Learning journals: inspiration from a learning journalist
Recently I discovered and am greatly enjoying the blog Baby Steps in Data Journalism, by Journalism professor Mindy McAdams (@macloo). This blog is Prof McAdams’s efforts to learn programming from the very basics in order to “learn to do data journalism.”
Professor McAdams seems to be beginning from the very foundation of programming. She’s selected some great texts and resources to get started, including Nathan Yau’s excellent book: Visualize this The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization and Statistics. What I enjoy most about this blog is that it is very clearly documenting Professor’s McAdams’ learning journey one small step at a time. She chronicles her experiences installing Python, points out errors she found in the text, and is commenting on ideas that she learns in a number of online Python courses.
Each of these bite size posts are helping me to remember what it’s like to learn programming for the first time, and find enjoyment in her process of learning. Here’s a good example, where Professor McAdams explains how she finds the behavior of the return statement in Python to be a bit peculiar. I learned programming so long ago that I find it hard to remember that these things were ever peculiar to me, and so it’s very instructive to read these insights and also see how quickly you can go from being a complete novice in programming to scraping year’s worth of temperature data from weather.com and graphing it.
I have to also think that years down the road, Professor McAdams will find tremendous value in the blog she is keeping now. Imagine being able to go back and follow your learning process for a particular skill from its very first steps. I know I’ve found myself going back to older posts in my blog often to remember how I learned or did a particular thing.
This gets me thinking that it would be a very valuable exercise for many students to do this themselves. What if students also kept a learning journal of their work in a similar fashion, and wrote short (less than 100 words) posts describing what were learning, what things they were still confused about, and any other questions they may have. I think it would be incredibly instructive for a teacher to regularly get these insights into his students’ thinking.
What do you think? Could this work? Part of me thinks it would be hard to achieve the level of quality of this baby steps blog, since this is the work of a very accomplished journalism practice, but then I think if an approach like this were to become the backbone of their learning in all of their courses, students might make very rapid progress, and who knows what they could do?