Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

A 'Joel Test' for Grassroots Programming Groups

Back during the first dot-com bubble, Joel Spolsky wrote an article titled "The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code" that listed 12 questions you can ask to estimate the maturity of a software development team:

  1. Do you use source control?
  2. Can you make a build in one step?
  3. Do you make daily builds?
  4. Do you have a bug database?
  5. Do you fix bugs before writing new code?
  6. Do you have an up-to-date schedule?
  7. Do you have a spec?
  8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
  9. Do you use the best tools money can buy?
  10. Do you have testers?
  11. Do new candidates write code during their interview?
  12. Do you do hallway usability testing?

It was completely unscientific, but it was also very useful and influential (and was in fact one of the inspirations for our "Best Practices for Scientific Computing" paper). In that spirit, I would like to present something similar for estimating the maturity of a grassroots "learn to program" project like ours. In place of the original test's 12 questions, I have 16:

How Mature Is Your Training Program?
  1. Are all of your lessons searchable?
  2. Does each lesson solve a problem your learners believe they have?
  3. Are you teaching principles that will still be relevant in five years?
  4. Do your instructors regularly update your lessons in a publicly-accessible version control repository?
  5. Do your instructors record and share their pedagogical content knowledge?
  6. Is there a coherent narrative running through all your lessons?
  7. Are lessons presented in short, digestible pieces with clear objectives at the start and practice exercises at the end?
  8. Do you code live when teaching?
  9. Do your setup instructions work for most learners, and do instructors know how to fix things when they don't?
  10. Do you check learners' current knowledge and skills before teaching?
  11. Do you have real-time feedback in your classroom?
  12. Do you check what learners got out of the workshop weeks or months later?
  13. Do you have a standard for conduct that everyone is familiar with and that is actually enforced?
  14. Do you recruit potential new instructors from your workshops?
  15. Do you teach your instructors how to teach?
  16. Do you provide explicit next steps for learners?

The thing about this quiz is that it's easy to give a quick yes or no to each question. (You can even give yourself half marks if your score would otherwise be uncomfortably low, which is what I do below for Software Carpentry.) I think any score over 50% is pretty good; I also think that a lot of software skills programs fall well below that, regardless of whether they are grassroots groups, corporate training, or traditional academic courses.

1. Are all of your lessons searchable?

Search engines can't read the text embedded in images, videos, and Flash animations, and users can't copy and paste such text, so anything presented that way is essentially invisible to the web. PDFs are also often difficult, especially if what they contain is graphically rich. In order to help learners find what they need when they need it, in their own order and on their own time, lessons should be stored in a web-friendly format like HTML.

Software Carpentry's score: 1. (Note that our Version 4 lessons would only get 0.5 on this, because most of the example code is only present in the PNG images exported from PowerPoint, and not in the accompanying narration.)

2. Does each lesson solve a problem your learners believe they have?

People learn best when they're intrinsically motivated, and intrinsic motivation is more likely when they can see how the things they are learning will help them do things they currently want to do.

Software Carpentry's score: 1.

3. Are you teaching deep ideas that will still be relevant in five years?

Specific tools come and go, but deeper principles remain. More importantly, without an understanding of the principles embodied in particular tools and techniques, learners will be reduced to cargo cult programming: they won't be able to fix things that go wrong, and they're unlikely to be able to extrapolate from what they know to come up with new solutions to their specific problems.

And yes, this goal is in direct tension with the preceding one. Learners want specific, concrete skills to meet next Thursday's deadline; we want them to understand the "why" behind those skills. I think Software Carpentry's curriculum does a good job of smuggling big ideas into lessons by showing learners specific tools (e.g., pipes in the shell) and then explicitly saying what those tools are examples of.

Software Carpentry's score: 1.

4. Do your instructors regularly update your lessons in a publicly-accessible version control repository?

I now believe that getting people to collaborate openly on lessons in the way they collaborate on Wikipedia articles and open source software may well be Software Carpentry's greatest long-term contribution. More prosaically, if instructors (and learners, and passers-by) aren't able to update lessons easily, your training is critically dependent on a small number of authors, and will probably wither when real life drags those authors (or that single author) away.

Software Carpentry's score: 1.

5. Do your instructors record and share their pedagogical content knowledge?

Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) is what lies between the domain-specific knowledge that's being taught and the general principles of good educational practice. It's the examples that illustrate ideas particularly well, how long lessons take, the instructors' collective understanding of what's likely to go wrong in those lessons and how to fix it, and so on—in short, the collective wisdom of a specific teaching community.

Software Carpentry's score: 0. (Our instructor's guide only captures a fraction of what we know, and isn't updated regularly.)

6. Is there a coherent narrative running through each lesson?

Humans are story-telling animals: we listen more closely, and learn better, when we're presented with a plot rather than a mere collection of facts. Good lessons should therefore contain a story that builds toward a useful conclusion.

Software Carpentry's score: 0. (Unlike Data Carpentry, we don't use a running example throughout our lessons.)

7. Are lessons presented in short, digestible pieces with clear objectives at the start and formative assessment exercises at the end?

This question is basically asking, "Are the lessons well designed?"

Software Carpentry's score: 0.5. (Our lessons are short and digestible, but our objectives are muddled and the practice exercises are uneven.)

8. Do you code live when teaching?

We've all had the misfortune to watch an instructor whip through slides faster than the audience could possibly follow. Live coding helps prevent that, but it also allows instructors to go off the beaten track and follow learners' questions in unexpected directions. More importantly, it allows learners to see instructors diagnose and fix mistakes (something which is rarely if ever shown in static slides). And most importantly of all, seeing instructors make mistakes gives learners permission to make mistakes of their own: if the teacher is fouling this up, it must OK for the newbie to as well.

Software Carpentry's score: 1.

9. Do your setup instructions work for most learners, and do instructors know how to fix things when they don't?

"I can't even get started" is perhaps the biggest demotivator a class faces.

Software Carpentry's score: 0.5. (We get full marks for instructions, but only part marks for instructors knowing how to debug things that go wrong.)

10. Do you check learners' current knowledge and skills before teaching?

This question is similar to the previous one, but on a different timescale: rather than feedback in real time as you're teaching, do you gather feedback before the class starts so that you can tune your content and pace to your actual learners? Laying out pre-requisites doesn't achieve this: people will mis-estimate their own knowledge, or sign up for something far too simple or far too advanced just because it's the only training on offer.

Software Carpentry's score: 1.

11. Do you have real-time feedback in your classroom?

Watching recorded videos is actually a pretty poor way for novices to learn. The only reason most people don't realize it is that many of the live lectures they've attended aren't any better. The whole point of a live performance is that the performer (in this case, the teacher) can respond to her audience, but in order for her to do that, there must be some way for her to get feedback while she's teaching.

Software Carpentry's score: 1. (Sticky notes and Etherpad for the win!)

12. Do you check what learners got out of the workshop weeks or months later?

Asking people immediately after a class what they learned doesn't tell you what's going to stick, and there's no point teaching things that don't (if only because there's always something else you could try to teach instead). A good training course also gathers long-term feedback to tune the way it's teaching, particularly if different instructors or different offerings approach a topic in different ways.

Software Carpentry's score: 0. (Our lack of long-term post-workshop assessment is our biggest failing.)

13. Do you have a standard for conduct that everyone is familiar with and that is actually enforced?

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between negative liberty (the absence of constraints) and positive liberty (the possession of the power and resources needed to fulfill one's desires). Similarly, there's a different between negative openness (the absence of a rule saying "you can't take part in this") and positive openness (a sincere effort to make everyone feel welcome and help them take part). A code of conduct isn't the only way to achieve the latter—Hacker School has their User's Manual, and Ascend has its class agreement—but there has to be something in place if you truly want all kinds of learners.

Software Carpentry's score: 1.

14. Do you continually recruit new instructors?

Everybody gets tired eventually, or is sidetracked by other events in their lives. In order for your training program to last longer than one person's heroic efforts, the instructor pool must steadily be replenished.

Software Carpentry's score: 1. (Most of our instructors are alumni of past workshops.)

15. Do you teach your instructors how to teach?

People can teach themselves how to program; projects like Software Carpentry exist because it's easier to learn with guidance. Similarly, people can learn how to teach on their own, but it's easier (and faster, and more reliable) if someone is there to point the way. Having some kind of training for instructors also helps ensure that they're all singing from the same songbook, i.e., that there's some level of agreement on what and how they're going to teach, and therefore fewer collisions between approach and direction in class.

But to ensure positive openness, instructor training must go beyond the lessons. Instructors need to know that they shouldn't take over the keyboard when working with novices, that they have to actively give everyone a chance to speak, to respect learners' cultural norms (swearing, for example, is almost unnoticed now by some people, but still quite offensive to others), and not to belittle the difficulties learners face by saying things like, "Oh, that's easy, you just..."

Software Carpentry's score: 1.

16. Do you provide explicit next steps for learners?

The end of class shouldn't be the end of learning. Instructors should tell learners where to go to find out more, and should connect them with everything from mailing lists and bulletin boards to networking events, potential employers, and internships.

Software Carpentry's score: 0. (Some instructors may point learners at other resources or other classes, but we don't do anything systematically.)

Our total score is 11 out of 15. That's a 'B' at most schools, so while I think we're doing well, we clearly also have room to improve. Once the Software Carpentry Foundation is properly launched, I hope to turn our attention to the places where we fall short.

The real aim of this rubric, though, is to help us compare what we're doing to other efforts so that we can learn from them and vice versa. This list is obviously biased toward Software Carpentry, so if there are things you do that you think are valuable, but which don't show up in the questions above, please let us know. Equally, if there are questions that you think shouldn't be included because they're too specific to our model and audience, or not actually important to helping volunteers deliver high-quality training, please let us know that too.

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