Mary Rose Cook

Why I coach

Makers Academy is a programming bootcamp. I’ve coached there for the last nine months. I love it.

In this essay, I’ll describe some of my favourite parts of coaching. For each part, I’ll explain how my work supports a learning goal at Makers. And I’ll explain how the environment at Makers supports this learning goal.

Note: we refer to our students as developers.

Giving as little help as possible

At Makers, developers lead their own learning. This lets them follow their curiosity. It lets them learn in their own style. It lets them learn at their own pace.

I support the developers with their self-led learning. Sometimes, a developer may ask me for help. Every problem is a chance for them to learn. I want to avoid robbing them of that chance. I want them to wring the maximum amount of learning from the problem. I try to identify the tiniest nudge that will get them going again. Sometimes, we’ll have a Socratic dialogue. Sometimes, I’ll suggest they diagram their current understanding of their problem to uncover wrong connections.

The environment supports self-led learning. Developers work on challenges that are designed to be rich playgrounds for exploring programming topics and practising programming skills. Developers work on team projects where they choose the what they make and how they organise their work.

Debugging learning processes

In some educational environments, the focus is on accumulating knowledge. The measure of success in these environments is: how much does the learner know about a topic? At Makers, we focus on improving processes. These are the approaches and techniques that a developer uses when learning or programming. Our measure of success is: how much have a learner’s processes improved? This means that a developer arrives at Makers as one person and leaves Makers as a different person.

I help developers improve their processes. For example, I run weekly surgeries. Developers discuss programming struggles they’ve had. A developer often describes their struggle as a problem with a programming concept. Through discussion, we try and uncover the skills and behaviours that are the actual cause of the struggle. A description of a struggle might be: “I find it hard to get RSpec syntax right”. Through discussion, it emerges that the developer is trying to memorise syntax, piece by piece. I might suggest they build their skill in mentally parsing syntax. Or, a description of a struggle might be: “I don’t understand database relations”. Through discussion, it emerges that the developer has spent a lot of time reading. We talk about how it is essential to learn by doing. We talk about how they could build a behaviour where they try stuff out in a REPL.

The environment helps developers improve their processes. Pair programming, group work and retrospectives help them reflect on how their processes could be improved. Skills workshops suggest new processes to try. And working on projects gives developers a chance to practice new processes.

Being a role model

At Makers, we help developers aspire to become better programmers.

I support this in a number of ways. Two examples. A developer asked me what programming language would help him explore functional programming further. I took great pleasure in suggesting Clojure. It’s wonderful to be able to share the things I’m excited about. If a developer asks me for help with a programming problem, I might show them a cool technique. Or, I might talk through the source of my intuition about where to look for the problem. It feels good to share techniques from one craft practitioner to another. Sometimes, a developer will ask how I started making games, or how I got a job at Ableton, or how I made a programming language. It feels great to be able to give them advice.

The environment supports the aspiration to become a better programmer. We recommend books and talks by expert programmers. When pair programming, developers frequently work with people who are better than them. This gives them someone to learn from and a standard to aspire to. By encouraging varied projects (from a virtual reality city-builder to an arithmetic interpreter written in Haskell), the environment becomes a community of developers who inspire each other.

Getting better at learning

At Makers, I spend my whole day steeped in our environment. I get to learn about educational psychology. I get to think about learning all the time. I get to reflect on my processes and improve them.

Every time I help someone learn, I improve my own ability to learn.

Summary

In this essay, I’ve talked about some of our goals at Makers. I’ve talked about how I support these goals. And I’ve talked about how the environment supports these goals.

And here’s my greatest joy. As a coach, I’m a part of the environment. But I also get to design the environment.

Want to help? We’re looking for a new coach.