Haskell For Kids! Introduction
In a couple weeks, I’ll be posting a blog entry once a week called “Haskell for Kids”. This is an introduction to what that’s all about.
What Is It, and Why?
I have the excellent chance this school year to teach Haskell to a group of children aged 12 to 13 years old! I’m very excited about it. I’m teaching the class as part of the Little School on Vermijo, which is a neighborhood school taught by my neighbor, Sue. I love this concept: the school meets in her living room, it’s a very small class, and a lot of people in the neighborhood are pitching in with subjects here and there. Last year, I taught a once-a-week mathematics class, which was really great. This year, I’m trying programming for two hours per week.
Yes, I picked Haskell for a programming language. That will be controversial, of course, but I think I have good reasons.
- It’s something I’m excited about! I think that’s bigger than a bunch of technical details: it’s important for everyone to teach what you’re excited about, and pass that excitement to others.
- Ben Lippmeier’s Gloss library is an excellent educational tool. It’s a library for building graphics-related programs with a high-level, composable, and semantically meaningful API.
- I think Haskell is the best environment to learn and practice abstract patterns of thinking that will be useful in mathematics, logic, and a clear understanding of the world. You see, I don’t care whether anyone comes out of this class headed for a computer programming career. If they’ve got their heart set on being a poet, I hope to have contributed something valuable to their lives, too.
The objections I’ve heard when I’ve discussed the plan with others come down to Haskell being “hard”. I think that’s an oversimplification. If you look at the reasons Haskell is considered “hard”, a lot of it comes down to: (a) it’s different from other languages that people are used to, and (b) people are doing hard things with it. Neither objection applies in this class.
That’s not to say that Haskell ought to be everyone’s choice. If you’re looking at teaching programming to children, I think the most important thing is to avoid incidental complexity. Any language that lets you get right to talking about what you want to do is suitable. If I weren’t doing this in Haskell, I’d be choosing Python. But excitement matters, so Haskell it is.
What’s Blogs Got To Do With It?
The actual class will be happening two mornings a week on Tuesday and Wednesday. In the process of planning, though, I ran into the inevitable problem that there aren’t really any textbooks for teaching Haskell programming to 12 year olds! So in lieu of a textbook, here’s my plan:
- Of course, I’ve done some preparation: made an outline of several dozen topics, and mapped out the dependencies between them, and ideas for exercises in Gloss that might accompany each one. I don’t intend to share this, though, because I want to avoid locking in to a pace or syllabus before we even get started.
- Each week, directly after that week’s two classes, I’ll write up my notes of what we talked about, and publish them in that weeks’ Haskell for Kids blog entry as a review.
- My students will be assigned to come comment with specific questions they have, or with comments on things they found interesting, additional ideas that came to mind, or what they were able to do with their programs that seemed cool.
I hope to accomplish a couple things with that structure.
The first, and least interesting, is to have a written source for anyone in the class that wants to go back and review topics from the past. To be honest, I hope this isn’t very common. If I’ve got people needing to constantly go back and copy code from past lessons, then I think that’s a pretty good indication I’m going too fast! That said, though, it will be nice to have the notes available, especially for students who are absent or just find it useful to go back and read it again.
The second, and more important, thing I hope to accomplish is to connect students in this class with a larger community. Anyone else reading this blog, whether you’re learning Haskell or a part of the community already, is encouraged to jump in the conversation and participate. I know I’ve talked to at least three or four people, from when I originally asked around for experiences with this through now, who wanted to be kept up to date on how it goes, or even follow along. This is your chance!
A Preview of the Class
I’m organizing the class around the structure of Ben’s Gloss library, which happens to be related to a nice progression of programming ideas as well! So the best way to explain the structure will be to mention the four entry points in Gloss:
This is the simplest of the four Gloss entry points: you give it a picture, and it displays the picture in a window. We’ll use it to look at basic types of data (numbers, boolean values, etc.), structured types (for example, lists and tuples), expressions, precedence and order of operations, variables, and list comprehensions.
This Gloss entry point displays an animation, represented as a function that maps the current time to a picture. We'll use it to talk about defining functions, conditionals, pattern matching, and type declarations.
The third Gloss entry point runs a simulation, which differs from an animation in that it maintains a state. We will use it to discuss defining and operating on our own data types.
The fourth and final Gloss entry point runs a simulation with user input, which is suggestively called a game. We'll use this to talk about issues arising in larger-scale programs: recursion in both code and data, modular programming, simple data structures, and building complex data types. At this point, I also expect to transition even more toward providing time for practice, and encouraging everyone to create something of their own.
The exact time allocations for each part will be determined over the course of the year, so we'll see how it goes! If you're interested, I hope you stick around.