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Maker and Teacher
Being a good learner is essential for making and teaching. That's also why Brian Wagner is good at both.
Brian Wagner is a maker and teacher with a lot of experience. Currently, he teaches making and coding at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. I got to know Brian when he was teaching at Kentucky Country Day in Louisville KY. He and a colleague came out to an early edition of Maker Faire Bay Area and then went back home and began organizing meetings that led to the opening of the LVL1 Hackerspace.
In my conversation with Brian on Make:cast, I wanted to learn about the many hats he wears — a tinkerer, an engineer, a Mr. Mom, a maker and a teacher, as well as programmer. I don’t think Brian switches hats as much as he wears them all — somehow. Those hats sit on a head that believes you can learn to do anything and if you learn it, you can teach others.
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Brian talks about the growth mindset, described by psychologist, Carol Dweck, and he tries to encourage his students instead of saying “I don’t know how to code”, say “I don’t know how to code yet.” “Coding is no different than being able to use the bandsaw or coding is no different than being able to use the soldering iron,” says Brian.
During Covid, Brian created a learn-to-code video course called “Code with Mr. Wagner” and he teaches using Python to create basic video games. He said that his first videos were not that good, but he got better by doing more of them. He taught himself how to edit videos.
Brian said that many online coding courses teach the formal elements of the programming language but students don’t get a sense of building something. “A lot of the online coding courses out there, they're exercise based. We're going to learn an if statement, so I want you to write five if statements and see how they work. That gets really boring really quickly.”
“What I did in my class and what I've taught in previous years is how to do classic video games, how to code, for instance, the game Pong. Pong has a game loop and every frame in the game loop, the ball moves just a little bit and you use keyboard events to move the paddles up and down and you use collision events to see when the ball hits the paddle and then the ball bounces back. The beauty of this is you teach the same things that are common to every coding language, but if you teach those individually, unfortunately, it's not very engaging for a student.”
“But if you're building a game then you're seeing it come to life in front of your hands and by the way, I'm sneaking in, here's how to use an if statement. Or I'm sneaking in a little list or a loop or something like that. And I've had really good success with students learning this way, both in teaching school and and with Code with Mr. Wagner.” Learning happens as you do something you want to do.
Brian said that a nice community has grown up around the site. “It reminds me of a hackerspace where people can share their ideas and things like that. People are showing off their little bits of code; here's my enhancement to the Pong game, or here's my enhancement to the Breakout game.”
I have two takeaways about education from talking to Brian. One is that encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset is at the heart of being maker and the heart of maker education. Everything follows from the mindset — you can learn to do things, even things that are hard. It’s rewarding. Brian is a maker and a teacher who keeps learning.
The second takeaway is that more teachers should do what Brian did — create video courses and build and manage learning communities. Learners need more options, more ways to learn. Sometimes, the school system offers them one way to learn but it may not be the best way to learn for them. Increasingly, there are more options online, but there is a need for independent teachers deciding what and how best to teach.
Link: Code with Mr. Wagner.