What I *really* learned from JumpStart Typing

Way back in elementary school, they wanted to teach my class to type. For some reason, they sat us down facing a wall of bulky gray boxes and entrusted a computer program with the job. JumpStart Typing, which I believe is no longer on the market, consisted of a few press-the-correct-letter games (a dime a dozen online today) and around ten WPM goals. These goals were based on a diagnostic test taken at the start of the game. As the player reached each goal, they “recharged a power card” that partially unlocked a door to the trophy room. There were also Olympics-style medals. It was a classic example of goals and badges.

The problem with typing, or for that matter education, as a video game is that it inherits from the medium a singular overriding goal: to beat the game. And that’s exactly what 4th grade me did. He figured out that by deliberately failing the diagnostic test, the WPM goals would be extremely low. That made the game over screen – shiny medal, cool music, plot resolution – easily accesible. He gamed the system, or found the system behind the game, but he never did learn to type.

It was a remarkable hack for an elementary schooler. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how that kid would grow up to become a computer scientist. After all, he wanted to learn how the program worked, where it got its data and what it did with it, and how to get past the inconveniences it posed. It was a great exercise in reverse engineering, another core engineering skill.

But the issue of typing does not go away. I don’t think it will ever be more important than handwriting, but it will get close. Oh, and you know what computer scientists do a lot of? You know, besides reason abstractly, get into pointless arguments, and be unnecessarily intimidating to outsiders? Yeah, they type. My professor likes to cite Jeff Atwood’s blog post that we are typists first, programmers second:

[T]here is nothing more fundamental in programming than the ability to efficiently express yourself through typing. Note that I said “efficiently” not “perfectly”. This is about reasonable competency at a core programming discipline … When you’re a fast, efficient typist, you spend less time between thinking that thought and expressing it in code.

To that end, the professor had everyone in the class take a typing test before handing out the instructions for the lab. I scored a manageable 43 WPM. I don’t hunt and peck, but it does take me a few instants every so often to recover from hitting a key adjacent to the one I wanted. I blame switching between the MacBook Pro and Dell’s external keyboards in the lab. Right.

Before we declare touch typing a do-or-die skill, Jimmy Bogard has a counterpoint:

If you’re typing so much that your typing skills are holding you back as a developer, I’d say you’re creating waaay too much code … you’re not doing enough thinking, designing and analyzing.

He also points out that much of the typing for programming does not  consist of alphabetic characters (letters) for paragraphs at a time, but in rather short bursts that include braces and semicolons that make make generous use of the shift key. In my experience, time is split about evenly between thinking about the code and typing another four lines as fast as possible. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve found compositions like this prose blog post have a similar on/off pattern. But typing tests have the unrealistic model of providing an endless stream of words, usually random and out of context. (Despite the interest on this StackOverflow thread, the only typing test for programmers seems to have linkrotted away.)

Typing Test Score

I earned that badge fairly, but it too can be hacked without much difficulty. (Some things never change.) If you look at the HTML you’ll see the link

http://img.10fastfingers.com/badge/1_wpm_score_BG.png

The WPM score is encoded as two letters, in this case BG. It works similar to the columns in an Excel spreadsheet: zero through twenty-five are A-Z, and then its AA, AB, and so on. BG = 26*2+6 = 58. Using the same scheme, I could claim to type one hundred WPM faster (FC), or the maximum 255 WPM (IV).

The problem with both of these typing programs is that neither promotes what Daniel Coyle calls “deep practice.” The concept is explained fully in his book The Talent Code, but the gist of it is to train the brain like a muscle, and do the things you want it to do as many times as possible. In the rush to type quickly in pursuit of extrinsic rewards, typists of all ages are likely to reinforce old habits. The wrong way is what comes naturally when you don’t think about what you’re doing. Do you always return to the home row keys, or do you abandon them when you’re in a rush? Teaching typing should revolve around teaching technique; speed comes later.

How’s this for a test: Put a cardboard box over the keyboard, so that your fingers have room to type but you can’t see the keyboard. (At least one company sells an unlabeled keyboard, but the box is cheaper and even more effective, since you shouldn’t be looking at your hands at all.) Then type a series of words, not as fast as you can, but as accurately as you can. Take as long as you like. Your score is the number of keystrokes without error.

The words typed should not be random. Deep practice is also extremely specific, so focus on trouble spots. For example, if you’re having difficulty with the f, g, and h keys, try typing “gold fog horns hog high golf goals” without error or peeking. Then do it ten times in a row. (Unlike math problems, repetition is the best way to learn a complex, dexterous movement.)

Learning to type is very much like learning a sport or musical instrument, and perhaps should be taught that way. (“You have to break 60 WPM to make varsity, Jimmy.”) There’s no higher-level thought involved, just muscle memory. It is also best fueled by an intrinsic desire it get better. Athletes have the notion that they are competing against themselves, and that should be the case with typing. But intrinsic motivation can be easily overrun by the pursuit of tangible, Skinnerian rewards. (Look no further than the hateful rivalries and performance-enhancing drugs sometimes associated with sports.) By substituting a the reward of a practical life skill (the ability to transcribe at the speed of thought – how cool is that?) with a fleeting virtual medal, the middle school typing product was extremely hurtful in my progression as a typist.

The most durable motivation to learn is learning itself. Any program or scheme that tries to interfere with this motivation is hurtful to intellectual and personal growth. Instead, let’s try to instill in our children a love of learning. After all, one never knows when a particular skill or experience will become invaluable.

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One response to this post.

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