This month I turned a quarter-century old. I’ve finally finished writing the book that consumed the 24th year of my life, and now I’m left with time to think (and blog) again. This post is about identifying the most important quality that educational role models can have.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clarkefocuz

When I was younger I used to look upon the scribbles created by trigonometry and calculus work, that to me seemed to incomprehensibly weave math and English together, and think to myself that there is simply no way I would ever be able to grasp the slightest bit of. It felt like a foregone conclusion that understanding such a series of symbols was a task that would always lie beyond my pea-sized brain.

The web felt the same way to me. Growing up I was fascinated with the discovery of every new site, but I could not begin to think of what might be involved in making one.

Creating anything with a computer, like doing calculus, was magic to be done by other people. I imagined creating websites was the serious and stuffy domain of adults who worked in tall glass buildings. It was probably expensive, and I bet you needed special equipment, maybe even contracts and lawyers. I couldn’t imagine just who developers might be (or even what they were called!), but I assumed some kind of suit-or-lab-coat-wearing professionals that only accomplished things in large teams after years of rigorous study.

My young pea-sized brain had no idea, but I assumed it sufficiently difficult that it wasn’t even worth asking anyone. Worse still, had I thought it worth asking, few or none of the adults in my life would have given me a sufficient answer. Many of them to this day must think about websites the way I did back then.

When I was 13, on a certain day in 2001 that’s difficult for Americans to forget, I joined a forum for the discussion of a video-game where you design and fight giant robots made up of several combined parts (Armored Core). The game isn’t important, but it is important that in the game there are billions of combinations of parts – more than enough to discuss (and argue!) the merits of different fighting robot designs.

Several members had little websites where they shared their designs and reasoning, and visiting them I stumbled across this place called geocities.com. This website told me that even if I knew nothing, they would let me make a website. For free.

Nobody told me that creating content on the web wasn’t magic, until the day I met GeoCities.

And so I made my first website. Of course it wasn’t how a professional would do it, GeoCities started you with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor, one that if we web developers had to use today we’d do so while crying into a gallon tub of ice cream, eating with our left hand and clicking away with our right.

But that’s not the point. GeoCities let kids like me go ahead and make something and put it up there. GeoCities gave me permission to make things I didn’t know I was allowed to make. I didn’t have my own house with my own address, but I had my own web site with its own address, something I could point my friends to and call my own.

The language I’m using is a bit curious, of course I didn’t actually need permission to make a website, but its important to note that for a lot of people, especially children, it is difficult for them to even begin exploring topics if they don’t know what goes into them.

Parents aren’t always much help. If you asked most of them how to make a movie that will be played in theaters they might tell you they have no idea, or else give you a list of things you’d need (script, director, cast, enormous sums of money, etc). Never-mind that the best answer for a child is “A camera, here’s the record button, I’d love to see what you can do.”

Television shows are largely no help to children either here, even the ones that detail how things are made tend to display the art of making things as a job best left to hyper-sophisticated machines and experts in lab coats.

We should celebrate anything and anyone that dispels the magic that professional (and to many, seemingly unapproachable) education is needed to do something. Bob Ross is another such example. He showed me (and many others) that oil painting is not something only done by Michelangelo-like professionals after decades of practice. It was something that could be accomplished – or much more importantly, started – by 9 year old me, even without lick of experience.

More to the point, I think it is extremely healthy to have the lowest bar possible to go from “Hey I like that” to “Can I do that? Can I make it myself?” And I think it is something that parents and teachers ought to have on their mind constantly.

There’s an issue with schools that a lot of people have and I’ve had a hard time articulating it myself until recently. We tend to agree that teaching mere facts and formulas alone constitutes an inadequate and dull school day.

GeoCities, Bob Ross and other great experiences like them point to a lesson: Schools, parents, and services need to always keep in mind that the primary goal of education is to expand a child’s scope of what is possible in this world. Even if there was just a single damn class where every day the teacher picked a random topic and said, “Did you know that to start making X all you need is Y? And Y is easy to get, and we can help you get it if that’s something you want to do.” This is what I’d like to see out of schools.

It doesn’t matter if a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor is not how a professional would design websites. It doesn’t matter if a point-and-click camera is how a professional would shoot photos. Professionals like to deride these things, but I think they (and the instruction that comes along with them) tend to be the most important thing we’ve got in terms of education. Anything, anything to tell a child or newcomer that they can start making things today.

I don’t think this is a particularly tricky topic, but I think it’s easily overlooked. I think it matters that we show all newcomers the lowest possible bar to entry. There’s an art to making seemingly insurmountable things appear doable, and I think we should give it more attention.

As for me, now that I’ve stumbled back upon a few faint notions of free time, I’d like to help out on the web again. I used to fiendishly apply myself to StackOverflow, and I will return some brainpower to that task, but my real hope is to begin a Bob Ross-style video series about learning to program with JavaScript. JavaScript is a wonderful little language to start with, because everyone watching the video has all the tools they need to get started. Anyone running Chrome can press F12 and start typing statements into the console right away. The canvas element (the only thing I’m good at) now poses a great way for people to create little JavaScript programs quickly that involve visual results without bringing too much confusion into the picture (See: The DOM).

I’m optimistic about the video series, but I imagine it will be some time until it’s out. I had considered taking some time off work to do full-time work on nothing but these JavaScript tutorials/videos, updating the MDN, and holding office hours in StackOverflow chat. Be like a monk of the web. Alas I’ve not the cash for that just yet. But someday, maybe.

I hope I’ve articulated that well enough. Sorry it wasn’t shorter. My own brain feels muddled for all but poetry these days, so I’d like to leave you with a few verses of Longfellow, from The Ladder of St. Augustine:

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

I want us to make pathways.


4 thoughts on “WordPress

  1. punjabirangmanch

    Very nicely written! It reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted talk on how schools kill creativity. I really liked your vision around how teaching should be more practical like for creating X one needs Y and then schools being there for the students if they need any help getting Y. And thanks for reminding me that the primary goal of education is to expand a child’s scope of what is possible in this world. Simple things like these can indeed be easily overlooked in this competition driven world.

  2. Zirak

    While I agree with your point, I would like to add an addendum: Once you get started with these tools, there needs to be a point where you let go. With some, disposing of these training wheels is part of how you evolve with the tool when you discover it’s not powerful enough (“GeoCities doesn’t allow me to tweak what I want to tweak”, “this camera doesn’t allow me to change saturation”, …).
    However, it’s easy to fall into their trap – you use these tools as a silver bullet and can’t or don’t want to let go (“why shouldn’t I use WordPress?”, “it takes pictures, what’s more?”).

    But now that I reread my comment, there’s also the flip side: If taking mediocre pictures, and you’re satisfied, why improve? If you’re content with WYSIWYG website makers, why should you look into it more? If it’s acceptable that you’ll always be a beginner and dish out mediocre content…who am I to stop you (not “you” the reader, the more abstract “you”, a.k.a. “someone”)?


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