Learning vs. Teaching vs. Mentoring

Posted: August 2, 2013 in Learning, Mental Reboot, Programming, Teaching

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, I’ve volunteered to teach Intro to Computer Science to high school students this coming year.  It’s through the Technology Education And Literacy in Schools program (TEALS) and is loosely based on the Berkeley CS10 curriculum and I’ll be teaching at Truman High School.  Now, before you get too worried, there will be a ‘real’ teacher in the classroom to keep me out of too much trouble.  But my fellow volunteers and I are primarily responsible for building the syllabus and actually teaching computer science to high school students.  I have to say I’m both incredibly excited and pretty freaked out.

So, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time this summer training to teach and starting to build a syllabus and lesson plans for the upcoming year.  There are lots of things about this that have my head spinning in very tight circles and I’m sure I’ll share a number of them with you in the upcoming weeks, but let me start with two closely related concepts.

First, let’s talking about teaching vs. learning. That, oddly enough, starts with why I’m volunteering at all.  About 90% of the reason is that I was looking for something meaningful to do as part of my sabbatical that has some immediate positive effect on the world around me.  And after considering general tutoring and other volunteer opportunities, it seems like a program like TEALS is probably the biggest bang for my buck (although as bucks are measured in time, there are a lot of bucks going in, so best be prepared for a BANG).  But a good chunk of the other 10% is because I’m convinced on a lot of levels that teaching something is by far the best way to really solidify it in your own head.  I have fairly recent experience with this in Kung Fu and dance.  But even when I was 16 (before I had any formal CS training myself), teaching LOGO to younger students really helped me over some conceptual humps.  And I’m hoping that the flip side of this is that since I’ve been spending a concentrated amount of time and energy trying to improve how I learn, I will be better able to empathize with high school students trying to wrap their heads around a new subject.  So hopefully the Learning/Teaching loop will be a positive one.

Then let’s look at mentoring (or coaching) vs. teaching.  This comes down to another part of the remaining 10%.  Which is that by far the most rewarding part of being a technical middle manager in a large company was mentoring and coaching those around me (and frankly also the coaching I received as well).  So teaching is like mentoring, just on a slightly larger scale, right?  Okay, I didn’t really think that going into this, much less after a couple of months of teacher training.  But hopefully there is a close enough relationship that the reward circuit in my brain will still fire.  And that is in fact the other relationship that I had hoped would help, but may actually be a hindrance to my initial attempt to teach.  One of the points that came up in training is that when you ask a student a question you should always know the answer (and probably most of the possible wrong answers as well).  From a professional coaching/mentoring perspective this seems absolutely wrong – in those cases it’s almost always a best case scenario when your mentee pulls something out of his or her hat that is completely surprising.  But after talking this through with my co-teacher volunteer and thinking on it, I have to admit that it’s a sound principle.  When you ask a 15 year old a question, you really do want to know the answer already, and the wrong answers, and all of the snide comebacks as well.

Darn, looks like I’ll be retraining my brain even more than I anticipated.  Does anyone have any great tips on how to translate 1:1 mentoring experience to classroom teaching experience?


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