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Boy working on computer

Jane is my student, and she loves stories. Jane loves movies, she loves narrative video games, she loves telling stories to friends, and hearing stories read aloud. But Jane struggles to write and read. She loves to experience stories but lacks some of the skills that make stories possible.

So I talk with other teachers and learn what works in math or history. I scaffold assignments with Jane and check in frequently. I use her interests to find relevant books and topics. Jane might not see herself as a reader and writer, but I believe in the growth mindset -- with the right strategies and lots of work, she can improve.

Until recently, I was like Jane, but with technology. I used tech tools all day with little knowledge of their workings. And, despite my interactions with Jane, I had a typical fixed-mindset explanation for this: "I'm an English teacher. My brain doesn't work that way." What I was really saying was, "I forget how to be a beginner."

A year ago, though, I became a beginner, an apprentice, a struggling learner. I decided to learn how to code.

Immediately, the experience became less about designing websites and more about experiencing the growth mindset, improving confidence with technology, and learning that failure is part of the process.

The Lessons

1. Ask for Help

Learning to code was a reminder of the need to ask for help. Teachers praise the growth mindset, recognizing the benefits for student learning. But how often do teachers live this philosophy by collaborating across grade levels or departments? Rarely. Teachers have our own fixed mindsets and are often reluctant to ask others about gaps in our knowledge.

My experience: In order to learn how to code, I started from zero. I quickly developed a strategy and list of resources. Instead of sticking to one course or book, I found multiple communities of coders who answered questions from beginners. I was able to fill gaps in my knowledge, but only by asking for help.

The resources: Stackoverflow and Quora are communities for asking questions and getting help from others. If you decide to learn coding, these will be your best friends.

The takeaway: Teach students to visit multiple sources for filling gaps in their knowledge. Demonstrate reaching out to experts through Twitter. Facilitate peer feedback sessions, and have students consider multiple perspectives on their work. Asking for help is hard, but it's a priceless part of the learning process.

2. Confidence Through Failure

Learning to code helped me embrace failure and gain confidence with technology.

My experience: When learning to code, things get "broken." The app crashes. The web page won't load. No matter how broken things look, there's nearly always a solution (except for those few times when I scrapped everything and started from scratch).

The resources: Dive into something new like a blogging platform for students, try a backchannel discussion during class, or explore some of the fantastic (but somewhat complex to set up) Google add-ons from New Visions Cloud Lab.

The takeaway: Learning requires diving in head first without a fear of failure. Try a new tech tool to solve a problem, even if you're not totally comfortable using it. Invite students to help figure out how to use new apps or platforms, and when things break, consider it a challenge and not a catastrophe.

3. Keeping It Fun and Real

Learning to code reminds teachers what makes learning fun, challenging, and authentic.

My experience: Each week, I reflect on three questions in my notebook:

  1. What’s working?
  2. What's not working?
  3. What next?

As my coding skills increased, my goal became creating a blog app to use for these reflections. I stayed motivated because I had a project to complete.

The resources: I used One Month Rails to learn the web framework Ruby on Rails because their courses are project-based. If you have zero experience coding, start with one of the project-based courses on Codeacademy.

The takeaway: The process of learning to code reminded me of the importance of making school authentic. When students do or make something real, they stop focusing on their inabilities and start looking for answers to their questions.

Empathy and Growth

Though I approached this challenge hoping to learn a new set of computer skills, I came away with lessons about learning that I believe any teacher can gain by throwing him- or herself into something as a beginner.

It's been about a year since I started learning to code, and I'm not ready to build the next Twitter. However, the next time a student like Jane comes along, not only will I have a set of strategies to share, but I'll be able to say, "I know how you feel, believe me."

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EdTechJimmy's picture
Business Development - Education Technology

Exactly, Like a flipped class. You can have them move forward and you can facilitate in the class with exercises and examples. The curriculum is here, if you know any school looking to begin a computer science course. Thanks.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Great article, Gerard, and very topical here in Australia where there is lots of talk about all students learning to code from the youngest of ages. Interesting times! I've been in your situation, too, and what really amazed me was the amount of free how-to-code materials out there for teachers and students to access. You've mentioned Codecademy, but CodeCombat is another good one. For those with a budget, Treehouse is very good, too.

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at

Thanks for sharing those resources, Keith. Treehouse and CodeCombat will be next on the list.

There is a plethora of free material out there, you're right. To me, what this points to is the availability of free material on nearly ANY subject that a student (or a teacher) would like to learn on his or her own.

To take it one step further, this is why it seems that a teacher's role will transform more towards teaching students "how to learn" through using skills like mindfulness, tracking progress during projects, and effective communication, and less about delivering content.

Thanks again for weighing in!

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at

The site looks interesting, Jim. I'll keep this in mind if I encounter anyone who might be interested.


MKimesera's picture

Hello Gerard,
I enjoyed reading about your experiences and how they helped you grow as an educator. When teaching at times it is easy to forget how difficult what we are teaching is to our students, especially if it is boring and has nothing to do with real life. I think that more of us should throw ourselves in situations where we are learners again in order to reflect upon and strengthen our skills as lifelong learners and facilitators of learning.

Ragavi Roy's picture

Nice blog. The points you have made are good and informative. Thank you for sharing

Ragavi Roy

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at

Thanks for commenting, MKimesera.

Your point about the ease with which we can forget the difficulty of our subject matter is one I agree with.

With all of the information, content and teaching material available online today, I'd suggest that there is a way to making all subject matter taught in schools interesting and relevant to real life.

Throwing myself into a new skill did strengthen my belief in myself as a facilitator of learning. Is there something you'd like to pursue that you think would be out of your comfort zone but valuable to learn?

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at

Thanks, Ragavi.

Do you have any experience trying to learn a skill that was outside of your area of expertise?

MKimesera's picture

Yes, there is something I would like to pursue and I know would be completely out of my comfort zone. I am going to put together a professional development for the staff at my school. I think that the skills I will learn will be valuable and the reflection journal will provide information for a lot of growth. I was just curious, what made you make the decision to embark into the new territory of coding?

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at

That's great to hear. I've noticed that it can be scary to put oneself out there and offer to share ideas with others through professional development because of the typical fears--failure and rejection. It requires a confidence and believe in the teaching ideas shared. Again, it's admirable to hear about your pursuit.

As I mentioned briefly in the article, it was the ubiquitous use of technology in my personal and professional life that led me to want to learn coding. With so much information shared on websites and daily tasks completed on apps, it made sense to gain a better understanding of how all this stuff works. The ultimate goal, which is not fully realized, is to be able to create solutions for students and teachers in classrooms using my coding skills.

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