Algorithm is a dancer?







I’ve been having a think – about algorithms and such. I wasn’t sure if I had in all this sorted in my mind and I figured I should. Shouldn’t we all? So, happy to expose my ignorance in the public forum, I asked my lovely Twitter followers what they had to say on the matter. I posted the following tweet:

I got some helpful responses. Firstly from @robthill

And then from Peter Lonsdale:

…and Pat Parslow:

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Whereas, Richard Hussey came next with: roulette uk

…but this was questioned by Rob Hill:

I liked Dave Twisleton-Ward’s take on it (with a slight adaption): A final couple of contributions, first from Spatricus:

And a final word from Roger Broadie:

…and a late edition from Richard Hussey again:

Are we any wiser? Are you clear about what an algorithm is? How it differs from a program? Could you a) explain it to a 6yr old? b) know that the 6yr old had understood it?

I think algorithms are generic and don’t require computers (unlike programs, which do).
Programs are generally more complex than algorithms.
I think that if young people are to understand any of this, they need lots of tangible examples with reference to the terminology. But more importantly if teachers are to help with all this (which they may/should be required to), they will need to have all of this clear in their own minds.

We can only teach something effectively when we truly understand it ourselves.

Image thanks to piratejohnny on Flickr under Creative Commons

10 thoughts on “Algorithm is a dancer?

  1. I think the debate is homing in on it – although some folk have lost sight of the six year old bit.

    How about: ALGORITHM is the recipe for bread, a bread making machine can get on and make the bread and that might be an overnight ROUTINE, another routine might be making coffee. All the routines together make a breakfast which is s PROGRAM. Breakfast might stop suddenly because its time for school on a weekday, or go on a bit because its the weekend – these are CONDITIONS. People who are obsessed by marmalade are GEEKS.

  2. Hi,

    “I think algorithms are generic and don’t require computers (unlike programs, which do).” – programs don’t necessarily need what we currently think of as a computer. The program can exist without it, although it won’t run without something to execute the instructions. But that could be a person, not something made from circuit boards. And, of course, this is equally true of an algorithm.
    “Programs are generally more complex than algorithms.” More complicated, perhaps. And possibly more complex, but then they are probably badly designed – complexity is not something most people would like to have in computer programs (as it is what causes chaotic behaviour).


  3. I spoke to the tech team behind Planet Sherston and I also have a six year old daughter, so together we had a bit of a chat.

    Initially we felt you could say “Essentially they are the same thing.” However, a six year old never takes your first answer and would probably come back at you asking why two words mean the same thing, so we decided on the following:

    “An algorithm is a set of instructions. A program is the way of writing those instructions in a language that a computer can understand, so it can follow them.”

    What do you think?

  4. As already suggested, a program – ignoring little things like correctness and termination – is an algorithm (see, for example, algorithm – Wikipedia).. All what is computable, it is surmised, must be computable by a Turing machine. If this is true, then all algorithms can ‘run’ on a Turing machine and are, therefore, ‘programs’.

    For a six-year old: an analogy could be, for example, the teacher’s instructions for doing a sum [the algorithm] and then each child in the class carrying out the equivalent sum according to his or her own performance of the sum (the child might be even using a different ‘natural’ language) [the program].

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