Graduation: An Instructor’s Perspective

By Jacob Smith, Front End Engineering Instructor

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Just over one week ago, I watched my first cohort demo their final projects in front of family, friends, and potential employers. It was a great experience, and I thought I’d share a retrospective of my first semester as the front end engineering instructor in Greenville.

Human Learning Interface

Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.
— Maria Montessori, Education for a New World

Prior to working at The Iron Yard, my only teaching experience was in a junior high school. While it taught me many valuable skills like classroom and time management, teaching adults is *very* different from teaching 12 year olds. My first few days in the classroom were pretty rough as I had built up pedagogical habits that just didn’t fit in the adult classroom. And then, I remembered an article I had read about conference presentations:

I am a UI.
Nothing more.
And what’s a key attribute of a good UI?
It disappears.
It does not draw attention to itself.
It enables the user experience, but is not itself the experience.
And the moment I remember this is the moment I exhale and my pulse slows. Because I am not important. What is important is the experience they have. My job is to provide a context in which something happens for them.
— Kathy Sierra 1

This idea utterly transformed my perspective about my role as an educator. I still made plenty of mistakes, it being my first semester on the job, but with the support of the other instructors at The Iron Yard and the cooperation of my fantastic students, I was able to step aside and let education take place.

Success = Skill + Hubris?

The final three weeks of our twelve week program are devoted to creating a project that is a large scale, professional quality application to both review and showcase the skills that we have worked on through the course. However, as important as it is to show off all the frameworks and languages that we have learned, the thing I found most impressive was the students’ mindset.

Research suggests that there are two categories of mindset that profoundly influence a person’s success, and our students have exhibited a flowering of the “growth mindset” that all great minds exhibit. If you watch the video of the demo day, you would never guess that many of those students chose to use a framework that has a notoriously difficult learning curve, even though they had never used, or even heard of, the framework only four weeks earlier. Of course, I never told them it was hard to learn, so when they encountered difficulty, they didn’t think “This is objectively hard, so I quit”, but instead “This is hard for me because I haven’t worked through it yet. Let’s get to work!”

I think that their success is, in large part, because, through a combination of experience and hubris, they believe they can solve any problem, no matter the difficulty. I couldn’t be more impressed with their accomplishments.

What’s Next?

Before I sat down to sketch out this post, I got an email about a new front end programming language that Google is developing and another about how Ember 2.0 is, in some ways, completely different from Ember 1.0. But I’m not worried about my students, because I know they have the cognitive tools to overcome any challenges they will face in becoming expert software developers.

We are part of an industry that doesn’t sit still, and I’m hard at work modifying my curriculum because 4 months from now when my next cohort graduates, who knows what will be required to be a successful developer? All I know is that it will be different than it is today, so I can only imagine the opportunities and possibilities that will be open to those who have developed the mindset that they can accomplish anything.

[1] http://seriouspony.com/blog/2013/10/4/presentation-skills-considered-harmful

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The Iron Yard exists to create exceptional growth and mentorship for people, their companies and their ideas through code education and startup accelerators.