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The C++11 standard and C++ as a teaching language

The C++ Standards Committee recently published the 2011 update to the language standard with a large body of new features. Looking over some of the changes got me thinking again about my experiences as a software developer using the language and as an instructor teaching others how to use C++. And I’m not certain that the changes in the standard bodes well for the use of C++ as a teaching language.

A Historical Perspective

Like many who were first introduced to computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I learned how to hack using BASIC and assembly language, how to program using Pascal, and finally understood computer science when I grokked LISP and Smalltalk in my first run at graduate school. My introduction to C was in the late 1980s while learning to become a UNIX system administrator while working on my Master degree and C++ in my first real job writing point-of-sale software. So,like most people in my generation I’m not a native C++ speaker; most of the time I’m really thinking in C.

So, why comment now?

Part of my Ph.D. experience has involved working as a part-time instructor in our undergraduate program. Our department is very old-school in many ways; one of which is that we use C++ as our primary teaching language. And we teach C++ exactly as I learned the language 20 years ago in that we first teach imperative programming using the language as more fancy version of C and then we teach the object-oriented features. In other words, for the student’s first three or four semester we teach them that “C++ is just a better C compiler” and then dump object orientation on them when they have to also struggle with all of the theory of data structures. This brings us back to some of the features in the new language standard and how people who are taught to program in C++ in this traditional manner will never think to use them.

So what are some of these features?

Danny Kalev is a tech blogger and consultant who served on the C++ standard committee who recently posted a blog (here) that highlighted what he considered to be important new features of the standard. Let’s take a look at a few of those features from a teaching standpoint.

Null pointers

One of the big problems with not only C++ but also C is the way one dealt with concept of null pointers. From day 1 in both languages, the concept has been that machine addresses were represented by an integral subtype with value of 0 indicating an invalid null address. This lead to many issues in programs with people being caviler about treating the integer value of zero as being the same as indicating a NULL pointer. You have to be diligent in teaching people the difference between the two concepts and how to avoid the problems that are introduced by this convention.

So the convention developed that you would define a preprocessor value called “NULL” that you set to zero to indicate you were working with a null pointer value. Eventually this macro was incorporated in the set of headers mandated by the standard. Consider an example from Kalev’s post:

void f(int); //#1
void f(char *);//#2
f(0); //which f is called?

In both cases, very dangerous as the compiler can’t figure out which version of the overloaded function to call. Now think how to explain this concept to a neophyte programmer just learning about concepts of machine addresses, pointers, and overloaded functions.

So, the language standard introduces the concept of “nullptr”. For example, the nastiness from Kalev’s example becomes:

void f(int); //#1
void f(char *);//#2
f(nullptr) //unambiguous, calls #2

A glorious and wonderful thing for the language and a feature that will help teaching. But a good illustration of the problems that exist in teaching C++ to new programmers.

Delegating constructors

Object orientation is one of most difficult aspects of instructing people in programing C++. The idiosyncrasies of constructors and destructors are bad enough as currently defined but the new standard is adding more complexity to the issue. For instance, the C++11 standard permits the use of delegation in constructors. Again, we consider an example from Kalev’s post:

class M //C++11 delegating constructors
 int x, y;
 char *p;
 M(int v) : x(v), y(0),  p(new char [MAX])  {} //#1 target
 M(): M(0) {cout&lt&lt"delegating ctor"}


At last, we can now safely call other constructors, an excellent idea from an object-theroetical standpoint. However, the entire chain of teaching constructors becomes far more difficult with this feature.

Lambda expressions

The new standard adds the concept of lambda expressions to the language. A lambda expression lets you define functions locally at the place of the call to the function. In C++, this helps reduce some of the security risks that function objects incur in the language. Consider the following example from Kalev’s post:

int main()
   char s[]="Hello World!";
   int Uppercase = 0; //modified by the lambda
   for_each(s, s+sizeof(s), [&Uppercase] (char c) {
    if (isupper(c))
 cout&lt&lt"Uppercase&lt&lt" uppercase letters in: "&lt&lts&lt<endl;

In this case, we see an example of a lambda expression in the for_each construct where the Uppercase lambda expression defines a C++ expression for switching text to uppercase. Note the general form of the lambda expression

[capture](parameters)-&gtreturn-type   {body}

We see two pedagogical problems from this example: (1) the for_each construct is one that isn’t taught very well when you are inspired by the “C++ as better C” viewpoint of teaching, and (2) more critical, the entire concept of lambda expressions is one that you would not be able to teach until you have developed rather strong fundamental conceptual understanding of language design principles. Thus, not something easily taught to beginning programmers. In most undergraduate computer science programs, it’s a concept not taught until your third or fourth year in the program.

OK, how do we tie all of these thoughts together?

For me, the new standard makes the use of C++ as a teaching language even more problematic. Many of the concepts being added to the language to make it safer and cleaner make it more it more difficult and dangerous to use as a teaching language. Furthermore, it becomes even more problematic if your program is traditional and uses the “C++ as better C compiler” approach to teaching students just starting in their study of computer science.

Closing thought: C++ not a good teaching language

If we begin from the premise of C++ as being less than suited as a teaching language and becoming even more so with the introduction of the revised standard, what then should we use as a teaching language for new programmers? In my recent travels in search of a teaching position, it’s been my observation that many programs have switched to Java and C# as alternatives. These languages suffer from many of the same issues of C++. I’m beginning more and more to believe much as the teaching staff does as CMU and we should be teaching using languages such as Python.



Danny Kalev: The Biggest Changes in C++11 (and Why You Should Care)

Robert Harper: Teaching FP to Freshmen

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