Gulp. My first post in… a while. Life, work, chaos, ideas — it all caught up with me recently. I’ve missed the blog greatly, and felt a regular pang of guilt at letting it gather dust. But I’m back! The 200+ draft posts in my backlog ain’t gonna write themselves. Thank you for returning and reading this one.
Recently I wrote about our continuing adventures in training; since I wrote that post in April, we’ve taught another 166 people. It occurred to me that while teaching scientists to code, we’ve also learned a bit about how to teach, and I wanted to share that too. Perhaps you will be inspired to share your skills, and together we can have exponential impact.
Wanting to get better
As usual, it all started with not knowing how to do something, doing it anyway, then wanting to get better.
We started teaching in 2014 as rank amateurs, both as coders and as teachers. But we soon discovered the ‘teaching tech’ subculture among computational scientists. In particular, we found Greg Wilson and the Software Carpentry movement he started. By that point, it had been around for many, many years. Incredibly, Software Carpentry has helped more than 34,000 researchers ‘go digital’. The impact on science can’t be measured.
Eager as ever, we signed up for the instructor’s course. It was fantastic. The course, taught by Greg Wilson himself, perfectly modeled the thing it was offering to teach you: “Do what I say, and what I do”. This is, of course, critically important in all things, especially teaching. We accepted the content so completely that I’m not even sure we graduated. We just absorbed it and ran with it, no doubt corrupting it on the way. But it works for us.
What to read
I should preface what follows by telling you that I haven’t taken any other courses on the subject of teaching. For all I know, there’s nothing new here. That said, I have never experienced a course like Greg Wilson’s, so either the methods he promotes are not widely known, or they’re widely ignored, or I’ve been really unlucky.
The easiest way to get Greg Wilson’s wisdom is probably to read his book-slash-website, Teaching Tech Together. (It’s free, but you can get a hard copy if you prefer.) It’s really good. You can get the vibe — and much of the most important advice — from the ten Teaching Tech Together rules laid out on the main page of that site (box, right).
As you can probably tell, most of it is about parking your ego, plus most of your knowledge (for now), and orientating everything — every single thing — around the learner.
If you want to go deeper, I also recommend reading the excellent, if rather academic, How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose (Northeastern University) and others. It’s strongly research-driven, and contains a lot of great advice. In particular, it does a great job of listing the factors that motivate students to learn (and those that demotivate them), and spelling out the various ways in which students acquire mastery of a subject.
How to practice
It goes without saying that you’ll need to teach. A lot. Not surprisingly, we find we get much better if we teach several courses in a short period. If you’re diligent, take a lot of notes and study them before the next class, maybe it’s okay if a few weeks or months go by. But I highly doubt you can teach once or twice a year and get good at it.
Something it took us a while to get comfortable with is what Evan calls ‘mistaking’. If you’re a master coder, you might not make too many mistakes (but your expertise means you will have other problems). If you’re not a master (join the club), you will make a lot of mistakes. Embracing everything as a learning opportunity is less awkward for you, and for the students — dealing with mistakes is a core competency for all programmers.
Reflective practice means asking for, and then acting on, student feedback — every day. We ask students to write it on sticky notes. Reading these back to the class the next morning is a good way to really read it. One of the many benefits of ‘never teach alone’ is always having someone to give you feedback from another teacher’s perspective too. Multi-day courses let us improve in real time, which is good for us and for the students.
Some other advice:
Keep the student:instructor ratio to no more than ten; seven or eight is better.
Take a packet of orange and a packet of green Post-It notes. Use them for names, as ‘help me’ flags, and for feedback.
When teaching programming, the more live coding — from scratch — you can do, the better. While you code, narrate your thought process. This way, students are able to make conections between ideas, code, and mistakes.
To explain concepts, draw on a whiteboard. Avoid slides whenever possible.
Our co-teacher John Leeman likes to say, “I just showed you something new, what questions do you have?” This beats “Any questions?” for opening the door to engagement.
“No-one left behind” is a nice idea, but it’s not always practical. If students can’t devote 100% to the class and then struggle because of it, you owe it to the the others to politely suggest they pick the class up again next time.
Devote some time to the practical application of the skills you’re teaching, preferably in areas of the participants’ own choosing. In our 5-day class, we devote a whole day to getting students started on their own projects.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a nice space, natural light, good food, and frequent breaks.
Recognize everyone’s achievement with a small gift at the end of the class.
Learning is hard work. Finish early every day.
Give it a try
If you’re interested in help people learn to code, the most obvious way to start is to offer to assist or co-teach in someone else’s class. Or simply start small, offering a half-day session to a few co-workers. Even if you only recently got started yourself, they’ll appreciate the helping hand. If you’re feeling really confident, or have been coding for a year or two at least, try something bolder — maybe offer a one-day class at a meeting or conference. You will find plenty of interest.
There are few better ways to improve your own skills than to teach. And the feeling of helping people develop a valuable skill is addictive. If you give it a try, let us know how you get on!