Week 21 at an Unbootcamp

Soft landing

During my first 20 weeks at Learners Guild in Oakland, studying to be a state-of-the-art software developer, more advanced Learners told about the incomparable difficulty they had experienced in transitioning from practice programming to for-real programming. For the first half to ⅔ of their time in this 40-week training program, they had learned by writing make-believe programs. For example, they built websites where (imaginary) users could order (imaginary) groceries from an (imaginary) store, choosing from an (unrealistically tiny) list of products. But then they suddenly got promoted and joined the team of Learners debugging, maintaining, and improving software in actual current use. It might be the Guild’s own software, used by its administrators and Learners. Or it might be other open-source software with users around the world. In either case, advanced Learners reported that the increase in software complexity accompanying this transition was traumatic, exacerbating or creating whatever amount of imposter syndrome they already had or didn’t have. No amount of prior training, they suggested, could have prepared them for the shock.

Well, I have just survived my first week in that phase, which the Guild now calls phase 4. If blood and guts sell news, the week ending today (29 September) was nowhere near as newsworthy as I had been warned to expect. Two of us Learners started phase 4 this week, and we both seemed to take it in stride.

Yes, indeed, there was a lot of new information and technology for us to begin getting familiar with. During my very first day in phase 4, I started learning the following concepts and techniques for the first time:

Why, then, was this not an overwhelming cognitive load?

I’d say the main reason is the Guild’s contagiously relaxed attitude about getting up to speed. During the week-end review of our work by the dozen of us in phase 4, my fellow cohort member said she was concerned that it had taken her 2 whole days to get her new software installed and running so she could start doing real work. When my turn came, I said it had taken me the entire week to do that, and this didn’t bother me at all. (In fact, I haven’t finished it yet.) This 3-to-1 ratio was due to our radically distinct strategies. She had in-person mentoring from the most advanced Learner in phase 4—somebody who derives obvious delight from coaching and brings to bear a phenomenal amount of know-how. By contrast, I eschewed such offers of help except in a few extreme cases, and instead pursued my own favored strategy: following the step-by-step written instructions and, whenever they were not correct and clear, editing them so that future entrants into phase 4 would not require much—or any—handholding.

What is notable about this is that neither our staff supervisor nor any of my phase-4 peers had any objection to either of these divergent approaches. She got started sooner with the work, but I helped make future onboarding more efficient. These styles were both treated as within the normal range. The installation instructions themselves plead with their readers to fix anything in them found to be deficient. The staff reiterated that. So I had no doubt that my investment of time in this activity was welcome. No pressure, no shaming, no hazing.

Let me also mention that figuring out what the instructions should say taught me a lot.

Making the system work—together

Learners Guild is known for its demographic diversity, but this incident illustrates its acceptance of cognitive and stylistic diversity, too. Making itself comfortable for those with diverse learning styles is an easy goal to proclaim, but not to achieve. The realization of this ambition is a work in progress at the Guild. Some Learners have made it clear that the curriculum and the learning process are not yet effective for them. It remains to be seen how wide a range of learning styles and needs the Guild can accommodate.

In the effort to make the learning environment work for a diverse clientele, the Guild has said that it wants Learners themselves to be co-designers. The intent appears to be genuine. This week the Guild began putting into place its plan to make the Learners true creative partners. The Guild’s CEO introduced Learners to the financial model powering the Guild as a business, financial results during its first year, and what-if projections with various assumptions. Learners will be grouping to make proposals for the Guild of the future. Because they will have the financial details, they will have the ability—and the moral obligation, one could argue—to justify the practical feasibility of their proposals.

Can students design their school? They’re about to try.


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