Interview with the founder of theCoderSchool — Hansel Lynn

Teaching kids how to code

Since the day I was acquainted with coding back in my high school till today, I’ve developed many applications. I’ve worked on Dengue Free Punjab Android application, Management Information System for managing ports, machine and deep learning models to identify malaria, predict prices, classify images and a lot more. Through my experience, I’ve learnt that coding gives me the power to use my knowledge to solve problems that everyone is facing and create a change in this beautiful world of ours.

I’ve worked on many languages such as Python, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, PHP, Java, C++ and more. For me, using code to develop something that really matters is a passion project such that once I worked on a code for 20 hours straight without any breaks! I realize how valuable coding can be for everyone and if students could get a chance to learn how to code from the very start it would be fantastic.

Hence, when Hannah Sordyl introduced me to theCoderSchool and the founder Hansel Lynn, I was intrigued. The team at theCoderSchool aims to further coding for the youth by providing a 2:1 student to teacher ratio while providing a student customized learning curriculum. When I got a chance to interview Hansel and gain more insight into their idea, I took the leap and here’s how it went.

About

Founded in 2014 and franchising since 2016, theCoderSchool, a Silicon Valley-based children’s enterprise franchise, provides computer programming lessons to children ages 7 to 18. Recently identified as one of Entrepreneur magazine’s hottest brands, theCoderSchool has over 30 schools operating in twelve states and continues to expand its national footprint with several locations in development in major U.S. and Canadian markets.

After working in high tech for 20 years, Hansel Lynn decided to move on from the world of corporate America and bought a School of Rock franchise. Shortly after, Hansel realized that instead of teaching rock music, a similar model could be used to teach coding. Combining his technical background and newly found children’s education background was the perfect storm that led him to found theCoderSchool.

Interview with Hansel

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

I live in Palo Alto, CA with my wife and three awesome kids. While many folks have told me they don’t believe it, I’m an introvert at heart. I turn on my “extravert switch” in business settings, but otherwise spend a lot of time just hanging out at home with my family. When I was growing up, I tended to have one or two best friends, but not a big network of other friends. I think that mentality has flowed through to theCoderSchool, in the sense that we try to maintain a “mom-and-pop franchise” feel. We prefer to be closer to a smaller group of franchisees that we support directly, rather than taking on large numbers of franchisees who eventually become faceless.

As interests go, I’m an endurance athlete. Years ago I ran ultra-marathons, including finishing the Western States 100 mile run, a race that starts in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe and ends near Sacramento. I finished my first Ironman triathlon in May. Awesome amazing experience, really great emotional reward to all the hard work.

Being an introverted endurance athlete has its benefits, as my weekly solo runs and rides of 5–7 hours are when I’ve probably thought of 95% of the best business ideas for theCoderSchool!

The story of theCoderSchool was really a trifecta. Back in 2013, I was just starting an after-school business as a franchisee that taught kids to play rock music in a band setting. After almost 20 years in the tech corporate world, this was my first shot at a brick and mortar business that I owned myself — and I was learning a ton. At the same time, I decided to see if I could get my then-10 year old daughter to learn to code using an interactive online curriculum. She got through it really quickly, and of course proud papa’s first thought was “wow, natural coder!” But as I asked her more about what she learned, it was clear she didn’t learn anything. I realized then that automated curriculum aren’t effective for kids.

A kid’s objective often isn’t to learn — it’s to finish; click what you need to, and get to the end. That led to the realization that the best way to teach a child is with a passionate coach, sitting right next to them to guide them. Living in Palo Alto, I was also surprised to learn that there were no after-school options for coding. Music, dance, martial arts, sure — but coding? Not even in the technology capital of the world. That’s how I got started — combined my learnings from the music school, with a model that emphasizes the human touch, in a place (and time) that was hungry for this new kind of education.

I think it breeds confidence in technology for many kids. We have many parents who don’t code, who end up “afraid” of technology in some ways. We’ve found that by showing kids they’re able to control something on the screen and create something they have control over, it really gives them that aha-moment. We preach that the logical skills you need to code are quite useful in any career. Whether a doctor, lawyer, plumber, or artist, the mentality of taking a larger problem and breaking it into logical pieces, as one does when one codes, is helpful to any career.

As for big positive impacts like apps that change the world? Well, we have some good candidates but they’re still young — hoping to see some brilliant things from these kids after they’ve moved on and grown up!

To be honest, my plans are very organic — find the right partners and continue, a bit of “come what may” attitude. If that ends up being 5 more or 50 more next year, I’m okay with that — I have no numeric growth goals. As CEO, my focus isn’t growing more schools, it’s making our current schools better. I feel artificial growth goals tend to push a company toward the money as opposed to the relationship. That’s okay if we were selling widgets or burgers, but we’re selling franchise relationships, where the right franchisee is more important than the revenue they bring in.

While we’ve received many requests to go beyond the country, the only country we will be going to is Canada, by sometime this summer. I believe there’s still plenty of room between US and Canada, and I’m not quite ready to try our very “personal-touch” model in other countries with different cultures quite yet.

Absolute chaos! Our model is different in that it’s not a set-and-forget model. We don’t rely on machines to teach our kids, and we don’t rely on static, same-old curriculums either. Instead we rely on Code Coaches®, experienced coders who teach in a way that’s customized to each student, using our methodology. Part of our vision statement is to focus on the best way to teach kids — and in my opinion, I would argue that there’s no better way to teach anybody anything, than having someone who knows how to do it sitting right next to you. Now why is that chaotic? You can imagine, when all kids follow the same path (like with a curriculum or software teaching model), you can “herd” them in a similar direction.

When kids are allowed to choose their path and are taught individually, it’s not as simple. While we feel our way is the best way to teach kids, it also takes more energy and effort to make sure kids are progressing, parent schedules are maintained, and other overhead that comes with a custom style like we have. But in the end, we think that sacrifice is worth it for a better way to teach.

If I could answer that, then I’d be a billionaire! I’ll say this, every child is different. Not all kids want to learn to code, so there isn’t a formulaic answer. That said, there are a number of ways we try to motivate our kids. We try to be “practical, not artificial”, meaning we try to stay away from motivation via less meaningful things, like “hey you’ve graduated to the mid-level-advanced tier!” or “here’s your digital badge.” Both may motivate kids, but I feel neither really correlates to practical knowledge. Instead, we have a Coder Fair, for example, where kids show off the application they’ve created either in a presentation Q&A format in front of a large audience, or in a judged science-fair format. Here, they’re motivated to build their best, to show it off. Or we have a national coding contest — theCoderGames. I just heard a story of a student who was going to take a summer break from coding, but didn’t score as well as he wanted, so wants to stay through the summer so he can rock the Games the next time.

Most commonly, our customized style is geared to motivate by engagement — let’s do what’s interesting to the kids. We’ve done things like emulate chemical reactions, or simulate black hole “singularities”, or the more common mini-basketball game with you vs. Lebron. Yes, that Star Trek fan really wanted to emulate physics — but other kids love Lebron and still others want to be a bio-engineering major. This level of customization, when it can be done, is the strength of our system and helps provide that motivation.

Steve Jobs had a great quote back in 1995, “I think everyone in this country should learn to program a computer because it teaches you how to think”. That’s our philosophy as well. When we teach coding, it’s not about memorizing a particular language, it’s about a way of thinking. It’s about the logical concepts you must learn, in order to “talk” to the computer. These logical concepts are valid for any language — even languages that haven’t been invented yet.

At our core, that’s what we teach: logic. We also supplement that with the occasional “Tech Talk”, a step-back discussion of how tech works and their implications. How does the Internet really work? Is Alexa always listening to your private conversations? We feel this helps put heads-down coding in context with the world.

Specifically, the way we teach is very fluid — so we’ve taught all kinds of languages, from Java to C++, Swift, and even more arcane languages like R or Lisp. Most commonly though, we use drag and drop languages like Scratch, Snap or App Inventor for younger kids, and move to JavaScript or Python for middle schoolers and beyond.

No, I’m afraid they don’t. Managing a complex website is serious, especially because it’s customer-facing and represents the brand. There’s a reason professional coders are paid quite well to maintain websites! I think, too, that many kids simply aren’t engaged by being a part of someone else’s app — they want to build their own thing. Overall I think it’s a bit of an urban myth — teach kids to code after school and they can pop up the next iPhone app and make a million dollars. The truth is that coding is pretty hard. A computer science major is still a very hard degree to earn. While it’s possible (see Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg…), those who do it young are rare, and take many, many hours of coding and learning on their own to get to that stage. Kids who are with us (or really any coding school) aren’t at that level. The honest truth is, at that level, they can learn so much more on their own because they have that hardcore willpower to do it — being at a coding school likely isn’t a fit. It’s interesting, because I wouldn’t let a 16 year old diagnose my illness or argue my case in court, yet there’s a bit of a myth that it’s easy to have them make complex real-world apps. We’ve had parents come in saying they have an idea for this company that does price comparison across the internet — can you teach my kid to code that? Or “I love Fortnite, can I code that?” Well, let’s learn to type first before you code something that takes a team of 20 adult coders a few years to build.

While theory has its place in higher learning, I don’t believe it’s very useful for kids. Instead, we teach in more of a practical Immersion style. With Immersion learning, you’re coding apps over and over, and soon you learn what you actually need to code.

With theory, you teach a kid what a 2-dimensional array is without using it in an app they’re building, and it’s in one ear out the other. Immersion, or “just do it”, is how coders learn — we don’t read a Python book from cover to cover, we just go code a Python program, and then code some more. In that way, we retain the base knowledge we need, and not the theory that we don’t. In fact, I think this applies to many adults. I, for one, don’t remember any of the computer science theories or 4 page problem-sets I learned in college. All my practical coding skills were learned on-the-job, when my bosses told me to code something — that repeated Immersion style training is how our brains are wired to learn.

That’s the end of the amazing interview! It’s amazing how theCoderSchool works each day to make this world a better place and teach kids. Their approach to teaching with a customized curriculum is quite practical and Immersive learning is the way to go. Check them out:

theCoderSchool has also recently released two children’s coding books titled “Coding with Basher: Coding with Scratch” and “Coding with Basher: Code Your Own Website” which are available on Amazon.

Thanks Hansel for the amazing interview. Also, many thanks to Hannah Sordyl for making this possible.

Data science and Machine learning enthusiast. Technical Writer. Passionate Computer Science Engineer.

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