I drew this on a let's-have-coffee note to catch a friend's eye during the recent European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group conference. It was inspired by a paper, Milestones for Teaching the Spreadsheet Program, from Étienne Vandeput of the University of Liège.
Étienne was a mathematician before he was a computer scientist, which gives him an eye for essentials. In his paper — which will probably be put into the arXiv with the rest of our 2009 Proceedings, as we have already done for past years — he looks at separating what is inessential in teaching students about spreadsheets from what is essential, and at developing a taxonomy of the essential concepts. This is the passage that inspired my cartoon:
Even when the learning is not from a distance, the use of software in order to carry out a task is often considered like a practical process devoid of any intelligent approach. This point of view is unfortunately shared by a majority of learners and teachers. For instance, the use of a word processing program is considered by lots of people like a sequence of elementary commands. Such an approach cannot lead to a structured and efficient work. Nevertheless, many trainers build their training on this methodology. What the learner can see remains very important. So the trainer will insist on the graphical elements of the environment (menus, buttons, checkboxes...) and on graphical aspects of the process results. Examples about the spreadsheet are numerous. For instance, trainees learn to enlarge a column or to emphasise characters before writing a formula or thinking about the modeling of a spreadsheet. They are very surprised when a value does not appear in a cell like they thought it would, but they do not care about cell format and information types. They feel very satisfied when they get a pretty graphic even if it shows wrong values and so on.
By the way, I can see why the French live longer than the English. At 9pm on Monday last week, I was standing near Cathédrale Notre Dame in bright sunshine, admiring the flying buttresses and the views up and down the Seine. Plenty of time to meander back to the RER train station, get back to the conference accommodation at Cachan, and buy food from a local shop before dusk fell. At 9pm on Tuesday, having emerged into London in the centre of a titanic hour-long thunderstorm, the first time I'd ever consciously noticed that lightning is blue, I was standing under a large raincloud; shivering. It felt ten degrees cooler. Dusk was reflected in the puddles on the pavement. This is why the French have joie de vivre whereas the English have tea and custard creams.
During the conference, joie de vivre was available in liquid form (red, rosé, and white) at the excellent lunches provided by Crous de Créteil student services at the École normale supérieure de Cachan. For this and the rest of the doings at ENS Cachan, I want to thank our conference organisers from the ENS, Eric Bruillard, François-Marie Blondel, and Françoise Tort.
Françoise deserves special thanks. On Saturday, as many delegates were leaving, an RER train driver was attacked in Paris. The other drivers came out in sympathy, so no trains were running. Françoise heard this news on her car radio and quickly planned a tour of the Cachan RER stations, successfully finding all the delegates waiting disconsolate and trainless and conveying them to airport and Eurostar terminal. As mathematician Paul Halmos says in his autobiography I Want to be a Mathematician: An Automathography, true professionalism is more than knowing all there is to know about one's discipline.