Coding and the Adult Learner

I have done a significant amount of coursework in adult learning. I’ve read the canon. I’ve taught classes to other educators on adult learning.  I’ve published a chapter.

Furthermore, I’ve been accused of being an adult learner. In the first year of my doctoral program, a random faculty member stopped me in the hallway to shake me by the shoulders and say emphatically: “YOU (shake) are the ultimate adult learner! WE (shake) are WATCHING (shake) your EVERY MOVE (shake shake). I can’t WAIT to see WHAT YOU DO (shhhhaaakkkkeeeee)!”

So, I am an adult educator and learner, blah blah blah. When I tweeted this today –

it had special meaning to me, but it was not intended to be particularly insightful to the casual reader. Every adult educator knows that adults learn better with ‘just in time’ learning and in ‘need to know’ situations. At some level, most adults have to want to learn what they are learning, they have to need to learn whatever it is that they are learning, or they aren’t learning it. Period.

Granted, I’ve never been the average adult. I tend to be curious about everything and capable of learning a lot…well…almost everything.  I’ll start learning something before I’m actually legitimately interested in it and without particular need (at least what the average adult would designate as need).  That being said, I have a profoundly big blind spot in terms of computer programming and auto repair.

Before I go on, I acknowledge that these are exceedingly useful areas of study, particularly for a woman who hangs out in EdTech circles and who does, in fact, drive automobiles.  I also acknowledge that I’ve had ample opportunity to learn a little about both.  When I was working as a graduate fellow at ALT Lab, there were people eager to teach JavaScript and similar. They literally came to my office door offering to teach me. Also my husband fixes cars for fun. He knows how to make my car horn blow by pushing a button on a laptop. If I wanted a lesson in basic auto repair all I had (have) to do is open the kitchen door and go outside.

Unfortunately, I have actively and repeatedly turned down invitations to learn anything related to coding and auto repair.  Other than how to change my font size in html, I know (actually, now that should be ‘knew’) nothing.

I’ve spent significant time reflecting on my unusual and striking lack of interest.  There’s some deeply ingrained gender bias-type things involved that I’m not sure I’ve fully unpacked, even now. Computers and cars don’t play a role in how I see myself, my work, my past experience, or future goals.  Also, I’ve always been in situations where the potential  teachers are men…the lack of female role models hasn’t helped whatever gender things are going on in my head.  In related news, I hate being wrong in front of anyone, but particularly men (it goes back to my medical days where I worked alone in environments of blatant and not-so-blatant sexual harassment and sexism) and when you mix all this together, I have to say it:

I am Laura Gogia MD PhD, and I am intimidated by networked computers and servers and mainframes and software installation and people who know what these things are. Also cars and mechanics, but that’s a different blog post.

About a month ago I was told I would be learning how to code for my job. It was really quite unexpected. In fact, if I had known I would need to learn these things there’s a decent chance I might have turned the job down or not applied for it in the first place, because  of the bolded statement I just made.

QUERY: Having to learn things unexpectedly is the norm for my work.  I’m good at it.  So how come coding felt so different?

ANSWER: This is the first time ever that I have very real, deeply-held personal barriers to what it was I was being asked to learn.

Learning to code has been a pain in the ass. I have been angry – really angry – at myself, at my current the situation, at my previous education, at my previous workplaces. My anger has been exacerbated by and exacerbating for the grief I felt over moving beyond my phd. I have been depressed – really depressed. I have wanted to give up and walk away.

I am willing to bet that this is the way many adults feel when they try to learn something new, particularly when they are told they have to learn it for work.  Finally, I am getting a taste of what it’s like to be a real everyday adult learner 

I tend to get emotional about things, but I also always have a strategy.  Like I said, I know the adult ed literature.  I know that motivation is everything, so I grabbed onto every personal reason to learn coding that I could find: keep my job, develop a skillset for the resume, be a model for my kids, develop my brain in new and interesting ways.  The reason didn’t matter, as long as it worked in the moment.

I also knew that expertise begets interest begets expertise. The better I get at something, the more interesting it becomes, the more internally motivated I am, the better I will get. Just. Keep. Working. Things. Will. Happen. It’s my mantra for everything.  Most of the time it works.

This time, it’s working. I’m going to be fine.

But what else is important? The teacher.  To have someone you can trust, who gives a little space for you to be angry or depressed or frustrated or wrong or just plain weird – this is important. So big collective thanks to all the teachers out there who make this happen for adult learners everyday.  You are really important too. Good job.  And thank you.





7 Comments Add yours

  1. Anna Wood says:

    Really interesting to read. I felt a similar barrier to learning to code – and that’s despite 1) playing with a ZX Spectrum as a child (and writing basic programes, 2) doing a degree in physics and learning Fortran along the way. Despite these experiences i never really got it, and always thought it was somehow beyond me. Yet I’m a great fan of women and young people learning to code. So I am feeling very proud of myself that I can do write fairly simple python programes. I still get a bit terrified of it all though!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maha Bali says:

    Hey Laura. So I finally got to read this. I sometimes think the whole point of my own comp sci degree is that I overcame my initial intimidation from computers (let alone coding). But it bares deeper analysis WHY I continue(d) to run away from Comp Sci even though it no longer intimidates me. It simply isn’t worth the effort. Especially in the face of the gender thing. But there’s something trickier at play here. We are *made* to believe that it’s cool, progressive, empowering, important to learn things like code and mechanics and such. We aren’t told it’s cool to learn self-reflection and good dialogue and empathy (things women excel at). Both you and I were scientists first before we were educators. I value my social science work and research and it makes a bigger difference in the world than my comp sci ever did (can’t say same for medicine, but maybe YOUR capacity to do something with it is more…).
    At the same time, it’s possible that losing women from science fields contributes to many of the dysfunx of technology. I say this and I have a good friend who developed a tool that detects how you’re feeling and responds to it (a feminine pursuit maybe but not one I am particularly proud of – because why would we want to replace humanity that way? Listen also to our DML VC hangout yday if u can w first – will blog about it soon coz other interesting things came up).
    I am still thinking about this. You just got my first reaction here. Big hugs. And I am glad you found people to help you through this, because I know community is important for you. And I am sorry I am not one of those people when I could have been had I stayed in my field (not really sorry, you understand, just recognizing what the implications are)


  3. Maha Bali says:

    Also suddenly remembered the trauma of our only CS female faculty member (a great teacher) not getting tenure. We (students) objected (to no avail) because many male profs did more research but were horrible teachers. Even though our class was half female, our professors were exclusively male except for her, and they didn’t tenure her (of course there are others now). Strangely our univ’s IT departments are full of females and esp female leaders. But that is probably because a serious programmer is getting a higher salary in a software company or such so only the women stayed…


  4. Jim Luke says:

    A few thoughts that occurred to me while reading. See how this fits with your thinking. First, I don’t think I can really say where I fit on auto repair or coding. Here’s why. I don’t think of myself as either an auto mechanic or a coder. I haven’t turned a wrench seriously in, oh, 40 years. Yes, I did a fair amount back in the day – but only because I wanted to drive race cars and to drive them well you have to understand how they work. The best way to understand how they work involves at least some degree of getting intimate with the parts. But I was never taught as a mechanic.
    Likewise, I don’t think of myself as a coder. I really dislike command line and text files and anything that starts with ” ” gets my eyes roaming for the next squirrel. Actually I think of myself as a point-and-click system builder and a decoder. I mostly get involved in code only to tweak or troubleshoot, and then only as last resort. Again, I’ve never been taught how to code or how computers work directly – unless you count those 2 COBOL courses on the mainframe in undergrad in 1975.
    Yet, most folks who know me would say I’m a real tech guru and/or that I really know cars. And I do at a systems level mostly. I’ve spent the last 40 years developing new systems and new applications for new computer tech – even got one of the first patents on e-commerce in 1998. Nowadays I’m the sysadmin and devops and web developer for the school’s Open Learn Lab. We’re a tiny infant compared to Rampages, but 100+ sites doing 12+ different kinds of applications/needs in about 3 months isn’t bad I guess – especially for only having a 1/2 time economist that claims he doesn’t know how to code.

    Yet nearly everything I know about cars and computers has come as adult learning and outside the normal, formal educational scaffolding. For me, the normal structures for learning about either car repair or coding don’t work. They all assume I want to “be a coder” (I don’t) or a mechanic (I don’t). I want to understand and build systems. And that means often I have to drill down to understand how some pieces work and that means getting my hands dirty with messing with some parts. I don’t intend to learn to code but I guess it happens. For example, in the early 90’s when some biz clients wanted ideas on how to this new “networked pc world” or “digital printing” would affect them and what opps existed, I/we bought some machines and cable and installed our own network. Took a lot of research and learned a ton. But the objective was to understand the broader systems, even though we knew ours was small scale.

    I guess what I’m saying is I’ve always been frustrated at how education (the formal kind and/or the authoritative kind) always seems to assume my motivation and try to make me “one of those”. Math teachers taught as if I was assumed to want to be a mathematician doing proofs. Computer courses & curricula always seem to be structured to teach me to be “a coder”. Etc. I don’t wanna be one of those. I want to understand the big systems and their complexities so I can innovate around them, not be another drone doing what the teacher finds interesting.


    1. Maha Bali says:

      I hate to break this to you Jim, but Computer Science as a discipline is not at all about coding. Just like a mechanical engineering degree isn’t about becoming a mechanic.

      But I hear you on all the rest. Not everything we want/need/choose to learn as adults is about “being” the thing…much of it is about using the thing to get to a broader goal


  5. Gemma B. says:

    You are the bees knees! What type of code are you learning? I can’t wait to see how this journey turns out for you 🙂


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