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This chapter is from the book

0.2 A philosophy of teaching and learning

What are we trying to help you learn? And how are we approaching the process of teaching? We try to present the minimal concepts, techniques, and tools for you to do effective practical programs, including

  • Program organization
  • Debugging and testing
  • Class design
  • Computation
  • Function and algorithm design
  • Graphics (two-dimensional only)
  • Graphical user interfaces (GUIs)
  • Text manipulation
  • Regular expression matching
  • Files and stream input and output (I/O)
  • Memory management
  • Scientific/numerical/engineering calculations
  • Design and programming ideals
  • The C++ standard library
  • Software development strategies
  • C-language programming techniques

Working our way through these topics, we cover the programming techniques called procedural programming (as with the C programming language), data abstraction, object-oriented programming, and generic programming. The main topic of this book is programming, that is, the ideals, techniques, and tools of expressing ideas in code. The C++ programming language is our main tool, so we describe many of C++’s facilities in some detail. But please remember that C++ is just a tool, rather than the main topic of this book. This is “programming using C++,” not “C++ with a bit of programming theory.”

Each topic we address serves at least two purposes: it presents a technique, concept, or principle and also a practical language or library feature. For example, we use the interface to a two-dimensional graphics system to illustrate the use of classes and inheritance. This allows us to be economical with space (and your time) and also to emphasize that programming is more than simply slinging code together to get a result as quickly as possible. The C++ standard library is a major source of such “double duty” examples — many even do triple duty. For example, we introduce the standard library vector, use it to illustrate widely useful design techniques, and show many of the programming techniques used to implement it. One of our aims is to show you how major library facilities are implemented and how they map to hardware. We insist that craftsmen must understand their tools, not just consider them “magical.”

Some topics will be of greater interest to some programmers than to others. However, we encourage you not to prejudge your needs (how would you know what you’ll need in the future?) and at least look at every chapter. If you read this book as part of a course, your teacher will guide your selection.

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We characterize our approach as “depth-first.” It is also “concrete-first” and “concept-based.” First, we quickly (well, relatively quickly, Chapters 1–11) assemble a set of skills needed for writing small practical programs. In doing so, we pre­sent a lot of tools and techniques in minimal detail. We focus on simple concrete code examples because people grasp the concrete faster than the abstract. That’s simply the way most humans learn. At this initial stage, you should not expect to understand every little detail. In particular, you’ll find that trying something slightly different from what just worked can have “mysterious” effects. Do try, though! And please do the drills and exercises we provide. Just remember that early on you just don’t have the concepts and skills to accurately estimate what’s simple and what’s complicated; expect surprises and learn from them.

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We move fast in this initial phase — we want to get you to the point where you can write interesting programs as fast as possible. Someone will argue, “We must move slowly and carefully; we must walk before we can run!” But have you ever watched a baby learning to walk? Babies really do run by themselves before they learn the finer skills of slow, controlled walking. Similarly, you will dash ahead, occasionally stumbling, to get a feel of programming before slowing down to gain the necessary finer control and understanding. You must run before you can walk!

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It is essential that you don’t get stuck in an attempt to learn “everything” about some language detail or technique. For example, you could memorize all of C++’s built-in types and all the rules for their use. Of course you could, and doing so might make you feel knowledgeable. However, it would not make you a programmer. Skipping details will get you “burned” occasionally for lack of knowledge, but it is the fastest way to gain the perspective needed to write good programs. Note that our approach is essentially the one used by children learning their native language and also the most effective approach used to teach foreign languages. We encourage you to seek help from teachers, friends, colleagues, instructors, Mentors, etc. on the inevitable occasions when you are stuck. Be assured that nothing in these early chapters is fundamentally difficult. However, much will be unfamiliar and might therefore feel difficult at first.

Later, we build on the initial skills to broaden your base of knowledge and skills. We use examples and exercises to solidify your understanding, and to provide a conceptual base for programming.

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We place a heavy emphasis on ideals and reasons. You need ideals to guide you when you look for practical solutions — to know when a solution is good and principled. You need to understand the reasons behind those ideals to understand why they should be your ideals, why aiming for them will help you and the users of your code. Nobody should be satisfied with “because that’s the way it is” as an explanation. More importantly, an understanding of ideals and reasons allows you to generalize from what you know to new situations and to combine ideas and tools in novel ways to address new problems. Knowing “why” is an essential part of acquiring programming skills. Conversely, just memorizing lots of poorly understood rules and language facilities is limiting, a source of errors, and a massive waste of time. We consider your time precious and try not to waste it.

Many C++ language-technical details are banished to appendices and manuals, where you can look them up when needed. We assume that you have the initiative to search out information when needed. Use the index and the table of contents. Don’t forget the online help facilities of your compiler, and the web. Remember, though, to consider every web resource highly suspect until you have reason to believe better of it. Many an authoritative-looking website is put up by a programming novice or someone with something to sell. Others are simply outdated. We provide a collection of links and information on our support website: www.stroustrup.com/Programming.

Please don’t be too impatient for “realistic” examples. Our ideal example is the shortest and simplest code that directly illustrates a language facility, a concept, or a technique. Most real-world examples are far messier than ours, yet do not consist of more than a combination of what we demonstrate. Successful commercial programs with hundreds of thousands of lines of code are based on techniques that we illustrate in a dozen 50-line programs. The fastest way to understand real-world code is through a good understanding of the fundamentals.

On the other hand, we do not use “cute examples involving cuddly animals” to illustrate our points. We assume that you aim to write real programs to be used by real people, so every example that is not presented as language-technical is taken from a real-world use. Our basic tone is that of professionals addressing (future) professionals.

0.2.1 The order of topics

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There are many ways to teach people how to program. Clearly, we don’t subscribe to the popular “the way I learned to program is the best way to learn” theories. To ease learning, we early on present topics that would have been considered advanced only a few years ago. Our ideal is for the topics we present to be driven by problems you meet as you learn to program, to flow smoothly from topic to topic as you increase your understanding and practical skills. The major flow of this book is more like a story than a dictionary or a hierarchical order.

It is impossible to learn all the principles, techniques, and language facilities needed to write a program at once. Consequently, we have to choose a subset of principles, techniques, and features to start with. More generally, a textbook or a course must lead students through a series of subsets. We consider it our responsibility to select topics and to provide emphasis. We can’t just present everything, so we must choose; what we leave out is at least as important as what we leave in — at each stage of the journey.

For contrast, it may be useful for you to see a list of (severely abbreviated) characterizations of approaches that we decided not to take:

  • “C first”: This approach to learning C++ is wasteful of students’ time and leads to poor programming practices by forcing students to approach problems with fewer facilities, techniques, and libraries than necessary. C++ provides stronger type checking than C, a standard library with better support for novices, and exceptions for error handling.
  • Bottom-up: This approach distracts from learning good and effective programming practices. By forcing students to solve problems with insufficient support from the language and libraries, it promotes poor and wasteful programming practices.
  • “If you present something, you must present it fully”: This approach implies a bottom-up approach (by drilling deeper and deeper into every topic touched). It bores novices with technical details they have no interest in and quite likely will not need for years to come. Once you can program, you can look up technical details in a manual. Manuals are good at that, whereas they are awful for initial learning of concepts.
  • Top-down: This approach, working from first principles toward details, tends to distract readers from the practical aspects of programming and force them to concentrate on high-level concepts before they have any chance of appreciating their importance. For example, you simply can’t appreciate proper software development principles before you have learned how easy it is to make a mistake in a program and how hard it can be to correct it.
  • “Abstract first”: Focusing on general principles and protecting the student from nasty real-world constraints can lead to a disdain for real-world problems, languages, tools, and hardware constraints. Often, this approach is supported by “teaching languages” that cannot be used later and (deliberately) insulate students from hardware and system concerns.
  • “Software engineering principles first”: This approach and the abstract-first approach tend to share the problems of the top-down approach: without concrete examples and practical experience, you simply cannot appreciate the value of abstraction and proper software development practices.
  • “Object-oriented from day one”: Object-oriented programming is one of the best ways of organizing code and programming efforts, but it is not the only effective way. In particular, we feel that a grounding in the basics of types and algorithmic code is a prerequisite for appreciation of the design of classes and class hierarchies. We do use user-defined types (what some people would call “objects”) from day one, but we don’t show how to design a class until Chapter 6 and don’t show a class hierarchy until Chapter 12.
  • “Just believe in magic”: This approach relies on demonstrations of powerful tools and techniques without introducing the novice to the underlying techniques and facilities. This leaves the student guessing — and usually guessing wrong — about why things are the way they are, what it costs to use them, and where they can be reasonably applied. This can lead to overrigid following of familiar patterns of work and become a barrier to further learning.

Naturally, we do not claim that these other approaches are never useful. In fact, we use several of these for specific subtopics where their strengths can be appreciated. However, as general approaches to learning programming aimed at real-world use, we reject them and apply our alternative: concrete-first and depth-first with an emphasis on concepts and techniques.

0.2.2 Programming and programming language

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We teach programming first and treat our chosen programming language as secondary, as a tool. Our general approach can be used with any general-purpose programming language. Our primary aim is to help you learn general concepts, principles, and techniques. However, those cannot be appreciated in isolation. For example, details of syntax, the kinds of ideas that can be directly expressed, and tool support differ from programming language to programming language. However, many of the fundamental techniques for producing bug-free code, such as writing logically simple code (Chapters 5 and 6), establishing invariants (§9.4.3), and separating interfaces from implementation details (§9.7 and §14.1–2), vary little from programming language to programming language.

Programming and design techniques must be learned using a programming language. Design, code organization, and debugging are not skills you can acquire in the abstract. You need to write code in some programming language and gain practical experience with that. This implies that you must learn the basics of a programming language. We say “the basics” because the days when you could learn all of a major industrial language in a few weeks are gone for good. The parts of C++ we present were chosen as the subset that most directly supports the production of good code. Also, we present C++ features that you can’t avoid encountering either because they are necessary for logical completeness or are common in the C++ community.

0.2.3 Portability

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It is common to write C++ to run on a variety of machines. Major C++ applications run on machines we haven’t ever heard of! We consider portability and the use of a variety of machine architectures and operating systems most important. Essentially every example in this book is not only ISO Standard C++, but also portable. Unless specifically stated, the code we present should work on every C++ implementation and has been tested on several machines and operating systems.

The details of how to compile, link, and run a C++ program differ from system to system. It would be tedious to mention the details of every system and every compiler each time we need to refer to an implementation issue. In Appendix C, we give the most basic information about getting started using Visual Studio and Microsoft C++ on a Windows machine.

If you have trouble with one of the popular, but rather elaborate, IDEs (integrated development environments), we suggest you try working from the command line; it’s surprisingly simple. For example, here is the full set of commands needed to compile, link, and execute a simple program consisting of two source files, my_file1.cpp and my_file2.cpp, using the GNU C++ compiler on a Unix or Linux system:

c++ –o my_program my_file1.cpp my_file2.cpp
./my_program

Yes, that really is all it takes.

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