Dijkstra, in his essay On the cruelty of really teaching computing science, makes the following proposal for an introductory programming course:

On the one hand, we teach what looks like the predicate calculus, but we do it very differently from the philosophers. In order to train the novice programmer in the manipulation of uninterpreted formulae, we teach it more as boolean algebra, familiarizing the student with all algebraic properties of the logical connectives. To further sever the links to intuition, we rename the values {true, false} of the boolean domain as {black, white}.

On the other hand, we teach a simple, clean, imperative programming language, with a skip and a multiple assignment as basic statements, with a block structure for local variables, the semicolon as operator for statement composition, a nice alternative construct, a nice repetition and, if so desired, a procedure call. To this we add a minimum of data types, say booleans, integers, characters and strings. The essential thing is that, for whatever we introduce, the corresponding semantics is defined by the proof rules that go with it.

Right from the beginning, and all through the course, we stress that the programmer's task is not just to write down a program, but that his main task is to give a formal proof that the program he proposes meets the equally formal functional specification. While designing proofs and programs hand in hand, the student gets ample opportunity to perfect his manipulative agility with the predicate calculus. Finally, in order to drive home the message that this introductory programming course is primarily a course in formal mathematics, we see to it that the programming language in question has not been implemented on campus so that students are protected from the temptation to test their programs.

He emphasises that this is a serious proposal, and outlines various possible objections, including that his idea is "utterly unrealistic" and "far too difficult."

But that kite won't fly either for the postulate has been proven wrong: since the early 80's, such an introductory programming course has successfully been given to hundreds of college freshmen each year. [Because, in my experience, saying this once does not suffice, the previous sentence should be repeated at least another two times.]

Which course is Dijkstra referring to, and is there any other literature on it?

The essay appeared in 1988 when Dijkstra was at the University of Texas at Austin, which is probably a clue -- they host the Dijkstra archive but it is huge, and I'm particularly interested in hearing from others about this course.

I don't want to discuss whether Dijkstra's idea is good or realistic here. This is a cross-post from matheducators.se where it didn't attract any answers for a couple of weeks and the mods didn't want to migrate it.


merged by Raphael Apr 8 '16 at 15:07

This question was merged with on “On the cruelty of really teaching computing science” because it is an exact duplicate of that question.