How not to be scary (when introducing programming)
A transcribed lightning talk given by Lyla Fischer at the PyCon 2013 Education Summit
What are people scared of? The main thing that people are scared of is that
they don't belong. The rest of my talk is mainly going to center on this one
I'm going to let you take 15 seconds to think of stereotypes of programmers.
If you have a new programmer walking into a meetup or user group, what kind of
programmer do they think that they will have to be?
If I were a good teacher and had more time, the question I just asked would
have been a group discussion and I would have waited for somebody to say that
this new programmer thinks that they have to be a genius. That's one of the
biggest stereotypes that you as a meetup leader has to overcome. There are a
lot of other stereotypes that especially affect how minorities feel themselves
fitting into a programming environment, but the most important of these
stereotypes is a fear of not being smart enough. There is this expectation
that you have to be super duper smart, and many newbies are just trying as hard
as they can not to break the machine.
First off, I want to give a quick warning about competitions. There, the
biggest fear is of coming in last, or almost last. If you have 60% of the folks
in your room worrying that they are the stupidest person in the room, and that
everyone else is going to find out, that is no good. So, stay away from
More commonly, folks are afraid of asking stupid questions. There are lots of
stupid questions, especially for newbies talking to an experienced programmer.
I'm not talking about mistaking CD trays for cupholders here - most people have
used computers and GUIs. I'm talking about fundamental things like how to
navigate a file system, what a terminal is, or what a text file is. These are
the questions that make some experienced programmers shake their head and sigh.
The moment you let that kind of expression onto your face is the moment that
you lose your audience. That is the moment when you confirm student fears that
One of the ways you (as a teacher) can know you're on the right track is if
your students ask "stupid" questions. You can pat yourself on the back. If
students feel safe asking you what a terminal is, then you've succeeded in
creating a space where they feel comfortable exposing what they don't know. You
should consider a stupid question one of the greatest triumphs of your teaching
Another thing to stay on watch for is the blank stare. The blank stare is
someone implicitly saying with their face: "I don't want to reveal what I'm
thinking about". Most of the time, that means "I don't know." or "I don't
care." Occasionally, it's "I did this 5 years ago and am too smart for this."
but that's really rare in practice. If your students DON'T feel comfortable
showing confusion on their face, then you have a problem, and you should pause
to address it.
Teachers should also be scared of the leading question. A lot of instructors
try to get feedback from students by getting students to say something that is
true. That is generally a good strategy, but if the answer is ridiculously
obvious by the way you ask it, you won't get real information about whether the
students understand what's going on. If you ask them, "Should I put this in a
text file?" That's a leading question with a yes or no answer, and it's pretty
clear that what you're looking for is a "yes."
Making sure that students don't feel stupid is a very intuitive skill. It's
about reading faces. It's about thinking about what kind of questions to ask
in order to get good facial expressions and verbal feedback. The best kind of
situation is one in which students are comfortable asking questions. But most
importantly - don't ever sigh at a question, because that is going to shut
everything down and you will lose your students forever.