Learning to be a Learner: Why My Next Step is a Coding Bootcamp

PART 1: I AM OUT OF MY LEAGUE

How did I end up here?

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

What a challenge in CodeAcademy looks like

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.

It took me about three days to get through the HTML/CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery courses. They weren’t as difficult as I expected – everything was broken down into smaller concepts, and it felt more like playing a game than taking a course.

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.

Yes, I got the CodeAcademy badge, but I still didn’t actually know how to code. If someone asked me to build a website using JavaScript files, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start.

Since that day, I:

  • Spent two weekends taking full-day classes at General Assembly
  • Spent four weeks taking a remote JavaScript introduction class at Telegraph Academy
  • Went through the JavaScript curriculum on Codeschool
  • Read the first five chapters of Eloquent Javascript
  • 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.

Even if I spent the next ten years trying to master the language of JavaScript, I don’t think I’d feel like an expert. Every time I solve one problem, I find ten other ways it could be solved. Every time I learn one new framework, I realize there are two hundred more. And I’ve accepted that as soon as I finally get a handle on JavaScript, I will have a dozen other languages to start working towards.

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

Read more here
Read on Fortune.com

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.


3 Comments

  • Pat D

    February 26, 2016

    How exciting and exhilarating! Proud of your courage and your commitment. Challenge the status quo by Learning to be a Learner. That is what we want for all. Educational opportunities should cause reflection, introspection, and inspiration. Make sure you come back and teach us what you’ve learned. We have also been learning to be learners and we are eager to continue our journey by building upon your insights.

  • Laudan Kirk

    March 14, 2016

    Krista, I really enjoyed reading this reflection. You have made an impact on me as a learner as well as a mom. We are signing our little STEAM minded boy up for coding next year. He is going into 2nd grade and I want him to have a strong foot on what it means to be a “learner.” Thank you for your honest reflection. Can’t wait to follow you on your journey. – Laudan D Kirk

    • Krista Moroder

      March 14, 2016

      Thanks, Laudan! I’m so annoyed I didn’t have opportunities to learn coding when I was younger – I bet your little guy is going to have a great time! Put in a good word for me for when he’s hiring engineers in twenty years! 😉

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