A great article ran in FreeCodeCamp recently. Titled “How to escape tutorial purgatory as a new developer ...” Not far behind it was a piece at Inside Higher Ed titled “Breaking through the Parchment Ceiling”,a review of the book, Free Range Learning in the Digital Age, by Dr. Peter Smith. The premise of both pieces: There are as many ways to learn by doing, as there are people in the world, and that experiential learning is as powerful, if not more powerful, than rote classroom learning.
In the FreeCodeCamp piece, developer Tony Mastrorio starts out by expressing something most of us have experienced at one time or another: “For a long time I held off from starting my own side projects because of how much I didn’t know how to do.”
There are few things as daunting as having an idea and no idea of how to start it, or to start and then realize you don’t have all the skills or information you need to complete it. More unfinished projects litter the wayside of our imaginations because we feel out of our element and uncertain, and more importantly, like we’re inadequate to the task of figuring it out.
Like many of us, Mastrorio turned to online tutorials, and promptly became entrenched in what he called “tutorial purgatory”. In tutorial purgatory, you end up spending way more time watching the tutorials than actually getting anything done, and then still often have only an imperfect grasp of the concepts you’re trying to understand, which in itself can be discouraging.
“Eventually,” said Mostrario, ” I came to realize that I needed to stop watching tutorials, abandon my comfort zone, and build a project on my own, without all the instructions neatly laid out for me.”
In short, he just plunged into OJT – On the Job Training – to learn what he needed to learn by just trying it.
“I didn’t think about all the things I didn’t know how to do,” he said. ” Instead, I started with what I knew, and I figured out the rest along the way.”
Kids do this all the time, at least until we somehow train their native enthusiasm for discovery out of them, and teach them to doubt their own ability to learn on their own, or to fear making the mistakes that trying to do anything necessitates, and which is critical to learning.
Author Peter Smith observes that “By historically failing to recognize the “hidden credentials” in each of us, a majority of colleges and employers have created a world where “what you know is valued based on where you learned it, not how well you know it and can apply it.”
The median adult, says Smith, spends about 15 hours every week on highly specific learning projects, of which formal education is only a small part. “People’s astonishment at finding out what they already knew helped me to understand that good assessment of learning is a pedagogy in its own right,” said Smith.
Mostrario would agree. “I learned more from doing that first project than I learned in the preceding year spent on tutorials. Most importantly, I learned the skills I really needed to succeed as a developer. I taught myself how to problem solve and hack code together, and I got to enjoy the wonderful satisfaction of actually shipping something I built myself for the first time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t have any users or that the design wasn’t that great. Just the act of building something of my own was transformational.”
FCDI is a strong believer in experiential learning. From ROBOTICON to Maker Con, the proof is in the hands-on pudding. Everyone learns differently, and while we sometimes need to have the instructions, and the history and the formal academic know-how for certain things, for most things we simply need to have the confidence to try, the grit to learn from our mistakes, and the curiosity to learn what we need to learn to do what we want to do.
Our society, says Smith “has an enormous amount of capacity that is being ignored. If we can’t tap into the national talent of this country, then we will be left behind…We need to get everyone up to that table of opportunity.”
There are plenty of seats at the table. Pull one up!