Even though her target audience is librarians that want to learn coding, I thought the points made by Andromeda Yelton in her article “Learning to Code” (May 2015 American Libraries magazine) are perfectly applicable to aspiring coders of any age and profession. In fact, I got so excited I decided to blog about it. Here are some examples from my experience with youth and teen coders at Code Club, using the same headings as Ms. Yelton’s article:
Find a Project. Each week in Code Club, we post a weekly challenge project. Nothing too difficult (don’t kill the morale!) or overly constrained (don’t kill the creativity!), just a simple project like “Random sentence generator” or “Pong.” The kids work on the project for an hour and a half, then we have a show and tell for anyone who wants to show their work. The interesting thing is the power of the project to inspire; kids who are typically content to stumble along through tutorials suddenly approach their learning with a passion. They are desperate to know how “if” statements work, or how to use a variable. The goal of finishing their project is powerful motivation to learn.
Rely on Google and existing code. The popular coding platform Scratch has made it easy to leverage the work of other people for a fast start. One way is the “Remix” button, allowing anyone to make a copy of any project and tweak it to become their own. Another approach is the “Backpack,” which allows easy copy and pasting from any project. Whether it is a code snippet, a sound or image, or even an entire video game, kids can use other peoples’ work to get a quick start on their own project. And we even get a chance to practice the ethics of citing and crediting the originators of the work we borrow.
Persevere. When a kid walks into Code Club for the first time, the first thing she needs to realize is that coding is fun and she is capable. There are great resources to help make this case, including the games on Code.org. Part of the reason we need this idea to sink in is that the bridge to real proficiency in programming is long and difficult. Especially for kids (but probably true for all of us), we need to remember the wins and the high points as we slog through the rough parts. I feel honored to see 10-year-olds finishing their second year of attending Code Club, who have made lots of games and animations and have since moved onto websites and apps. Their stories are inspirational, and the perseverance they are practicing will help them in every facet of life.
Find a Mentor. In theory, anyone can teach themselves to code at home, as long as they have a computer and internet access. But in reality, the lone coder will run into technical problems he can’t solve, and – even more important – his motivation will flag. That’s why we get together in the same physical location (like the library!). Even though we each learn individually, we have the mentorship and support we need. It happens frequently that someone gets stuck and finds the knowledge they were missing in a conversation with another coder. Coincidentally, this peer mentorship system reinforces learning in the mentor and it makes the facilitator’s life easier because she does not need to have all the answers.
In conclusion, I thought it was interesting that the same principles that guide a librarian learning to code also apply to an 8-year-old learning to code video games. Hopefully we will see a LOT more coding at libraries!