Christian Heilmann

“just use technology $x” is a terrible answer to a question

Monday, May 13th, 2013 at 12:55 am

A few days ago a vertical video went viral of the student Jeff Bliss telling his teacher off for being a bad teacher who just hands out materials without explaining anything.

And we all applauded him for his gall and his eagerness to learn and to point out the obvious flaws in the education system. Teachers are not paid enough, are under more stress to be seen as someone who has students with good grades rather than understanding and have to deliver course materials they don’t believe in but are forced to go through as those are the ones that are easy to mark.

Terrible, isn’t it? So why do people in our little world of web development constantly and voluntarily become this bad, bored and ineffective teacher?

What am I talking about? The thing I mentioned in large detail in my talk at BaconConf this year but here it is for the generation who wants things in 140 chars or as a cute image with large letters on it:

Whenever you answer a question of another developer with “just use $x” you breed an expert idiot. You did not teach them anything, you showed a way out of learning.

In my ongoing task to de-clutter my life I just un-subscribed from several communities on Google+, namely the HTML5 community and the JavaScript one. Not because I am not interested in these matters any more, quite the opposite: because I care much about these communities and all I found there is frustration and annoyance. Nearly every single question new developers have is answered in three ways:

  • Use jQuery – here is a plugin
  • Just Google for it
  • You’ll need to use framework $x / JavaScript and/or HTML5 is not good enough for that

None of these answers are satisfactory if you really want to help someone who needs to solve a problem and learn how to repeat the solution in the future. The latter in most cases is a plain lie and shows that you are blaming a technology for your lack of interest in it.

What gets answered far too quickly is the “how” – how to achieve a massively complex result (which yet has to be proven to be really necessary) without thinking about it or understanding the solution that you apply. We assume that is enough and that we are doing something good – we let a new developer have a positive experience of having something achieved very quickly and that will obviously entice him or her to learn more and go explore in more detail later on.

That is not necessarily the case. We showed people a shortcut and how to focus on the outcome and hope the step where they understand what they are doing comes later. Sadly in a lot of cases this never comes but it fills people with fake confidence that gets shattered once they have their first job interview in a real company who cares about what they build.

If you want to teach people, make them understand the “why” and let them find their own “how”. That is much harder work, but also much more rewarding when you see them grow and explore.

We do not teach people how to write by copying and pasting the style of other authors. We tell them about similes, metaphors, rhetoric devices, orthography and grammar rules. Why bother with that? We could just show them TXTSPK and explain that anyone who knows English will understand what they try to convey. The reason why we do it is that we teach the fun of playing with language and finding your own style.

“But I don’t have time for that – I just want to help someone solving their problem”

Is a very common, admirable, but misguided idea. What you do is advertise the solution that made most sense to you as you already solved the problem. You steal the learning experience away from the other person and the way we learn is our most personal asset and differs vastly from person to person.

If you don’t want to really teach and see people grow and learn on their own terms, please stop spouting truisms and “best quick solutions” in places where people come to learn. If all they want is for you to solve their issue, they should hire you to do so for them.

Don’t be the grumpy teacher you learned to first despise and later on pity. We can do better on the web.

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