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On teaching as learning

He wore a cowboy hat and he said, “write software that could cook me bacon.”

That was one of the responses I got this morning, when I asked a class of 30-odd students what they’d like to do after learning programming. It was an introductory Python programming class, and we mostly covered the basics, like variables and types, loops and conditions. At the end though, I like to give students a taste of the power of programming. My co-teacher and I showed them simple library to extract and parse RSS feeds, with CNN and BBC as examples. By the end of the class, the bacon dude — a high school student — had written code that filtered the sports feed from ESPN to show only the stories about his favourite sports team. It wasn’t cooking bacon, but for a 15 year old it was impressive.

I’ve been a volunteer teacher for the past two sessions of Splash, Stanford’s community outreach education program in the Bay Area ( if you’re interested in participating). Splash’s rather appropriate motto is “Education for students, by students.” I’d agree — every time I’ve taught anyone, either informally or formally, I’ve ended up learning something myself. Not that I lack access to smart people working on cool things. But I see so much more of pure joy at discovery and learning in young students, even when compared with any work environment; no matter how conducive to innovation and fun.

It’s that spirit that I learn when I teach. Not that work isn’t fun; I can’t be more thankful to be working in a company, in an industry and in a community that largely considers having fun at work a core value. And we all do have fun — but, counter-intuitively, that’s partly the problem. I find it easy to forget amidst the pleasantness that there is such energy that can be released when truly appreciating the possibilities of something new that you’ve just learned. Occasionally teaching someone is just a way to keep that thought alive in my mind.

I hope the cowboy writes that cooking code someday; though for the sake of his health and mine I hope it’s a salad.

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