

In other words, if girls’ stories are typically more complex and well developed, then when creating stories in games, their stories will also require more sophisticated programs in order for their games to work.

And it isn’t just that these girls are more skilled at telling complex stories; they also enjoy doing it.

It’s an important lesson, not only for teaching children but also adults. If you want to make Data Science more accessible, the first thing we need to ask is where are the audiences we are trying to reach coming from? If we understand what get someone fired up and what skills they bring to the table, it can go a long way in unlocking their ability — and just as importantly, their desire — to excel in this new field.


UPDATE: I’d also like to point out that there are a decent number of guys like me who, unlike Byrne, think solving abstract puzzles is boring as hell. In my three decades of coding and managing complex software projects, this lack of enthusiasm for abstract puzzles hasn’t been a problem so far.

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