PART 1: I AM OUT OF MY LEAGUE
About a year ago, I was on a speaker panel I shouldn’t have been on. Don’t get me wrong – I was grateful to be there – but I realized very quickly that I was the least impressive and least qualified person on that stage.
Other speakers included one of the lead engineers at YouTube; the global head of diversity programs at Google; and the first female founder to sell a company to Google – now the COO at Change.org. I knew right away that I was the wild card. The people planning the event reached out to the organization I was working at (a national education nonprofit) and asked if they could send someone. Our CEO was busy that day, so they sent me.
The audience was a group of 10th grade girls; the event was held at the YouTube headquarters, and was part of Google’s Made With Code program. Our goal was to inspire the attendees to consider computer science and engineering education as a way to change their lives and the world around them.
Although I felt like I could make a few useful contributions to the discussion (I brought up some of the research I’ve learned about first generation college students — which I was as well), I became more introverted and reflective as the morning wore on. By the time I left the event, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of frustration and self-doubt.
I don’t even know how to code.
I’m trying to inspire the next generation to be engineers and change their worlds, and I don’t even know how to code.
PART 2: LEARNING TO
CODE BE A LEARNER
So, I signed up for CodeAcademy. I told my family and friends that I was going off the grid for a few days, and I locked myself in my apartment with a space heater and a fresh bag of Philz coffee beans.
When I finished the last coding challenge, I felt a brief jolt of pride. My sense of accomplishment was awarded with a digital badge, and I briefly considered blasting it out on social media. Instead, I tossed on a pair of boots and trekked to my local coffee shop to celebrate with a latte.
I barely took one sip before I was once again overwhelmed with a feeling of dread and frustration.
Since that day, I:
- Spent two weekends taking full-day classes at General Assembly
- Spent countless hours doing Internet searches
- Spent countless hours doing Internet searches on how to search the Internet more effectively
- Failed a technical interview for a programming bootcamp
- Re-interviewed and got accepted to that bootcamp
- Spent 60+ hours doing pre-course work for that bootcamp
The amount of time I’ve spent trying to learn how to code has felt equivalent to training for a marathon – and yet after all of that, I still don’t feel ready for the race.
For the first time in my life, I feel like the more I learn, the less I actually know.
Here’s what coding has taught me about learning. You can’t be an expert in a field that is constantly evolving. You have to be a learner. There will always be another problem to solve, another program to build, and another language to learn.
And that, I think, gets at the heart of why there is such a huge focus on coding right now. I think this is why those who understand code are so adamant that it should be included in the K-12 curriculum. It’s not about creating a cavalry of software engineers. It’s about creating a generation of kids who are comfortable being learners in a constantly changing environment.
PART 3: OUR 21ST CENTURY LEARNERS HAVE NEVER BEEN 20TH CENTURY LEARNERS
Once I had a taste of what coding was, and why it was important, I started to think about all of the schools I’ve worked with. In the last two years alone, I’ve had the opportunity to support and learn from schools in over ¼ of the states in the U.S.; I’ve also spent some time in other countries. I’m definitely not an expert, but I can say that I have a different perspective than when I was a teacher or administrator.
With this new perspective, I feel confident in saying that every school I’ve met – whether it was in Atlanta, Michigan, Hawaii, China, or Russia – wants to teach kids how to code. And almost no schools have actually figured out how to do it yet. Sure, a school might celebrate Hour of Code or have a Makerspace, but in most schools, there hasn’t been a fundamental shift in the way curriculum or assessment has been approached. Teaching coding is still considered an add-on: only 1 in 4 schools offer computer science and only 5% of high schools are certified to teach AP computer science.
Those are some pretty poor statistics when you consider that the top jobs lists are dominated by titles like ‘data scientist’, ‘product manager’, ‘database administrator’, and ‘software engineer’. According to this article, jobs in computing are growing at twice the national rate of other types of jobs – and by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 1 million more computer science-related jobs than graduating students qualified to fill them.
We know this, yet we’re still not moving fast enough. At every school board meeting, every education conference, and every national policy conversation, we talk about “preparing 21st Century learners.” However, we are already sixteen years into the 21st Century. Most of our students have never lived in another century.
What’s worse is that this future we are hypothetically preparing students for isn’t actually in the future anymore; it’s already in the past. I hit the job market at the same time that taxpayers agreed to spend $700 billion to bail out Wall Street and the economy tanked. I was lucky that I had a teaching license; I was one of the few people I knew who went straight into the workforce. Eight years later, my former students are now in their mid-20’s, and they also can’t find jobs. They’re also moving back home with their parents, and wondering why their four years of college debt didn’t translate into a career.
I blame schools, and I don’t blame schools. I’ve worked with enough teachers, administrators, policy advocates, and parents to know that there isn’t one group we can look to for this change. Whether we knew it or not, we all constructed this educational system together, and we all are responsible for this change. We all might feel like puppets; but the reality is, there isn’t a mastermind pulling the strings.
PART FOUR: REALIZING I WANT TO LEAVE EDUCATION TO LEARN ABOUT EDUCATION
At some point in the last year, I realized it was time for me to leave the stage and get a glimpse from the outside. It was a difficult decision; I loved my job and the people I worked with. After one year of coding, however, I’ve realized that path is no longer right for me. I want to step away from the education field for a little bit and deepen my understanding of what we are preparing students for. What better way to find out than to live it?
My last day at my job was yesterday; I start focusing on coding full-time on Monday.
I’m not going to do this solo anymore; I’ve been accepted into a three-month engineering program (“coding bootcamp”) called Hack Reactor. These bootcamps are intensive (mine is 12 hours a day, six days a week) and focused on skill development through hands-on learning. I’ll have a portfolio of evidence when I’m finished that I can use to apply for jobs.
Most of the people I know in the education field have never heard of these bootcamps – even though they are gaining traction in tech-saturated markets like San Francisco, they still aren’t broadly known or accepted in the world that I come from. The phrase we toss around is “college or career readiness”, not “college or bootcamp or career readiness.” That’s part of the draw for me – I want to know what learning looks like outside of the traditional school model, and what techniques could be applied at scale.
A year ago, I would have called myself a learner. I would have said that I knew how to connect to people, resources, and solutions when faced with a new challenge.
However, after just one year of dead-ends, pivots, frustration, should-have’s, restarts, empty Google searches… and the occasional, exquisite, adrenaline-charged breakthrough… I realize I’m just starting to find out what being a learner really means.