Be Vulnerable ! Who Can Fix My Code (Neil Finney)

Teacher educators tell the novices sitting in front of them to take risks when they teach–that is how you learn, they say. Education pundits dwell on the importance of the teacher modeling how to learn–admitting that they don’t know a fact, a concept, or have trouble acquiring a skill. Professors write scholarly articles on the importance, nay, the significance of teachers saying “I don’t know.”

But when teachers close their doors and face the class and the lesson that they had planned to teach, much of this well-intended advice flies out the transom. Why? Because it is very hard to show students that teachers can admit to mistakes and learn from their students. Canadian teacher Neil Finney in his blog describes precisely this behavior.

According to his blog: “I am a teacher in an Ontario school and hope to ignite discussion, incite action and inspire change to the way we teach students. Incorporating more technology and driving our programming through a student-centered model will reach our learners and meet their potential effectively. Currently teaching a grade 7&8 class in Orillia, Ontario and enjoying every day as an opportunity to change what I do!”

Modeling can be everything as an educator in today’s classroom. During this week’s “Hour of Code,” I tried to put that idea to the test…

I signed out as many ipads as I could get my hands on for a 1.5 hour block of time. I started the lesson using the projector and screen at the front of my room and plugged in an ipad to show them the “Kodable” app as our first activity. I had already created a class “Kodable” account – so now I can track the progress of my students on skills such as; variables, strings, loops, sequences and functions. I showed them my solutions to the first 2 easy levels (first telling them to put all the ipads face down on the table and hands-off) and then turned the time over to them to explore and learn.

About half-way through the time, I asked them to exit “Kodable” and try “Tynker.” There was no explicit teaching this time. Except, I also picked up an ipad and started the “Tynker” app. I worked away at the first couple of puzzles and then hit a brick wall. After trying a number of solutions – without any being successful – I realized that this was a moment for learning.

“Who can fix my code?” I asked out loud – while my ipad and current incorrect code was being projected at the front of the room. I immediately saw 4 hands go up. I chose someone – a student who does not often raise his hand during lessons or class discussions – and invited him to come up to the front and change the code that I had used to try and solve the level. He changed a couple of things and ran the code – but it still wasn’t successful. The next thing that happened is what I was waiting for…

Two other students instinctively got up and walked to the front to help the first student “fix the code.” For the next couple of minutes, I had a group of three students (representing both grades 7 and 8) working together to solve a problem and modeling their strategies for the rest of the class to see. They did end up fixing my code. They were successful. And all the while, I watched as a common problem became the source of inspiration to collaborate and problem solve.

We often ask our students to try new things and take risks in their own learning. How often, though, do we sit back and observe? If coding matters – and as the teacher in the room – I have never modeled coding (and the problem-solving; trial-and-error; failure and success; risk-taking that it demands) – then I have not validated it to my students as being important enough for me to learn.

Some of our students will want to code. Some will excel at the independent learning style that many of the coding applications require. Some, though, will put up walls and struggle when the code they write doesn’t work. It is those students that, not only, want to hear us say that it is a valuable skill to learn; but also, watch as we (their teacher) struggle with a new area of learning. How we approach learning and risk-taking is evident everyday in the classroom….



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8 responses to “Be Vulnerable ! Who Can Fix My Code (Neil Finney)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    I would love to see some examples of teacher vulnerablity and student particiapation where the problems are NOT clearly “fixable” with certainty (as in “They did end up fixing my code.”)

    • larrycuban

      I would love to see such examples also. Thanks for the comment, Laura.

      • Laura H. Chapman

        I think many examples can be found in excellent teaching of the arts and in school environments /subjects where students are wholly responsible for originating something and are taught ot think of it as a “work in progress.”

      • larrycuban

        Examples I had not thought of. Thank you, Laura.

  2. Chester Draws

    Because it is very hard to show students that teachers can admit to mistakes and learn from their students.

    These are two very different things, in my opinion.

    I am quite error ridden when doing Maths in a hurry, so I make a game out of students correcting my errors. I’m particularly prone to mixing digits (843 for 834 say) and missing negative signs. I admit this fault pretty much from the start, and after that it’s no big deal.

    When I learn from students it is never when I have made a mistake and rarely when I can’t do something. It’s when they find a better way, or a better explanation. I know some people have issues with this, but in my mind it isn’t showing any weakness at all to admit someone else has a better solution. Far from hard, I find it easy.

    We’re Maths teachers, so we should be able to do probability. If I am feeling particularly egotistical I would place myself in the top 0.1% at Maths. That still means that it is unlikely that there isn’t a student at my school who is better than me. Since in more realistic moments I don’t place myself at that level then there could be dozens of students far better than me. Why is accepting this hard?

  3. In my programming classes I typically have several students that are smarter than me. I may know more about coding but they can usually come up with solutions to programming problems in ways I had not even thought of. Good solutions, not just hacked up messes (they get those also). I have reached the point where my programming classes consist of me giving some resources, a project and then getting out of the way. We then share solutions, where my solution has no more correctness than theirs. Earlier this year I helped with an after school coding club for 6-8 graders. We played Lightbot for a session. The students were much better at it than I was. Kids can do amazing things if they are given the chance to actually try on their own. Too many teachers are impressed by their own knowledge that they feel compelled to be the “sage on the stage”. We need to resist that drive and teach by helping the kids to learn to learn.

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