A long time ago, I had an incredibly formative learning experience – formative in part because it came from someone who didn’t want me to learn.
I was eight or so years old and at my friend L’s house. L was not just my friend, she was my only friend. Like many nerdy outcasts I grabbed onto my intelligence like a life preserver, convinced that it was the only thing keeping me afloat. I was, in a word, insufferable.
But L had an older brother who, unfortunately, had to suffer me. One day, in a fit of frustration, he grabbed a piece of paper and drew a triangle on it. He put a different number in two of the three corners, and an x in the other, and thrust it at me. “If you’re so smart,” he said, or something like it, “tell me what x is.”
I stared at it blankly for several minutes. I had no idea what x was or how to figure it out. FInally, feeling humiliated, I confessed that I had no clue.
L’s brother was triumphant. “The answer is obvious,” he said, solving for it quickly. “All triangles are one hundred and eighty degrees. We know these two angles, so you just have to subtract.”
“Oh,” I said, grasping the concept immediately. I took the pen and paper back. “So if you have two angles with fifty degrees, the last angle would be, um… eighty. Cool!”
L’s brother realized he had only fed my ego, and went to go play videogames, deflated. I continued to play with the triangles, and while I did I internalized a very important life lesson.
The vast majority of time, when you don’t understand something, it’s because you’re missing a crucial piece of information, not because you’re unintelligent. The role of a teacher or mentor is to figure out what piece of information you’re missing, and help you find it.
Sometimes that just means telling you the answer, because finding the answer will take too long and isn’t worth your time. This is incredibly reasonable. No one can recreate the bulk of human knowledge from first principles, as fun as that sounds to try.
Sometimes that means walking you through a proof, leading you to the right spot so you can grab the piece yourself. If L’s brother had wanted to do that, he could have drawn a set of triangles with all the angles filled in, and prodded me with questions like, “Each triangle has three numbers. What else do they have three of?”
And sometimes that means following behind you, watching you make your own way. Often, the best thing a teacher can do is show you how to teach yourself. “What do you know about triangles?” L’s brother might have asked. “What do you know about angles? How do you think you could use that information here? Let’s brainstorm all the things these numbers could represent. Which of these options do you want to explore first?”
A good teacher asks you how you want to learn. “Do you want to try and figure this out yourself?” they ask. “Why don’t you try thinking aloud?” A good teacher encourages you when you’re struggling. “This was just as hard for me when I first encountered it! I did it, and I know you can do it. I believe in you.”
Good teaching is hard. Like a lot of feminine-coded work, it’s undervalued, both easily and sorely missed. I’ve never been to a coding bootcamp, but I’m willing to be they’re full of people with more programming experience than teaching experience. Most workplaces are too.
I too often see people who are struggling with a task or concept get told to figure it out for themselves. I see them trying and failing to build the world from first principles, I see them fumbling around without knowing what they’re looking for. And I think of L’s brother and his triangles.
It’s easy to solve the problem when you know the context. It’s knowing the context that’s hard. If you’re not helping your students find the context, you’re not teaching them. If you’re trying to learn, and there’s no one to help you find the context, here are some tips:
- Write out the problem as best you understand it. Underline or highlight any words or concepts you’re unsure about. This works well for me because I learn by writing – you might prefer drawing a diagram or speaking out loud. Whatever medium you use, it should help you figure out where you’re getting lost. Hint: it’s the part where you end up writing, “And then a thing happens!” or drawing “??? :(“
- Ask for help. You may not have a mentor who can walk you through the process, but you’ll always have friends and internet strangers who can answer a question or two. “I’m trying to learn more about nested code,” you might say into an IRC channel, or on Twitter, or shout out your front door. “But I’m not sure what to call it. Are there terms for code that uses itself?” Someone replies: “Oh, you mean recursion?” And suddenly you have a whole new term to search for.
- Use the internet! When I’m learning, I iterate through dozens of web searches, finding tutorials and explanations that give me new concepts and terms to search for. I often alternate between web searches, asking friends, and writing out my current understanding of the context as I build towards my solution.
My most important tip? Be kind to yourself. Solving problems when you lack context is an incredibly hard thing to do. It was just as hard for me when I started doing it. But I did it, and I know you can do it too.
I believe in you.