Beware the

Tutorial to Nowhere

What will students do on the other side?


Coding Education 1.0 saw the rise of the tutorial. Codecademy, Khan Academy, and Code.org made polished, scalable tutorials that helped millions of people learn a skill that, only a few years before, was known to mere thousands. These tutorials did something that textbooks never could have.

Now it’s time to ask what the next phase of student mastery of code should look like.

The Tutorial to Nowhere

Increasingly I encounter students who’ve been through dozens of tutorials but are unable to code their own projects. I call this phenomenon the Tutorial to Nowhere and it’s the major challenge for Coding Education: how do we equip students with real skills, not just access to content? Luckily, some amazing projects like MIT’s Scratch, the Raspberry Pi foundation, and and an increasing number of project-focused resources are tackling this challenge head-on. It’s certainly what’s driving us at Trinket.

For Getting Across, Not Taking Hold Of

There’s a wonderful metaphor for learning used by teachers as diverse as Buddha and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It likens learning or enlightenment to a raft, used to cross a river but not designed to be carried along afterwards. This is a perfect description of the role any educational content plays in learning, from tutorials to textbooks. Because of the power of the internet, Code.org and others have made robust and scalable tutorials that are much more than rafts: they’re permanent bridges.

We could never imagine the success of the 100 million-strong Hour of Code event without these wide and sturdy bridges. But bridges are for getting across, not staying on. How should we equip students for the journey ahead after they’ve completed a tutorial?

Let’s Give Students Tools for Making

The maker movement has been one of the best additions to the educational community in recent years. By focusing on giving students tools and encouraging creative, results-driven creativity, schools are becoming vibrant learning communities.

When students are through with an activity, do they have the tools they’ll need to repeat it for themselves?

Students in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and their Raspberry Pi creations

Events like the Young Coders’ Tutorial, started by Katie Cunningham and Barbara Shaurette, don’t stop at teaching the basics of coding. They equip their students with the tools, in this case, Raspberry Pi computers, to continue learning and creating on their own.

Unleashing Creativity

MIT’s Scratch is a perfect example of the power of giving students tools for making. Instead of tutorials and badges, students get a canvas upon which they can create whatever they like. At scratch.mit.edu they can share and remix programs. Code has become a social object.

Students working together on a Scratch program

Teachers who incorporate Scratch into their curriculum aren’t just teaching computational thinking. They’re not just leading students across a bridge and leaving them there. They’re giving their students a new medium for communication and thought.

Where Trinket Fits In

What’s next after students are ready to move on from Scratch?

We have a vision of code in every classroom, around the world. Thanks to the pioneering work of large-scale tutorials, small-scale computers, and drag-and-drop programming, more and more of the world’s classrooms are ready to give students the tools they need to write their own programs in class.

Students working in groups on Trinket code

At Trinket we’re building the world’s easiest to use text-based coding coding environment, that teaches students as they code and is available from any web browser. Tutorials are an amazing tool that great teachers can use to replace static textbooks or help flip their classrooms. But in class, where students need to write and share code, they need their own development environments.

Tools and the Skills to Use Them

Looking for more great project-based resources? Luckily there are tons of great organizations out there dedicated to producing and maintaining these.

  • CodeClub is the UK’s largest after school club and makes its projects freely available at projects.codeclub.org.uk
  • CoderDojo is a worldwide network of Dojos and maintains a growing library of fun ‘Sushi’ projects on their Wiki.
  • Consider volunteering at in-person programs like the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, Black Girls Code, and Google’s CS First if you can find one hear you. These are innovative programs that will show you first-hand how project based learning can excite students.

Regardless of the tool or club you choose, make sure that your students are leaving tutorials and leaving your classroom with the skills and tools they need to create. Like writing, coding is a skill that can and should enhance essentially any personal or professional pursuit a student will undertake.

Thanks to Rik Cross, Tony Wan and Leo Polovets for reading drafts of this post.