Lessons from an Education Revolutionary
How both software and education can thrive in the face of change
Nulogy’s apprenticeship program was one of the most memorable and meaningful initiatives that I had the privilege of being involved in while working there. While it was a career springboard for the apprentices, for me it sparked an interest in teaching software engineers that has been gradually developing since.
This interest kicked into high-gear when I began teaching evenings at a coding bootcamp a few years later. I witnessed the hopes and dreams of eager individuals looking to get into the fresh and exciting profession of software development. This resonated with me. I enjoy my work, and I’m sufficiently skilled to earn a living doing it. I wanted that for my students, too.
Fast-forwarding to today, I have the unique opportunity of running a technical coaching program at work. The word “technical” indicates a focus on knowledge unique to software engineers, yet transferrable across technology domains. In particular, these are the practices of Pair Programming, Test-Driven Development, and Design1.
Education’s Subject Matter Experts
Now I don’t have a pedagogical background — I’m learning as I go. Known as the 0th Order of Ignorance, it’s a risky place to operate from. To put it plainly, I don’t know what I don’t know. I am counteracting this by reading and studying pedagogical techniques. For example, I’ve written about topics such as elenchus and constructivism to get a broad sense of a topic, as well as an awareness of what I don’t know about it.
I’ve also been learning about and studying the work of subject matter experts. In particular, I’ve stumbled upon a particularly radical thinker in the field of education: Sir Ken Robinson.
He gave one of the first TED talks (above), which has since become the most widely-watched TED talk to date. Since that first TED talk, he has given two more,2 in addition to an extended interview with Chris Anderson (Head of TED).
In all of his TED talks, Sir Ken appeals for a complete overhaul of the current system of education found in most of the world today (especially in the US and UK). To be clear, he explicitly states that a reformation is not enough — a transformation is what is needed.
Essentially, the current system of education has two fundamental faults:
It’s predicated on an overly-narrowed definition of intelligence that completely dismisses the crucial importance of creativity.
Its delivery model is based on Industrial Age principles that emphasize predictability, uniformity, and efficiency over maximizing every child’s potential as a unique and dynamic individual.
The exclusion of creativity from the definition of intelligence has devastating consequences to the potential of human advancement. If creativity is the means by which we adapt to change, then it should be central to the purpose of modern education. Instead, it is at the periphery — relegated to Arts class and extra-curricular activities.
Similarly, while the Industrial Age has led to rapid economic growth and prosperity, the challenge at the time was one of scale, not innovation. Once inventions such as the commercial steam engine and the spinning jenny were created in the 18th century, capitalism put immense pressure on society to scale its means of production in the following two centuries. This had far-reaching consequences on the fundamental ethos of the 20th century. This ethos continues to reverberate through to the turn of the millennium across multiple “industries” (as we still coincidentally call them). Education is but one discipline that is trapped in the modus operandi of past centuries.
In particular, the parallels between revolutionizing education and avoiding wasteful software development methodologies are uncanny.
Taylorism in Software and Education
Scientific Management (also known as Taylorism) is referenced as the reason why software development teams are often managed as feature factories. In essence, Taylorism asserts “one right way”, which must not be decided subjectively by the workers themselves but instead objectively by management. These “scientific managers” are intentionally hands-off: they observe objectively, collect data impartially, and set standard operating procedures universally. These instructions on how the job is to be done are detailed, inflexible, and non-negotiable. This is by design as only managers have the appropriate “high-level” view which can adequately prioritize and optimize for collective outcomes over individual preferences.
To a tee, this is precisely what appears to be happening in education. Both software and education are experiencing the same problem. And it is a problem in software for the same reason it is one in education. Quite simply, one cannot predict the future. That goes for what the right software product looks like month over month, as well as what the right curriculum and teaching approach works for any given student at any given time.
An Alternative to Taylorism
In software, the problem is far from solved. However, stories have been emerging since the turn of the millennium about how teams and organizations have begun to solve it.
A group of software developers met in 2001 and brought their own ideas about and solutions to the problem of rigid and wasteful software development trends. There was plenty of disagreement. But there was a small intersection of ideas, approaches, and practices that was agreed upon. This intersection came to be known as the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Stated below:
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
If you replace “software” with “education” and “customer” with “student”, the commonality between Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas and the Agile manifesto is striking. Indeed, many agilists regret that Agile was ever framed as a software development approach. It is far more than that. Fundamentally, Agile is a mindset that allows teams and organizations to embrace change while creating value. As it all-too-often happens, when a team decides to adopt Agile while the wider organization is stuck in a Taylorism mindset, the benefit of the former is greatly stunted (if not entirely negated).
So perhaps then, Agile can be thought of as an education framework as much as a software development framework.
Applying Agile to Education
In the development of our technical coaching program at Connected, we certainly endeavour to take an Agile approach. We collect feedback every week, both from the coachees as well as the coaches. Feedback is collected in various means — both in 1:1 sessions, as well as through anonymous submission forms. Based on this feedback, we make minor adjustments to both the content of the coaching sessions, as well as the way the sessions themselves are run.
Rethinking what it means to be creative
To take a page out of Sir Ken’s manifesto “Imagine If…”, perhaps the importance of creativity is under-recognized in software development organizations as much as it is in conventional education. Take, for example, the labelling of certain people as “Creatives”. These tend to be the Marketing Executives, the Creative Directors, and the Heads of Design. They conceive of and contribute to the big and strategic ideas that guide the business.
On the other hand, “creative” is not typically the label ascribed to Engineers who solve the problems that allow technology to grow in leaps and bounds. We don’t call the Mark Zuckerbergs or the Elon Musks of the world Creatives, though we might sometimes call them Engineers.
I will end on a question to myself but perhaps to all the leaders, teachers, and educators as well:
If creativity lies at the heart of human flourishing, what more can we be doing, on a day-to-day basis, to cultivate creativity amongst our peers, students, coachees, mentees, and beyond?
In this context, “design” means the design of the executable source code of a computer program, as opposed to user experience or visual design.