“I came to work this morning and I had this posted on my desk,” said Randy Cox as he showed us an orange sticky note with a message that read, ‘Come see me – Fury.’
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“And you know, I’ve only been working here at SHIELD for a couple of weeks,” he continued, “but Fury said there’s currently way too many Avengers. So, he wanted me to create a web page so that he could keep track of who the members of the Avengers team are now.”
If you clicked on this article to read about what happens inside the classrooms of Kenzie Academy, don’t be confused. You’re on the right page. Kenzie Academy instructor Randy Cox may be the first to admit that role-playing (specifically, playing as a SHIELD agent) runs against the mainstream chalk-and-talk method of teaching. At Kenzie Academy, however, unconventional teaching techniques are the norm, never the exception.
The Kenzie Academy Teacher’s Playbook
In 2019, Washington Post published an article titled, “Yes, we know what great teaching looks like–but we have an education system that ‘utterly fails to support it.’ What’s wrong and how to fix it.” While the title is a mouthful, it’s just a preamble to the story.
Here’s the story: ‘Great teaching,’ when broken down, generally consists of six features. In other words, instruction is considered effective if all or most of these practices are present, namely:
- The curriculum seamlessly weaves concepts, content, and skills.
- Teachers build community in the classroom.
- Teachers are flexible and able to adapt their teaching “to the moment.”
- Teachers use a wide variety of teaching methods.
- Performance-based assessments trump test-based evaluations.
- Teachers play the role of mentors.
While it’s easy to list what makes for great teaching, to see it in action is rare. As it happens, the traditional school structure continues to be dominated by a culture that values compliance over creativity.
In a typical classroom setting, students sit in orderly rows as they are shepherded at a set pace from lecture to lecture. After this, they are expected to answer tests where performance is measured with a standard scale.
This cycle goes on–lecture, tests, lecture, tests, lecture, tests–as students learn to play the memorization game. As they get better at playing it, however, the gap between true understanding and memorizing widens.
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The average bootcamp grad spent less than six months in career transition, from starting a bootcamp to finding their first job.
It’s this system that Kenzie Academy, an Indianapolis-based coding bootcamp, seeks to fix and reimagine. Instead of cultivating a learning culture dominated by standardization, Kenzie Academy chooses to view education not as a mechanical system but as a human system. As a result, it advances instruction that’s less about the tests and more about the students.
Inside the Kenzie Academy Classroom
At Kenzie Academy, software engineering classes run five days a week, from 9 AM to 3 PM. User experience (UX) design classes, meanwhile, run three days a week for four hours per day. On paper, Kenzie instruction resembles the traditional learning model. In practice, it’s anything but.
Kenzie Academy Instructors Weave Concepts, Content, and Skills
“Most days [at Kenzie Academy] are simply workdays–[students sit with their] heads down, focusing on a project. When introducing a new project, we’ll start with an hour-long discussion and a demo on the project,” said Joe Kaufeld, a long-time senior software developer and an instructor for Kenzie Academy’s Software Engineering Program.
What starts as a normal workday at Kenzie soon evolves into a meaningful cycle of logical discovery and thoughtful exploration. “We cover important things that students haven’t encountered yet and that’ll be relevant for the project. And then, we turn them [students] loose and see what they create.”
Student agency lies at the heart of Kenzie Academy. This means that instructors merely inform and facilitate learning, not dictate it. As Joe described, learning at Kenzie is, “just like learning to ride a bike.”
“[We] take their training wheels off. And then, we show them where we want them to go and provide lots of resources [they’ll need to get there]…We’re right behind them the whole way, supporting and helping them to make sure they stay in the right direction,” he shared.
The method draws away from the standard practice of spoon-feeding students with information that they memorize 10 minutes before class and forget shortly after. It also allows students to dig in and learn the skills embedded within the content they consume. That includes learning how to collaborate with their peers and self-organize, two very important skills to have in the tech industry.
In Randy’s words: “As someone with a lot of experience working in development teams, I make sure to talk a lot about best development practices. This includes teaching them why a code has to be written a certain way so that while it may not be the best and clever-looking code, it’s easy to understand.”
“They need to learn how to work with other developers and not think about their code as ‘this is my program that I’m writing, and it’s all for me.’ You have to view it within a larger world of code.”
Kenzie Academy Instructors Build Classroom Community
Because Kenzie Academy opens its doors to a wide range of communities, the school serves as a melting pot for talents of diverse backgrounds and circumstances. Binding this community are groups of instructors, coaches, and facilitators who strive to understand and address group dynamics within the classroom.
For software developer and instructor Gwendolyn Faraday, the trick is in finding a common point within the diversity. “Yes, students are all different,” she said, “but they all have the same goals: to learn how to code and graduate from Kenzie Academy. The struggles they go through along the way toward those goals are what bind the students together. These help them form a sense of camaraderie during the program.”
“We also try to answer a lot of questions over Slack, even those sent at odd hours. That way, we can help students who, because of their environment or because of their day job, have to do their coursework at such hours,” added Randy.
Kenzie Academy Instructors Are Adaptable to Changes
When the pandemic hit, Kenzie Academy was among the schools that managed to immediately change gears and move all its in-person classes online. “There definitely are difficulties sometimes in staying connected with certain students,” admitted Gwendolyn.
Nevertheless, Kenzie Academy instructors manage to expertly leverage the school’s technologies and tools to anticipate any learning challenges and address them before they come. “The biggest thing that we are doing to handle this is by formulating ways of tracking student engagement based on data that we collect.”
“These metrics help us improve our processes and ensure we can catch engagement issues early on before they become blockers for the student to complete the program,” said Gwendolyn.
Randy explained further: “We keep a close eye not just on the grades the students receive on their assignments but also their engagement. How long has it been since they turned something in? How long has it been since they logged into our curriculum or interacted with a coach or a facilitator one on one?”
“If we see a student that has not been engaged for a couple of days, we reach out to them and make sure everything is okay. Maybe there’s an issue that they need help with. Or maybe there’s a question that they’re fighting to answer themselves. The technology helps us keep track of which students might need help, even though they’re not asking for it yet.”
Alongside this is Kenzie Academy’s next strength.
Kenzie Academy Instructors Use a Wide Variety of Teaching Methods
Kenzie Academy understands that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. In the words of Joe, “Every student is different and every understanding changes. Sometimes that involves changing things on the fly to make sure everybody’s on board.”
Kenzie Academy instructors incorporate a range of initiatives to ensure that students absorb whatever it is they learn. For Randy, that includes painting a world inhabited by superheroes and using that to stir interest and creativity among his students.
“Inside that scenario, I can show my students how to make an array with data in it. I can teach them how to loop through the array and display it on the screen. Later, when we learn about objects, I can show them how it’s probably better to use an object to [store data] instead of an array,” he explained.
Performance-Based Assessments Trump Test-Based Evaluations
Kenzie Academy’s curriculum intersperses projects with discussions. “Some of them are small and aimed at practicing a single concept,” said Gwendolyn. “Others are large and let the students learn how to put all the pieces together to build real applications.”
In its software engineering curriculum, for instance, students are taught to build web pages and applications using cutting-edge technologies and programming languages. The UX design program, on the other hand, sees students creating mockups, mobile-based apps, and other design projects.
Both software engineering and UX design programs culminate in a capstone project that compels students to tap into their pre-existing interests and build projects that align with these.
Kenzie Academy Instructors Fulfill the Roles of a Teacher and a Mentor
Whereas the traditional learning model puts standard lectures and tests at the top of its priorities, Kenzie Academy puts its students first. It personalizes the learning experience in such a way that student success is not left to a game of chance.
“The best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. We try not to rely on just grades and deadlines but rather encourage the student to want to learn and do well at Kenzie,” said Gwendolyn. “One of the ways that we do this is by showing them the benefits of having a career in tech, both financially and in terms of personal fulfillment.”
Another way is by helping students correct what Randy refers to as their worst enemies: stubbornness and perfectionism. “One thing that I observed is that students are determined to figure new things out on their own.”
“So when they hit a speed bump in one of their projects, they search the web for any information that they think might apply. They spend hours watching YouTube videos or reading tutorials. The problem is that beginners often don’t know enough to decide whether a certain video or tutorial applies to their situation,” explained Randy.
“In the end, they spend hours beating their heads for something they could’ve resolved in 20 minutes if they only asked for help.” To help students overcome this hurdle, Randy teaches them to think like professional developers.
“I tell them to picture themselves working in a development team and trying to figure something out. If they spent three days figuring it out when they could’ve just walked across the office and asked Carol who has done this before, then they could’ve saved their company a lot of money. Working really hard to try to figure everything out on your own is bad for business,” he said.
A Winning Formula
All of Kenzie Academy’s instructors have worked in the tech industry prior to being hired as instructors at the coding bootcamp. This allows them to go beyond teaching theories, injecting the skills and experiences they accumulated wherever possible. The fruits of their expert teaching show, especially amid a global pandemic.
Quoting Kenzie Academy graduate Malik Alnakhaleh: “In many ways, Kenzie Academy was an oasis through the [metaphorical] deserts [of social isolation, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing].”
“The faculty at Kenzie was extremely accommodating throughout this entire ordeal. And I think I can speak for my cohort in saying that we all appreciate that support, now more than ever.”
Lessons of the Day: Tips for the Aspiring Kenzie Academy Student
To end this article, we asked Kenzie Academy instructors for tips that any aspiring Kenzie Academy student and tech professionals should bear in mind.
“Mistakes are a good thing.”
“It’s how we learn,” said Gwendolyn. “Even senior software developers run into challenges all the time that they’ve never experienced before. None of us can possibly know everything about the vast world of software development.”
“Some students start to doubt themselves when they cannot figure something out…They need to understand that everyone has those issues. Some people struggle with one thing and others with another. Some people pick it up faster and other people take longer. It does not make one person better than another. Everyone learns differently and that is something we try to stress here at Kenzie Academy.”
“Anyone can become a software developer if they have the will to keep trying and never give up,” she added.
“Write boring code.”
“You need to remember that your code is going to be maintained not just by you but by lots of other people later on,” said Randy. “So, I want you to learn how to write boring code–a code where it is so obvious what’s happening that it’s almost boring.
“Students don’t like to hear that because they want to write cutting-edge, awesome things. But when you’re on a team, it’s much more important that you don’t write surprising code. It’s way more important that your code is readable, understandable, and maintainable than almost anything else.”
“We’re here to help you learn how to learn.”
“No one is just going to hand over the answer,” concluded Joe. “But we’re here to help you get to the finish line propelled under your own power.”
Kenzie Academy cares, evident by the unconditional support given by its instructors to the students. If these sound like the people you’d like to learn from, visit the Kenzie Academy website now.
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