Learning with Spice

Over the years, I've learned some pretty amazing and shocking things as I continue my growth as a coach, teacher, instructor, and experience designer. The journey so far has changed how I thought people learned, how to construct a joyful learning environment, and, most recently, how to coach people remotely.

I'm fortunate that one of my core strengths is Learner. I have taken innumerable strengths tests, including peer-generated ones, and that strength consistent shows up in the top five. Because of that, I saw going into a remote learning as an exhilirating opportunity to learn how to deliver a very difficult course in a new format.

Preface: My Teammates

The team of seasoned web development instructors that I work with have worked incredibly hard at delivering our course and uncovered so many hidden gems about how to deliver it. This program wouldn't be nearly as rich and powerful without them.

Joe Shepherd, Zoe Ames, Brenda Long, Nathan Gonzalez, Jisie David, Andy Collins, and Adam Sheaffer produced innumerable insights into how to train beginners to become software developers. While the theories and books I've read about adult education all helped me craft the experience, it was their expertise that has been the real driver of where we are today.

Joyful Experience

"You get out of it what you put into it."

I heard that from many educators over the years but was never coached on what I should put into it. The most common answer was "put in the effort."

  • What effort?
  • What should I focus on?
  • What are the best strategies for using my time?
  • What are the most helpful resources?
  • How do I ask for help?

I asked these questions, and I suspect many people asked and never got an answer for any of them. It became clear to me over the past few years that there is a mindset of, "I present the material to the student, and they take over from there and 'put in the effort' to learn it."

That's not a joyful experience in a learning environment.

My mind was indoctrinated to that way of thinking, and for the first few cohorts of students, that was, roughly, how I approached it. Over the next year, however, I had the realization that barely anyone knows how to learn.

Therefore, for my students to have the most delightful experience possible while learning how to be a professional developer in 180 days (120 if you take out weekends), I had to teach them how to do three things.

  1. Deliberate planning before action.
  2. How to break a problem down into achievable tasks.
  3. How to research & learn like a software developer.

If I could do that, then the syntax, patterns, and software development strategies would be theirs for the taking. It also meant that I had to do it quickly and do it so that they didn't realize what was happening.

It was a fundamental shift in how I approached being a coach.

I had no idea what I was up against.

The Curveball of Life

Fast forward a few years, and after many experiments (some failed and some succeeded) to craft a better learning experience, I was in the middle of crafting what I believed would be the culmination of all of the lessons that we had learned over the years, while implementing best practices from cognitive science, and educational theory.

I had just finished delivering its first iteration with cohort 37, and was making the requisite modifications after a first delivery, when news started to break that a novel virus named COVID-19 was spreading quickly in China and making its way to other countries.

Just as I started to coach the next cohort through a new iteration of the experience, the virus had spread to the US and we made the decision to go fully remote in the span of a few weeks. I was then challenged with delivering a new experience in a new environment - a fully remote team of students who only interacted over Zoom.

While we went through that process, I continued with my plans to implement a flipped learning experience. What better time to pull the lever? Turns out that a flipped learning experience, and remote learning are a match made in heaven.

After diving head first into the new course, and implementing a flipped model, AND doing it remote, here's how I can best describe the experience that I want to provide for our students.

Learning with SPICE

Yep, that word is capitalized because I made a cheesy acronym for the concepts I'm about to put in a bulleted list with short descriptions. Since that's how we all read online content, I'm adapting to your needs.

Here are the 5 Principles that guide me while crafting a learning experience for my students.

Self-Assessed

We have self-assessments at strategic points in the course for students to judge their own knowledge and understanding against what the instruction team thinks that the average student should have by that point. Students take the assessment, and when they are done, the instructor reviews it and discusses the correct answers and answers questions.

The self-assessments aren't used in any punitive way but rather as a guidepost for focusing their efforts from that point.

It is also a tool for the instructors to understand if they are doing their jobs correctly. If the majority of the students perform poorly on the assessment, that's the instructor's fault.

Peer Learning

The primary mechanism of how students learn is from making mistakes together, discussing strategies, and sharing successes. This has become vastly more important now that we are teaching remotely, and access to the instructors is not as frictionless and ad hoc as it was in person.

The instructors for the cohort are guides and coaches. We filter out all of the noise, so students know what to focus on, provide some beginning steps, and point them in the right direction. After that, they fail quite a bit, and we get them back on track if they stumble too far or have an actual gap in knowledge or understanding.

Once corrected, it's time to rejoin their peers and continue to work and learn together.

Individual Coaching

We perform about 6 formal one-on-one sessions with students throughout the course to see what they are working on, answer questions, and provide feedback on their knowledge or code. There are many more casual interactions with each student throughout the course to ensure they know the priorities and get answers to questions.

I call them walkabouts. We alert the students that the instructors will be popping into their rooms at some point in the next hour or two.

Time spent together as an entire cohort is kept to a bare minimum.

Context

Context is an association of a student's current knowledge to new, relevant circumstances where she can apply the knowledge and strengthen the neural connections that retain it.

Everything they do in the course has context. Some fictitious clients have needs and provide clumsy requirements for an application that the student must build. There are no isolated exercises that don't achieve some purpose.

The students get a chance to take a new concept or skill and apply it in a similar context. Hopefully, the differences are subtle enough to require some effort and allow the student to transfer the knowledge.

By doing work in the context of building actual projects, students never wonder why they are doing a task. If a concept is introduced or practiced without context, in the abstract, students would not know how to apply a concept across different contexts. By providing a subtle variation in contexts immediately, then students' brains have a greater chance to quickly learn to decouple what can change across different situations and what can't.

Effortful

I recently learned that a popular online learning platform has something called the "2-minute rule". Every exercise presented to a learner should be minimal enough for an average person to complete in 2 minutes.

In my own experience, in all the research I've read and field results from educators I've read, this is not how people learn. It sure makes them feel good, but they don't actually learn anything.

Learning must be effortful. Here's a great article about Repetition and Learning that concisely talk about effort and learning. The short-term downside to it is that learners initially rebel. In Brain Science: Should Learning Be Easy? How Effortful Processing Improves Retention, it includes a quote from Thomas Edison - “A man will resort to almost any expedient to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Therefore, we are very upfront and honest about the effort that the course requires.

Learning requires failure. Failure requires effort. Effort requires that the student be pushed into the Zone of Proximal Development. Knowing what the ZPD is for a student requires experimentation and observation over time.