Maybe That's Why

I have a lot of respect for Heather Payne (founder of Ladies Learning Code): she’s working hard to get women into technology, and has been more creative about doing it in 12 months than I’ve been in 14 years. I’m therefore reluctant to disagree with her publicly, but her most recent post said this:

I find it pretty interesting to note that most of our Lead Instructors and Mentors are in a teaching role for the first time ever when they join us at a Ladies Learning Code workshop. And no one on the Ladies Learning Code team has a background in education. The funny thing about that is that it might be why what we're doing works.

Respectfully, no. What LLC is doing works as well as it does because:

  1. It has attracted a really talented bunch of inventive, open-minded, hard-working people.
  2. It's one day or one week, not four years.
  3. Everyone in the room really wants to be there.

The first explains itself, so let’s look at the other two. A night out or a weekend away is very different from being married; similarly, one jam-packed day of new, new, new is a whole ‘nother thing than a four-year university program that’s trying to cover all the bases, including the ones learners don’t think need to be covered. (They’re often right, but not as often as they think.) The kind of energy and engagement I see in workshops (of all kinds, for all ages and backgrounds) simply doesn’t last for months or years.

Second, I believe that about a quarter of the students in any university program would rather be elsewhere (if not more). They’re in class because their parents told them they had to go to university, or because they’re worried about being unemployable if they don’t have a degree, or because whatever they’re doing seemed exciting two years ago when they picked their major, and they think that if they switch tracks now, those years will have been wasted. That, combined with peer pressure in high school teaching most teenagers never to appear keen about anything a grown-up is telling them (unless said grown-up is disreputable), sets the tone for the student side of most university classrooms.

The faculty side—well, as Eleni Stroulia said, we’re here to do research, they pay us to teach, we spend our time on administration. Most grade school teachers, and many university professors, are passionate about teaching—just look at the 60-hour weeks they put in. But many others have burned out, have discovered that they don’t like it as much as they thought they would, or (at university) have always regarded teaching as a tax they have to pay in order to do the research they love. And while I can’t speak for K-12 from first-hand experience, promotion in most universities really depends primarily on your research, no matter what’s in your employment contract about “teaching” and “service”.

So, do things like LLC work as well as they do (and they do work very well) because the people leading don’t have a background in education? I don’t think so. Would they work better if their organizers and instructors could ace the Audrey Test? I don’t know; I don’t think it would hurt, but I wonder if what formally-trained educators are taught is more relevant to the cross-country trekking their learners are expected to do than to workshop participants’ sprinting. What I do know is that we’d all benefit from more thoughtful analysis of what works and what doesn’t at various scales and for various learners.