Transparent Learning

I have applied to Hacker School for the Summer 2014 batch. I'm immensely excited about it for various reasons, but the one I wanted to mention here now is the attitude toward learning that Hacker School promotes.

One of the few Rules of Conduct at Hacker School is not to feign surprise when someone doesn't know something.

[No feigning surprise] means you shouldn't act surprised when people say they don't know something. This applies to both technical things ("What?! I can't believe you don't know what the stack is!") and non-technical things ("You don't know who RMS is?!"). Feigning surprise has absolutely no social or educational benefit: When people feign surprise, it's usually to make them feel better about themselves and others feel worse. And even when that's not the intention, it's almost always the effect. As you've probably already guessed, this rule is tightly coupled to our belief in the importance of people feeling comfortable saying "I don't know" and "I don't understand."

The other side of the coin of not feigning surprise is being transparent about your own learning.

When I meet smart people I admire, I am usually eager to show them that I am like them. So I look for opportunities to demonstrate that we share ideas and values. In a programming community, this could translate into finding a reason to bring up topics such as stacks or RMS. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It is normal and healthy to establish common ground. It feels good.

The problem comes when you want to interact with someone as you continue to learn. If you can't comfortably say “I don't know what a stack is.”, then you deny yourself and your peers the opportunity to collaboratively change that. More importantly, your silence reinforces the idea that it is not okay to not know or not understand. It is more subtle than feigning surprise, but not necessarily less powerful.

In the process of applying to Hacker School, I've looked at the blogs of some of the facilitators. In her blog, Allison Kaptur takes this concept of transparency a step further. For example, in a post in which she teaches about the Python interpreter, Allison writes (emphasis mine):

There are four steps that python takes when you hit return: lexing, parsing, compiling, and interpreting. Lexing is breaking the line of code you just typed into tokens. The parser takes those tokens and generates a structure that shows their relationship to each other (in this case, an Abstract Syntax Tree). The compiler then takes the AST and turns it into one (or more) code objects. Finally, the interpreter takes each code object executes the code it represents.

I’m not going to talk about lexing, parsing, or compiling at all today, mainly because I don’t know anything about these steps yet. Instead, we’ll suppose that all that went just fine, and we’ll have a proper python code object for the interpreter to interpret.

To me, this feels like radical activism. Even if I don't get in to Hacker School, I want to learn this skill of portraying myself authentically, even if it exposes some vulnerability. Fundamentally, it's about separating self-worth from knowledge, and getting over Imposter Syndrome.

As a step in this direction, I am posting the fact that I have applied to Hacker School, even though I may not be admitted. If that happens, I will be very disappointed, and it will be embarrassing for that to be public, but I want to say that it's okay to fail at things, and it's okay to make mistakes.

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