I started to learn how to code recently. I figured, if nothing else, it was a normal by-product of moving to Silicon Valley, where coding is but a close second to the English language. In fact, it seems that here in San Francisco, many speak in various forms of technological code, whether it be in spreadsheets or in neon colored lines that dance laterally on the visage of a black screen. Coding, to me, seemed like a natural track for professional development and a valuable skill that could only enhance my contributions to a school grounded in a robust technology platform. You would think, too, that this idea alone would be enough to motivate me to direct my own learning and diversify my resume.
But it didn’t, coincidentally. And I stopped trying to learn to code.
It all started a month or so ago when I sat down with my “PED Buddy” over lunch. PED, at our company, stands for Product, Engineering, and Design. One of the bonuses for working at a tech start-up (as an educator) is that we are afforded the privilege of being paired with an engineer. We can use our meetings to talk about tools, make suggestions, and talk about things otherwise pedagogical, all in an effort to improve our tools and create a better, more personalized learning experience for our students. I had mentioned my interest in learning how to code to my buddy, as I wished to enhance my ability to hack data collection tools in spreadsheets, with the pipe dream of being able to actually create my own software someday to do just that. I thought maybe he could get me started.
And he did. My buddy gave me some tips on getting started, as well as some excellent resources, laden with videos and guided practice. In fact, I started to see some parallels to approaches I’ve used for personalized learning this year. I’ve done similar things with my students in the sense that I’ve provided them similar resources–videos aligned to objectives at a just-right level and guided practice with short feedback loops–and watched them go on their way to a self-directed, personalized manner.
But it didn’t take long for my motivation to wane, quite honestly. I completed a number of lessons on the coding website, albeit successfully, without much struggle or challenge. Clearly, I possessed the cognitive skills to understand basic coding, and for all intents and purposes, that should have been enough to put me on the path to success. It didn’t, though, and I’m grateful for that: it gave me some insights into my students’ experiences, and what personalized learning should and shouldn’t be. I realized this shortly after my PED buddy reached out again to check on my progress. He wanted to know how my lessons had been going and what he could do to help me keep learning. I replied honestly, confiding in him that I had, in fact, lost my motivation. I’m glad he reached out; it gave me an opportunity to reflect on precisely why I stopped my own learning. I stopped, neither because it was too difficult, nor because I couldn’t find a real-world application for these skills.
I stopped because I had no context.
My coding experience, while personalized to my level as well as my own pace and process, lacked the “big picture,” if you will. While I started using the videos in the suggested order, and while I even experienced a substantial level of success, I found it next to impossible to see how these skills were getting me towards my goals. How were these seemingly minute formulas actually going to help me make my own software some day? How were these going to help me hack more complex spreadsheets and prototypes that I could then pass along to engineers? I couldn’t see it, and I needed someone wiser and more experienced–a teacher–to help me.
In essence, my personal experience with my own self-directed, personalized learning has now informed my future approaches with my students in class. Sure, videos and guided practice are helpful, but not until we give our students the context through which they can view all of these discrete learning experiences. What’s more, these videos, while self-directed and catering to various levels of learning, can never replace the role of the teacher in the classroom; for the educators are the ones that are able to provide the context, the insight, and the perspective into the bigger picture. And that’s exactly what I’m going to ask my teacher today when I see him. I’m going to tap into his experience, gather his insights, and use his perspective to help me see where these coding skills will be most useful.
And I can’t wait to get started. I can’t wait to pick it up again.