I Can Code You the World: Anatomy of a Lesson

Nima Boscarino // Columnist 

For the past couple of years, I’ve immersed myself in the world of technology education, and in this column, I’ll explore some of the different techniques that I’ve learned through teaching people to code. I’ve had the opportunity to teach people of all ages from across North America, and those experiences have given me a hearty appreciation for the work that teachers do. 

In this Column, I’ll be your guide on lesson planning. In other words, how do you put together a presentation? There isn’t exactly a “format” on creating an effective lecture or presentation, but with a few motivators and key components, they become much easier to whip together. Whether you’re delivering a math lesson, teaching kids to code, or showing a relative the basics of using a new piece of technology, it helps to start with considering why it’s important to give the presentation. For me, it’s simple: get people excited, introduce a small number of new ideas, and clarify some points that your audience may already be familiar with. Don’t worry too much about teaching “new things”. Sounds crazy, right? The truth is, presentations aren’t that mission critical. People will forget the vast majority of the things that you’ve gone over, but they will remember how you make them feel. I find that the most valuable way I can use my energy during a presentation is to interact directly with the audience by inviting them to participate or by inviting and answering questions. 

It may seem obvious but the first thing you should do when you start a lecture is introduce yourself. Often when people are nervous, they tend to zoom through their introduction and dive right into the topic of the presentation. Depending on the context, you may want to spend a considerable amount of time letting the audience know a bit about yourself, your credentials and what your background is. 

Regardless of the length of your presentation, chances are there are only two or three crucial points that the audience needs to take away. After my introduction, I like to give a brief outline of these items, and make a point of circling back to the same phrases during the presentation to highlight them. It’s unrealistic to expect your audience to pay you their full attention for the entire presentation, so it’s good to get the audience members acquainted with the key ideas before they drift off. 

It can be difficult for people listening to stay focused during presentations without being intellectually or emotionally invested. One of the ways to circumvent this is to frame the “meat” of your presentation as a solution to a problem. Generally, I tend to “motivate” by making the problem statement clear and encouraging my audience to engage with me to solve the problem. This is a great time to get silly and brainstorm with your audience to come up with all kinds of crazy and inventive ideas! If you have access to a whiteboard or a projector, take notes while audience members contribute their ideas. This gives everyone a sense of ownership of the presentation, and a general sense of progression to the lecture. 

Eventually, I like to use the motivation I’ve created to solve the problem to launch into the “theory” of my presentation. This is usually a rephrased version of the topics that I’d outlined at the beginning, strung together with more detail and potentially more technical language. 

It can be helpful to view your presentation through the paradigm of “constructivism”. Constructivism is a theory of learning that is centered on the idea that learners “construct” new knowledge by building on their own prior understanding. The basic tenet is this: you can’t just tell people something and expect them to learn it. People need to engage with the material to build up new knowledge. A learner’s understanding of a concept is going to be unique and personal (in fact, all knowledge is seen as unique and personal), and I’ve found it remarkably effective to give learners an opportunity to be involved in the experience of the presentation. So, to deliver the content that you’re trying to teach, you can lean on the audience to guide you through the learning path by asking good probing questions that should motivate people to try to discover the solutions themselves. Your role as a presenter or teacher should then be to course-correct, clarify, and expand on what the learners have vocalized. If the context of the presentation doesn’t allow for audience engagement, that’s unfortunate! The most effective thing to do in that case is to pose questions that are interesting enough to influence audience members to explore the subject on their own. 

At the end of your demonstration, remember to briefly recap what you have covered. Some people may have stopped paying attention at this point, so it’s fun to do something a little wild or quirky to get people quickly re-engaged before letting them go. 

My main point is that anyone can teach! As long as you stick to a basic structure of motivation, brainstorming, solution, and recap, I’ve found that teaching can be an enjoyable and straightforward experience. Interestingly, this works just as well on an individual basis as it does with large groups. To craft a good lesson, there is also something to be said for putting yourself in the learner’s shoes with an empathetic lens, but that’s something we’ll explore some other time. 

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