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ONCE IN A LIFETIME: HOW DID 42’S PEDAGOGY GET HERE?

In the Talking Heads’ song Once in a Lifetime, David Byrne once posed a salient rhetorical question, “well, how did I get here?”. Similarly, we may ask ourselves, “How did we get here?” In fact, the question that had been asked by the Co-Founders of 42 more than 20 years ago was, “How do we learn?” Life itself (for some of us) is a problem. The number 42, unfortunately does not work for everybody. Yet in trying to solve our own problem (the human condition), most of us learn from our mistakes. If we choose to look at ourselves critically (as if we were a project that we are tweaking and improving), the improvements that we make come from what we learn while trying to take these steps. Some of the keys to truly succeeding seem to lie in the discovery of what one is passionate about as well as in the pursuit of knowledge. In life, we are limited in what we do by our time and by our varying skill levels. Our management ability is perhaps the most important skill that we must develop, and to improve on that skill, we accomplish that only by practicing.

While looking over 42’s website, I encountered the “Pedagogical Innovation” page; reading about the unique educational philosophy and training methods, I asked myself why the founders of 42 chose to structure the dynamics of the school in the way that they did (i.e.: no teachers, no classes/courses, peer-to-peer learning, progress gamification, removing time barriers, etc.). There must have been a guiding vision that provided the rational for these radical, yet strangely astute decisions. We are beginning to see some initial signs of success in 42’s mission of incubating creative developers and innovators (those who are able to think broadly while envisioning interesting, and strategically useful possibilities and who are then able to code “outside the box” in order to bring these ideas to life). The folks who structured this unique training program continue to assert that it is essential and necessary to disrupt the way that we are taught to think. I re-read this webpage looking for clues to the origins of this revolutionary method of training methodology and for clues to some of the human dynamics that went into creating a framework for it. Not finding the full contextual information I was seeking led me to approach Director and Co-Founder of 42, Kwame Yamgnane and his colleague Chief Pedagogic Officer, Gaetan Juvin. Apparently, the founding team members had expressly designed the student learning environment to closely resemble the type of setting that one might encounter in the workplace because they believed that this would create the optimum dynamic for the type of training, learning and overall discovery that the school was seeking to elicit from its students.

Having no teachers means that, fewer explanations are being given to the student; the fact that there are no classes/courses at 42 these choices are intentional. Why? Students in this environment are expected to find the answers themselves and to directly engage in their own education through this system that requires a great deal of persistence in the process of acquiring the necessary information. Nobody at 42 makes the claim that this system is the best; like with any system, this one has both its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of having a teacher within a school setting is that it tends to give the students an answer faster. The disadvantage of that choice is that it more quickly gives students the answer(s) rather than maintaining and prioritizing the incredibly valuable processing time of the student. As the brain works harder to incorporate the different elements coming from each member of one’s peer group, the answers that are arrived at without any teacher input can, in many cases, be more rich, more complicated, and more satisfying for each student. Peer learning, as we know, is one of the pillars at 42. Although most of our program participants seem to thrive off of this dynamic, we should acknowledge that it is not for everybody; the phenomenon of having too-many-cooks-spoil(ing)-the-broth comes to mind.

Traditional education had for centuries been shaped by the demands of the industrial revolution. Schools were set up to produce students who would be capable of becoming workers who could perform specific tasks within industries in their supply chains. As students took a course in this traditional model, their roles within the traditional school system were set in place by certain dynamics: they needed to frequently and repetitively prove their levels of proficiency and achievement with exams, grades and interactions with their teachers. Grading students in that system became a necessary element because it allowed for them to be held up to a similar standard of evaluation to all students in a certain class or grade and to receive the necessary credit to pass on to the next grade level. Yet in today’s fast-paced high tech new world order, why provide courses for training when every bit of knowledge and advice for those interested in learning how to code is already available for free on the internet? The best academic institutions must be responsive to those shifts in information and priority within their curriculum as their course content must be adaptive to meet the needs of clients and companies in this ever fluid and dynamic, high-tech sector.

Pondering a few concepts and variables from the domain of higher education, it seems possible that a typical university might be tempted to break down some of what might be considered to be an individual student’s education or their learning into units: units of information, units of time, units of credit, and even perhaps, in some cases, with these units corresponding to various sums of money (monetary units). In most school settings, as one would also find in the case of 42, the environment is ideally less pressure-filled than what one might encounter on a regular basis at work (where in many companies, a philosophy of “time is money” still prevails). In this school, where students’ learning, growth, and skill acquisition are guided principally by their own levels of passion and engagement, the central focus of those creating this unique environment and pedagogy has always been to have the student population replicate certain behaviors and expectations in ways that simultaneously reinforce the notions of self-autonomy and teamwork. By the way, although having workers who are both self-autonomous and strong team players may count as commonplace workplace dynamics, it is nonetheless evident that these ingredients are crucial to a company’s productivity and to their overall success.

Yet in point of fact, the 42 format for learning was neither hastily thrown together, nor did it just pop up out of thin air. For many years (perhaps even more than a century) and throughout the world, experiments have been performed in an effort to achieve more efficient and meaningful alternatives to traditional systems of education. Some examples of pedagogies that grew out of this research are the Freinet and Montessori approaches as well as the Finnish education system. Each of these active pedagogies share some common threads: they all apply practical, problem-solving oriented teaching methods. Each of these approaches has a proven track record of providing a personalized learning pace, a mixing of age groups, and a strong emphasis on self-appropriation of knowledge.

It turns out, according members of the 42 Pedagogy team, that this unique methodology has been influenced and shaped by employing elements of Piaget and Vytgosky’s theory of constructive “socio-cognitive conflict”. Numerous and abundant and efforts were made to form the type of learning environment where groups of students support the progress of their peers through the open exchange of ideas. By fostering opportunities for constructive debate into all project work, peer-learning at 42 primarily focuses on promoting passionate student engagement. Furthermore, thanks to having an organic framework of multiple peers, who commonly share no prior knowledge of the challenging situations they must confront and troubleshoot together, 42’s collaborative dynamic yields a healthy and abundant exchange of ideas.

I decided to gauge some student perspectives in order to hear from those who had experienced the rubber hitting the road so-to-speak with this non-traditional methodology. I found a couple of rock stars to fit the bill: one from 42 Paris, Hugo Cherchi and another from 42 Silicon Valley, Matt Friedrichs.

Hugo had no programming experience when he started at 42 in the August 2015 piscine. He found that experience to be amazing. He had previously done some studies in Math and Economics, but he had decided to broaden his technical skill set because he enjoyed troubleshooting and resolving big problems, and he thought that learning some coding would give him the tools to tackle different types of projects with interesting real-world implications. He told me that 42 is not really about learning skills in specific domains; it’s more about learning a way of processing, a way of loving what you do, yet it’s also about refining one’s global computer skills. The main advantage of this system is that since computer science is a highly dynamic field, learning new languages, frameworks and updates is not scary, and with time, the process makes the program participants of 42 more flexible, and this intense type of learning becomes a habit. At first, he thought he was becoming a jack-of-all-trades during his piscine experience and into his cadet project work, but he then began seeking to specialize. He enjoyed the Red Tetris project, on which he worked for roughly 3 weeks in a team of 3 learning some of the intricate aspects of Javascript programming. He thrived off the learning process in his project work, and he carried the collaborative skills he had acquired at 42 into his first internship.

In June 2016, Hugo interned at a Paris start-up called Recast.ai, where he helped their company’s team in the shaping of some functionality of their incredibly practical developers’ tool. He told me that being a developer is basically learning new things every day; many of these things tend to change quickly, so you’d better be good at self-learning if you want to keep yourself up-to-date. Before his internship, he thought he was only able to code using C language, but he was able to do much more without even realizing it. During the first week, when his internship tutor asked him to build a chatbot in Node.js connected to Messenger; this seemed unusual to him at first, and he had no idea of how he would be able to do that. Though after succeeding, he concluded that his success was thanks to the way that 42 had driven him to accomplish similar feats during project work in what is basically the same process. During the internship, he had encountered frameworks and languages that he had never even heard about. Strangely, he began rather quickly to feel at-ease using these types of frameworks. That was how he realized that in field of computing, being a good self-learner is perhaps the most important skill one can have if one is to become a good developer. For Hugo, this realization came to him after having passed through the 42 system that places an equal emphasis on a rigorous program and on having plenty of student autonomy.

In addition to being one of our ambassadors of 42 Silicon Valley (students who attend public events such as the Facebook Game Jam
and the Developer Week Hackathon events), Matt Friedrichs studied biomedical engineering at the university level and has been doing sound design professionally for over ten years. At 42, he maintains a busy schedule completing his assignments and progressing his already substantial coding skills. When I approached Matt, he first spoke about the importance of having the freedom and independence to choose how to organize and use his time effectively and efficiently. He told me that if you want to get to higher levels of understanding and skill and reach for projects on higher branches of the project tree, you have to be efficient. That sense of independent time management is essential in a system that allows students to progress at their own pace. According to Matt, students will occasionally ask staff members for assistance (as one might do job setting), but at times it feels more useful to ask someone who is closer to your own level to revise your code because they are more closely associated to this work and more apt to understand the dilemmas and circumstances that led to its creation, and thus they are frequently more likely to give you the kind of feedback that you really need.

The guiding premise at 42 is rather simple: the decisions taken during the creation and development of this technical training methodology focus greatly on collaborative project experiences resembling those found in workplace settings in order to allow students to practice the types of behaviors that they would later be expected to perform on the job. The idea is to not merely seek to be different for the sake of being different. Survey research and student testimonials have provided indications of how this unique training approach has evoked creative, practical, and sensible solutions from students to a wide array of technical challenges and demands– solutions that closely match the types of challenges and demands omnipresent in today’s high-tech industrial sector. When someone goes to work, there are no teachers nor lessons for how to best accomplish one’s job. Workers may have colleagues and managers from whom they receive feedback and from whom they might seek support, but the lion-share of information attained by each employee in a workplace is gathered through collaborative efforts. The pedagogical team has tinkered with and made improvements to the unique pedagogy of 42 over the course of the last 20 plus years with great success. And we may ask ourselves, why did they choose to implement this particular pedagogy? 42 chose then and still uses this learning methodology today, primarily, because it works.

published by Kim Alvarez – February 23, 2017