wikipedia commons. A Ship of War, of the third Rate, With Rigging etc. at Anchor, from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, Volume 2.

Creating Autodidacts

How to teach us to yearn for vast and endless sea. Or, the problem of structuring an interest in ship-building.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
“You can present the material, but you can’t make me care.”

For the past couple of months, I have been staring at a wall wondering how to start the next program of the Saxifrage School. We are creating Dev.Year, a year-long something for Web Developers. It’s that something I’ve been struggling with. We are creating this program as a way to further embody the work we are doing to lower costs, rethink the campus, and reconcile theory and practice. I know we can create a program that costs less, is more community-driven, and asks “Why?” as much as it does “How?”, but we haven’t had to really teach people yet.

I say this because, up until now, all of our programs have been short, low-commitment prototypes. We haven’t tried to create a School before, just a few classes. Now that we’ve proven the logistics of our model in these small courses, we are faced with the great responsibility of serving a cohort of students, full-time for a year. In thinking about what Dev.Year should be, I have struggled in the space between structure and freedom. Admittedly, I come into this planning with a lot of baggage from traditional education and a substantial ignorance of web development work.

I did not know how to start planning Dev.Year, so I created a fairly blank slate and asked some great people to hack on it. What came out of that early conversation was one obvious priority: training autodidacts takes precedent over content. Chad Whitacre summed up his thoughts on this perspective really well and helped me get my head above water. For lack of inspiration (or due to fear) the blank slate I created adhered to a really traditional course format. Because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, I fell back on the tried and true idea that, if you feed students enough content in a certain period of time they’ll come out the other end having completed it.

Of course, as Chad put it “herding people through a syllabus to meet a manufactured deadline” was never our intent, but I haven’t been really sure what our intent was. That is, unsure of our pedagogical intent. As I said, we already knew that we wanted to save students a lot of money, contextualize their learning in a real place, and teach both theory and practice. All of that, however, is just logistics and content, planning Dev.Year requires a complete pedagogy. Offering a class that’s cheaper, mixes disciplines, and is held off-campus isn’t good enough if our students are merely studying while they are with us; if they are merely plowing through content towards a scripted goal.

Chad was right when he said that the goal must be for participants in Dev.Year “to identify problems in their immediate vicinity and collaborate with others to fix them properly”. Or, as Wendell Berry put it in his recent interview, we need the world to be filled with people who “see something that needs to be done and start to do it, without the government’s permission, or official advice, or expert advice, or applying for grants or anything else. They just start doing it.”

The thing that has troubled me is how. How do you structure the creation of an increasingly autodidactic community of co-learners? At its extreme, the conflict sometimes feels like an oxymoronic attempt for planned spontaneity. How do you structure a year of learning if that structure itself is problematic for the learner? The catch-22 is a tricky one. You can’t make the student rely on and become subject to the teacher if the goal is for the student to better teach themselves.

Planning spontaneity, of course, isn’t a thing… but I think, in a way, you can. There is a cliche about luck being “where preparation meets opportunity”. Teaching us to yearn for the vast and endless sea might fit into the same construct; it requires that, somehow, we create the right conditions for it to happen without being so prescriptive that we ruin it. To use the same logic, maybe auto-didacticism is where resources meet community and where skill meets inspiration; we’re inspired by the community we work with (and for) and learn skills from the great resources around us. Rather than 9 months of teachers, courses, and content, what if we offered 9 months of resources and community? Focus on building the well-resourced community for students to live earnestly through Dev.Year, rather than focusing on building a curriculum for them to study through.

So, I’m still left with that question, what does building Dev.Year as a well-resourced community actually look like? Maybe let’s go back and expand on that story of ship-building and the vast and endless sea…

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, invite anyone who wants to join, to go away to a single place together with the express purpose of sailing. Have everyone freely proclaim, both loudly and in writing, why they have come and why they have committed to this year of sailing. As soon the stories have been told, the rookie sailors walk down to the bay and set up homes along the shore. The new sailors’ neighborhood is populated with rugged pirates, expert woodworkers, and seasoned navigators.

After going to sleep in their new beds, the sailors are hooded and strong-armed into the night. Following an hour of darkness, they are unblinded to the sights of the stars and the waxing moon, and the roar of the ocean. Over the next week, they struggle to be useful but capture glimpses of the grandeur and purpose of the work on the water. One-by-one, they make their way to the crow’s nest and gaze out into the vast and endless sea. After a week has come and gone, they begin to wonder where they are going. One sailor musters the courage to ask, “what is our destination?” The captain steps aside from the ship’s wheel, saying “Wherever you want, sailor! Someday this ship will be yours.” The rookies try their hands at the wheel and, despite their evident lack of skill, recognize their small ability to control the ocean and the wind. The purpose of ship-building, they realize, is to have the wind do our bidding, and not to be blown around; to make the world and not let it make us.

Upon returning from their maiden voyage, the sailors have formed a common passion for returning to the sea. Depending on their interest, each rookie sailor finds a wizened salty boatswain or a steady-legged captain to learn alongside. They meet every Monday to talk about their hopes for the week’s work and every Friday to celebrate their accomplishments. Still too inexperienced to contribute to the grand ships being built in the main harbor, the students set to constructing small skiffs for local fishermen as a means of practice and service.

In addition to work on increasingly challenging projects, their weeks are filled with a variety of opportunities. The rookies begin to work tentatively alongside the elder crafters and start to work on their own small projects. A grand library of tools and books has been set up for them and they meet daily to work with each other. The bay librarian helps them pick out tools for their personal supply, and recommends the best texts on tarring, wood-sourcing, and sail-mending. They plan their weeks around events posted on the Board outside the drinking hole. The list changes weekly: workshops on deck-swabbing, discussions on the problems of colonialism, and a rousing theatrical production of Moby Dick.

A number of students have started to live in the same shanty house in order to better collaborate on projects and discuss incidents from the day before. All of them have started to hold regular meals with other ship-builders, inviting their guests to regale them with tales of the sea and tricks of the trade as they feast. They discuss waterproofing and what to do with stowaways over steaming pies and ale.

After testing their skills constructing the small rowing skiffs for fishermen, the students build their first sailboats, small one-person vessels for skirting around the calmer waters. They use their dinghies to get around the bay so they can peek in on the construction of the new dock, an experiment for a waterproof submergible underwater-pod, and to sidle up along other builders re-tarring their vessels. As they sail, they get a feel for the local water, the fish, and the way the winds change on the bay; they start to pick up on how the local economy works, what goods are in plenty and in want, and what jobs captains have trouble finding good workers for.

During their fireside chats over brandy, their mentors have helped them realize the importance of knowing what the bay needs and what it doesn’t need. The rookies are starting to become native to the bay. They know that the local sitka spruce tree makes an especially good decking. Their yearning for the sea has grown in tandem with their love for the bay. They see their work, not as a means to flee to the vast ocean, but as a service to their place. The ships they build will bring connection, prosperity, and vitality to their home. They build for the good of the place they have in common.

After completing a number of small crafts, the young builders latch on to the work of some large community projects. Some set to collaborating with an engineer on developing a new type of tangle-proof rigging, others join in the construction of a huge transatlantic vessel. They apprentice themselves to a handful of crafters who have the patience, care, and foresight to train up the next generation of builders. As they work on these large projects, they get a sense for the great responsibility of their work. Their work has serious potential to both create and destroy. What if the boat sinks because they mixed the sealant wrong? Or will their better, faster ships be used for quicker, bloodier wars?

As the year comes to a close, the students realize their fear of the ocean has turned into a deep curiosity. They have settled in as authentic residents in the bay community, apprenticed to renowned builders, and assembled a small, but impressive body of work. Learning on their own to see and solve new problems is their new normal. Their skills have been certified by the community they’ve served. Most importantly, their tentative interest in ship-building and practical need for a career has matured. They’ve fallen in love with problems that will keep them busy and inspired for a decade. They yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Ok. Enough about ship-building. I found it fascinating and helpful to expand on the allegory as a tool for seeing what a “structured yearning” might contain. In the story, I’m seeing these aspects:

  • Invite people together
  • Ask them to tell their story and write down their goals
  • Collectively commit to a diverse place and get to know it
  • Challenge students by starting with an immersive adventure that shows them the exciting potential of their work
  • Surround them with talented workers in their field
  • Connect them with consistent mentors and setup bi-weekly meetings for inspiration, resources, co-working, and accountability
  • Begin to work on small, simple projects that serve the community
  • Work on increasingly challenging small projects alongside experts
  • Provide them with a serious library of tools and learning resources; provide them with a pro-active librarian who works one-on-one with students connecting them with recommendation on what to work on next.
  • A diverse and robust schedule of weekly lectures, workshops, co-working sessions, and creative events. This schedule and the topics it contains are strategically matched to the stage of the students’ development and their specific areas of interest. Students work with the schedule-maker to ensure relevancy of events.
  • Give students the opportunity to live together in a community house
  • Hold weekly dinner-guest lectures
  • Design and build their own personal projects
  • Get to know their geographic and craft communities and talk and write seriously about the problems and needs of those communities
  • Begin working on some large community projects and apprentice students to experts builders
  • Have them discuss and write seriously about the critical questions of responsibility and creativity in their work
  • Have them capture all of their work and experience in a portfolio
  • Have them earn community certifications (reputation)

Practically speaking, I could see this requiring two dedicated facilitators. One person concerned with fostering the community and scheduling events, another focused on providing them with resources (finding learning content, guest speakers, workshops, etc.) Mentors would be oriented at the outset and given an idea of the main goals for students, helping to develop their projects, find resources, and build portfolios.

Pulling this off won’t require as much advance planning as it will dynamic involvement during its operation. It won’t be easy. The facilitators will need to constantly pull together experiences and resources for students that meet their specific needs and changing interests over the course of the year.

Roles in the Community

Guests (show up once for an hour or ten times for three hours): give talks, facilitate workshops, provide specific knowledge, relationships, and intellectual diversity. Guests can be invited and chosen both by the Students and the Saxifrage Facilitators. A lot of work will need to be done to identify a large group of possible guests in advance. We will confirm their interest well in advance of participating. Many guests will join us multiple times, or for large chunks of time. In a way, the role the guest fills is not terribly different than that of a teacher—they provide the students with specific expertise in a learning setting—but their role is not prominent and their status is not permanent. Guests can take part in any type of Dev.Year event, from a pancake breakfast, to a workshop, to a field trip. Guests will be thanked, preferably through Gittip.
“Apprenticers” (Let learners work alongside your project once or twice a week for the final 3 months of the year):
People doing great work who are interested in having a student join them in their work. Could be someone working on an open-source project, a side-project, or even a corporate project. We will confirm their interest well in advance of participating. Apprenticers will be thanked, preferably through Gittip.

p.s. what’s a better word for this?

Mentors (1-2 hours per week): provide consistent relationship, feedback, accountability, contribute help and resources, work with students to set goals, ensure students create portfolio, are certified by the community, celebrate accomplishments and challenge students. We’ll get a cohort of mentors confirmed well before Dev.Year begins. Mentors will be thanked, preferably through Gittip.

Community Facilitator: Provide students with connections to the local geography. Schedule events and coordinate logistics on behalf of the students. Events include: feasts and other meals, co-working times, hack nights, “frog day”, peer-learning sessions and discussions, and mentor meetings. Orient and match mentors. Help students find community projects. Assist students in setting up a co-housing arrangement. They ensure that students are sharing their ideas and writing with the local and digital community. Paid staff position.

Experience-Librarian: Curate a collection of resources that dynamically responds to the needs and interests of students. These “resources” include: multimedia content, in-person workshops/talks, guest experts, tools, projects, adventures, etc. They work constantly to engage the group with exciting resources and work to ensure that the most important content areas are covered. They work to fit in guests when needed. Paid staff position.

I really like the idea of thanking community members (guests, mentors, apprenticers) via Gittip. This way payment won’t be tied directly to relationships. Rather than a direct exchange, we’ll ask community members to join us based their own interest and goodwill. In return, students will have, collectively, about $45,000 they can gift back through Gittip as a thank you to people/ resources/ software/projects that have contributed to the community. It will be left up to students how best to support their guests and mentors.

Things on the Weekly Schedule:

Some things on the schedule might not be created by the Saxifrage School. We’ll encourage learners to go to other recommended happenings in the community. Students are encouraged to craft part or all of the schedule.

  • Group meals
  • Bi-weekly chats with mentors
  • Dinner-guest lectures
  • Hack nights with guest facilitators
  • Co-working with experts
  • Talks
  • Workshops
  • Book discussions
  • “Swallow the Frog Day” or “Frog Day” Get tricky work done with helpers, especially work on projects. Work crazy all done and celebrate with a feast.
  • Program and Pancakes: have breakfast together and pair up for coding challenges
  • Our students mentor younger students.

Example of a Hypothetical Weekly Schedule
It’s set up intentionally so that we can only schedule things from 8:00am — 1:00pm MWF and from 9:00am — 10:00pm on T/TH. This way, if necessary, members could have some employment MWFS afternoon/evenings. Members will leave these blocks of time open on a weekly basis and then attend what they’re interested in based on each weekly schedule. Weekly schedules of opportunities would be available 2 weeks in advance. Again, members will work with with facilitators to create the schedule and find resources. Some thing on the schedule will happen every week (especially in the first third of the year). As members progress, they’ll have more freedom in setting the weekly schedule. This example only includes the more structured time, not work members are doing on their own, especially engagement with online learning tools.

Monday: Meet with your mentor for breakfast, set goals for the week, and identify some good learning resources to dive into (9-10), work on Ruby exercises at the coffee shop (10-11), go to a workshop on JS with guest Joel McCracken (11:00 — 12:30); free afternoon; attend optional Graphic Design course in the evening (7 — 9:30).

Tuesday: All-day co-working session with project team and experienced guest helpers working on the hardest problems you’ve been putting off solving (“Swallow the Frog Day”). Your first project is a website for a medium-sized, local non-profit. Celebrate with a big meal while chatting with a guest developer talk about their favorite work (6:30 — 8:00).

Wednesday: Read “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” at the library (8-9), attend prototype and design workshop on UX with a guest from CMU (9-12).

Thursday: Pancake breakfast with a guest talking about new SASS tools (9-10:30). Discussion group with your team on the book you chose (Plato’s Republic), work on essays relating platonic themes to programming (11-12:30). Break for lunch. Co-working session with your project team and some guest help setting up SSL and payment system for non-profit donation page (1:30 — 4:00). Break for dinner. Hack night working on FOSS project with a local crew, members paired up with experienced developers (7:00 — 10:00).

Friday: Meet with mentor to talk over progress from the week and get help on problems, talk about ideas for future projects (9-10). Discuss poetry and logic with a guest (10-11). Attend all-team lunch with facilitators to hash out ideas for the next few weeks’ schedules (12-1).