Treating people like adults

David albert circle David Albert

Treating people like adults is a core tenet of Hacker School. That’s because trusting people to make good decisions for themselves is a huge part of self-directed education. In the fall 2012 batch, we made two small, seemingly innocuous changes to the structure of Hacker School that had the unintended effect of not treating people like adults. The changes had a surprisingly large, negative impact on Hacker School. Here’s what happened and what we do differently now.

The first change we made was giving each facilitator a group of Hacker Schoolers to get to know over the course of the batch. We did this because we wanted to develop a good mental model of each programmer at Hacker School, and make sure no one slipped through the cracks. The outwardly visible changes were minimal. Everyone got assigned to a morning checkin group with their facilitator, and each facilitator met personally with each Hacker Schooler in their checkin group around once a week.

In the previous batch, each facilitator had been assigned to one of our three rooms, and Hacker Schoolers tended to go to the same room every day out of habit. Checkin groups were large—nine or ten people to a group, two groups per room, one facilitator per group—so this new arrangement felt pretty similar.

The second change we made was suggested by Hacker Schoolers from the previous batch. Since the beginning of Hacker School, we’d had a mandatory, large group dinner every week. Twice in the summer 2012 batch, we experimented with splitting up into smaller groups and going to restaurants for dinner as a change of pace. Everyone seemed to like the smaller dinners because they were more intimate. At the end of the batch, a number of people told us that we should make all dinners small instead of large, so we decided to give it a shot.

Both of these changes felt minor, but their side effects were largely negative and they didn’t do a good job at accomplishing their goals.

Knowing that everyone had a facilitator assigned to them introduced a different power dynamic and encouraged people to treat us like teachers and to not take responsibility for their own learning. Checkins were delivered to facilitators and felt a lot like reports on homework assignments (which we don’t have). A lot of people didn’t believe checkins were valuable, so we had trouble convincing everyone to show up to Hacker School on time. Our mental model of everyone did get better, but the negative effects of the change far outweighed the positive ones.

Assigned small group dinners felt like class trips and we felt like chaperones. We would say things like “Is everyone here? OK, let’s go!” The class trip dynamic extended to the dinners themselves: they didn’t feel like relaxed meals between peers and weren’t the bonding experiences that we hoped they would be.

Since last fall, we’ve made changes to checkins and dinners to make sure that we’re treating everyone at Hacker School like an adult.

Facilitators no longer have assigned Hacker Schoolers. Checkin groups are now half the size and often don’t contain any facilitators. Hacker Schoolers are responsible for structuring their checkins however they see fit. This means we don’t have as good a mental model of every Hacker Schooler, but it turns out that in an environment where everyone is responsible for their own education, having a good, centralized mental model of each person is much less important than we originally thought.

Dinners are now in one big group, not at restaurants, optional, and always accompanied by a talk. Having large non-restaurant dinners eliminates the chaperoning, making them optional trusts each person to decide whether or not they should come, and having talks makes them worth coming to.

There’s also been a more fundamental change. Since last summer, it feels like we’ve also become a happier organization. It’s impossible to prove the connection, but I feel like it has a lot to do with running Hacker School in a way that’s more in line with our values.