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Breaking all the Rules

Code Breaker Founder Brian Aspinall Empowering Students to Learn
Author: Jen Brignall-Strong
Photographer: Brian Aspinall
1 year ago
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For more than a decade, former elementary school teacher Brian Aspinall has traveled the globe, working with educators, school boards, and government officials to introduce coding and computer science into classrooms.

And it all started with a pooping baby video game.

“In 2006, I started my first after-school coding club for kids,” recalls the Colchester native. “A Grade 8 approached me and said, ‘I want to code a game. I have the greatest idea ever…I want to create a pooping baby!”

That pooping baby radically changed how Brian taught mathematics.

“I watched this child construct their own knowledge of math without any explicit teaching,” he explains.

Since then, Brian has gone from teaching coding to his own students in the Chatham-Kent school district to delivering keynote speeches across North America, hosting workshops, and changing the way we look at education through Code Breaker Inc., an organization whose mission is to engage students and amplify voices of passionate educators who believe that all students can achieve if given a fair chance.

Brian and his team lead professional development programs that inspire educators to create curious students in classrooms built on trust, risk-taking, and a freedom to fail. The company has also developed a publishing wing, with over 40 books including a leadership series for educators and a kids’ collection.

“I really want to inspire young people who come from rural communities to understand that you don’t have to move to Toronto to chase the ‘dot-com dream,’” he explains. “I was forced to make that decision in the Y2K era and I chose to stay in a small town. A part of my work has become this mission to show that in the era of connectivity, you can change the world from your own backyard.”

Brian’s love of computer science began long before he became a teacher, he says, sharing that he first learned about coding in the late 90s from an uncle who worked for a mining company in Northern Ontario.

“His job was to write software to make sure the computer clocks didn’t roll over from 1999 to 1900 instead of 2000,” he says. “His job was to literally solve the Y2K bug and I was so enthralled in this idea of this real world, one-shot deadline; it was like something out of the movies.”

In high school, Brian’s fascination grew, culminating with him creating the first ever Harrow District High School website.

“I built a website for a school project; the principal caught word of it and asked if I could build one for the school,” he recalls. “Before I knew it, I was creating websites for the local lumber yard, a pizza joint, a flower shop. I like to joke that I graduated at the turn of the century working remotely at the age of 17.”

Brian earned a degree in Computer Science at the University of Windsor, ultimately deciding to pursue a career in education rather than moving out of town to work for a tech start-up.

“I come from a long line of teachers, so education was always something that was in my head. And let’s be honest, having summers off was pretty enticing,” he laughs.

As a teacher, Brian integrated his love of computer science into the classroom, teaching coding during mathematics and finding new ways to engage his students.

“We as educators teach to our strengths because that’s our comfort. If we’re passionate about something, then the kids feed off that energy and when we’re talking about things we enjoy, kids are likely to invest in it.”

When the idea of coding in schools became a hot topic around 2008, Brian says he began getting tapped on the shoulder by people who were interested in how he had integrated the concepts into the existing curriculum. Soon after, he began presenting at conferences across Ontario.

“In many ways, Code Breaker fell into my lap,” he explains. “I started consulting for school boards around Ontario and was awarded the Prime Minister’s award for teaching excellence for coding in 2016. That same year, I did my third TedX talk and that’s when it really blew up. I was approached by the Ontario Ministry of Education to lead a team of teachers to develop coding curriculum. I took that gig and the rest is history.”

Brian has now done consulting work for school districts throughout Canada and the US, as well as Microsoft Canada. He also pursued his master’s degree in Math Education and has taught at Western, Trent, Queens, as well as his alma mater, University of Windsor.

“As much as it hurt to give up my classroom, I landed in a position where I get to impact classrooms everywhere,” he says. “I get to see what teaching and learning looks like all over the world and that really drives me.”

In addition to teaching coding, Brian says his team hopes to exact change in the classroom by shifting the focus away from the performance model based approach to education.

“We want to have bigger conversations about assessment, report card writing, and other things that we feel need to change in the education space,” he explains. “Everything about school has changed so much over the past decade; everything but the evaluation process. We’re doing really amazing things in schools with computer integration, but like everything else, there’s always work to be done.”

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