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Want to Teach a Programming Language? First, Learn Empathy

Python programmer and instructor Katie Cunningham explains how building empathy can making you a better teacher of programming languages.
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I teach at quite a few events a year. In fact, I feel a bit weird if I go to a conference and don’t teach a class of some sort. I adore teaching. I love the interaction, the ideas, and the people I get to meet. Honestly, I won’t shut up about it.

Because of this, I get quite a few people asking me how they can get into teaching at conferences or in their community. So many people, especially in the Python world, have a desire to help others and to share what they know. The conversations I have with these people tend to go off the rail at some point, however. That “off the rails” point tends to be when I ask them what they’d like to teach.

Some of the responses I get are:

  • I want to teach a beginning Python course, but use Twisted.
  • I want to teach a Django class, but I will only teach using a Unix system. We’ll just install Ubuntu on the Windows machines.
  • I want to teach beginners how to deploy a site to the cloud.
  • I want to teach beginners Python by making a web chat client!

I sigh quite a bit during these conversations.

What’s Wrong with Those Suggestions?

One of the issues I run into with new teachers is that they’re obsessed with the idea that the students will get bored. Rather than focus a class on one topic, they start cramming multiple topics into one four-hour slot. It’s not good enough to do an introduction to programming through Python. We have to do networking or add in a new OS, or servers, or another framework!

I’ve run many classes, and trust me, students get overwhelmed quickly. One of the comments I get over and over again is, “Thank you for taking your time.” Students don’t want you to speed up. They want you to slow down.

Why Is This?

So why can we, the teachers, take in a ton of new information on multiple topics at once while students need us to focus and slow down? It’s because we have a framework that makes it easier for us to take in information.

I can learn a new language in a weekend. Sure, I won’t be an expert, but I can start choking out code on Monday if you tell me on Friday that you need me to take over some legacy project. I can also read most codebases without a background in the language. That’s because I know multiple languages. By the time you become proficient in your third programming language or so, you’ve got a framework in your head about how they work. You’ll just be slotting new information into the framework.

It takes a while to build a framework, however. It takes careful teaching, patience, and a student who’s willing to repeat concepts until they start to make sense. You can’t ask the students to build two frameworks at once. It would be like asking someone to make two cakes at the same time. An expert baker can do it. The novice is going to swap some ingredients at some point. I know. I’ve done it. That’s how I got a cinnamon lemon cake (I don’t recommend that, by the way).

Building Empathy

A good way to build empathy is to feel what it’s like when a new mental framework is being built. We in the tech community like to pride ourselves on how we’re constantly learning. We pick up languages, frameworks, libraries, and techniques at a fevered pace, so you might think that we already know the feeling of learning a completely new framework. We don’t.

When you’re learning something that falls within the realm of IT, you’re actually fitting the new information into a framework that already exists. What you need to do is to pick something completely new, completely outside of your realm of expertise. Here are a few things you might check out:

  • Knitting or crocheting
  • Painting
  • Hand carving
  • Sewing
  • Cross-stitch

There are a few patterns to what I listed. First, none requires any electronics. We’re good with electronics, people. When you add in an electronic component, it’s cheating.

Second, everything is relatively cheap. You can get started for most of these activities for under $20. There are kits available at nearly every craft store on the planet.

Third, the communities attached to these crafts have their own crazy lingo. I’ve delved into many of these hobbies, and I spend half the time reading related blog posts with some sort of glossary open in another tab.

Finally, everything has an end product. That’s the most important part of this exercise. Have something physical in your hands once you’re done. It’s easy to give yourself a pass when all that learning is in your head.

What Am I Going to Do with a Scarf?

It’s not about the scarf (or painting, or cross-stitch, or whatever). It’s about your feelings while you’re learning how to make it.

Watch how you feel every time a bit of new lingo is thrown at you. Notice how slowly you’re taking in new information. How many times do you read the same paragraph, or play the same video? How hard is it to even get started when you don’t know the search terms?

Then, look at your finished product. Think about how you would feel, showing this to an expert. I know what my first scarf looked like, and I felt pretty vulnerable. The expert was holding a glorious cable and lace shawl done in laceweight, and my poor scarf looked like it would unravel if anyone looked at it too hard.

I felt humbled. I was not good at this thing. It was the first time in a long time where I didn’t feel good at something, mostly because I kept picking areas where my success was a given.

Keep that scarf as a reminder that you, too, can be overwhelmed.

Some Tips for Teaching

When you’re developing material for a class, think about how many concepts you’re throwing at the student at once. Don’t expect them to sink or swim. A good teacher will never accept a chunk of his or her students failing, unless the topic is so alien that it requires a few passes (and even then, I think it might be better to slow down the material a bit).

  1. Make sure you only introduce one concept at a time. It can be easy for more than one idea to sneak in there, so try to develop a relationship with a group of beginners. Test your material on them, and watch their reactions very carefully. Where are you repeating yourself, or searching for a new way to explain something? That’s where you might need to break down your material further.

  2. Also, think back to what worked when you were learning something new. Was it someone using an analogy that made the core concepts easier to understand? Or a diagram? For me, I never would have learned to knit without YouTube videos. Can you get some help from someone to create some good visualizations?

  3. If you’re having trouble coming up with a better way to explain something (and it can be tough!), read some introductory material. While I was writing Sams Teach Yourself Python in 24 Hours, I was constantly looking over blog posts and intro books to get ideas about how to explain concepts that, to me, were obvious.

  4. Also, keep your language simple. There’s no need for ten-dollar words or complex sentence structure. The students have enough going on in their brains. They don’t need to look up something you grabbed off a word-a-day calendar.

Finally, if you ever see a student look a bit nervous and queasy before she shows you her code, remember that scarf, and remember that just a little kindness and empathy can go a long way.

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