Myths About Coding: A Personal Journey

In honour of Computer Science Week I thought I would talk a little about my own personal journey with coding. The decision to try and learn to code was something I had been thinking of for about a year now. It was always in conjunction with what I saw as a growing need for our children to learn how to program ( or at least to understand the basics of coding) and a moral imperative to put my money where my mouth was. But in order to begin, I had to let go of some preconceived notions.

Myth #1: I am not good at math.

Severus-Snape-rip-severus-snape-13701628-2560-1707 Now I was one of those shy kids who didn’t understand math right off the bat. Unfortunately, early on in my scholastic career I met with a math teacher from the Severus Snape School of Instruction by Intimidation and my brain shut down to anything that was designated math. This was in fourth grade, so yeah. I have some catching up to do.

Unfortunately many girls (and probably boys) have convinced themselves that they are simply bad at math. Here is a great article from the Atlantic that talks about the “Fallacy of inborn ability”. Here is a quote:

“I’m just not a math person.”

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.-Miles Kimball and Noah Smith

Now in my very late thirties, I am realizing just how much I have shot myself in the foot by believing this. It took a university course entitled “Math for elementary teachers” with an awesome teacher who could explain things to me in a way where I actually understood for me to realize that I could actually “do” math. It was a revelation! I am also shyly interested in science and the more philosophical side of math (ideas of different geometries and such) but always felt like I really had no business thinking about those high-falutin’ ideas  because I could not possibly understand that theory behind them.

If I do anything in life, it will be to try and dispel this kind of thinking in my own daughters as well as any young person.

Myth #2: I am not a math person therefore I could not possibly code

Who says you have to be good at math to code? From my very shallow forays into the vast sea of programming, it seems more like learning a language than math.

Yeah I know. Math is also a language. But I wish someone had mentioned to that me earlier in my life. If I could have viewed it as such, it might have been less scary for me, as the flip side of the “bad at math” coin is that I feel I am pretty good with language.

I have been taking about 15 minutes a day to learn to code. (I like the 15 minute thing- it means that I do a little everyday and it isn’t so daunting).

So far I have earned the following badges in Codeacademy:

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 9.41.25 AM

 

Hmmm. I do love me a good badge!

I have gone through the basics of HTML and CSS and have started learning the basics of javascript.

Although Code Academy is a great start, it doesn’t allow you to play around very much. Ever practical, I wanted to see how I could put my new skills to good use. I am in the middle of building a practice website for the upcoming Battle of the Books.

Here is a screen shot of my website:

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 9.53.58 AM

Here is a screenshot of the code for my homepage:

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 9.55.59 AM

 

As you can see, I am very proud of myself.

Myth #3: Programmers or coders are socially awkward, chubby males who live in their parents’ basement.

I read this great NY Times article (which I think I might have posted already) that made this interesting point:

Public narratives about a career make a difference. The most common career aspiration named on Girls Who Code applications is forensic science. Like Allen, few if any of the girls have ever met anyone in that field, but they’ve all watched “CSI,” “Bones” or some other show in which a cool chick with great hair in a lab coat gets to use her scientific know-how to solve a crime. This so-called “CSI” effect has been credited for helping turn forensic science from a primarily male occupation into a primarily female one.

Where are all the cool hacker chicks with great hair and funky outfits? They are working for Google. Or Ubisoft. Or Facebook. But they certainly aren’t on TV, which means there is no one out there to represent women in the profession.

I just had a meeting with two cool, young hacker girls (one works for Google, the other teaches computer science). They were telling me that the concept of working in your little anti-social bubble couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, it is one of the professions where leveraging the knowledge and support of their peers is not only encouraged but essential. They are in constant contact with their team mates but also with the people working on different aspects of a larger project. Think about Google and its vast online omnipotence. Then think about how many little worker ants it takes to make the Google kingdom run.

Now that I think about it, my profession, librarianship, is way closer to the coder stereotype. For instance, I can spend a whole day not talking to anyone if there are no classes in the library (which suits my personality if not enabling certain anti-social tendencies).

Myth #4: There is no creative aspect to coding.

After the Hour of Code event I wrote about, I asked my daughter if the idea of what programming is synced up with her experience. She shook her head vigorously. “I thought coding was a lot more boring,” she said. “That it was all numbers.” Since Sunday, she has found Codeacademy on her own and is going through the HTML tutorial. She has already used her HTML language skills to peek inside the code behind her tumblr account and find a part of the code that makes it look like it is snowing on her page. We looked at the code she pasted more closely and were able to decipher where the person who built it was calling a javascript sheet. She was so happy that she could actually figure out what was going on!

If coding is a language, then once you learn it you can manipulate it to tell any story you want. You can make a website. You can make an interactive game. You can make 3D renditions of actual spaces or an app that connects volunteers to charitable organizations. The possibilities are endless!

I heard a woman argue on the CBC show Spark that Coding should be taught as a liberal art. This would definitely help to dispel the myth that coding is only for the highly unimaginative, left-brained dominated folk.

From a self-image (fallacy of innate ability or, in most cases, innate inability) to a profession image problem, the above myths are going to have to be blasted out of the water if we really want to get the attention of our young people.

 

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2 thoughts on “Myths About Coding: A Personal Journey

  1. Having circulated in “mathy” social circles for so long, I’m really interested in the opposite perspective, so thanks for sharing. And keep up the programming and math-ing and science-ing!
    To me, math and programming are the same thing in many ways, and I think they suffer from a similar image problem. Both are creative and neither is “just numbers”, yet people rarely get the opportunity to see that. Ideally, schools should use programming to help students understand math and vice versa.
    Myth #1.1: if it takes me a while to understand something, that means I’m just not good at it, period. I struggled a lot with this kind of self-doubt throughout my education and I think it’s quite common. I worry that the “hour of code” outreach places too much emphasis on coding being fun and easy. I understand why their message is framed that way, but students really need to believe that struggle, hard work, mistakes and frustration are a normal, healthy part of the learning process. I feel this is especially crucial in Math and Computer Science. Emphasizing this idea is the next step for anyone who is mentoring a new coder.
    Anyway, great post! Looking forward to more.

    • Hi Maja,

      Thank you very much for the comment- I completely agree with you about the dangers of pitching it as something fun and easy. To my surprise, the part I like the best about coding is to be confronted by a piece of code that is NOT working and then having to try and figure out what I did wrong. The satisfaction I get from figuring it out makes me feel like a superhuman!

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