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Academic Swagger, Work Ethic, and the Role We Play Outside of Classroom Walls

Note: Jennifer Medbery, founder and CEO of Kickboard, is guest posting this week.

"Parents are constantly telling me that they fear they are losing the war of values. Their children - our scholars - are barraged by competing messages from television, music, and older kids in their neighborhoods. One of our primary responsibilities [as a school] is to combat these forces by introducing a competing cultural force." - Ravi Gupta, in his post "In Defense of Swagger."

Mr. Gupta is the principal and founder of Nashville Prep in Nashville, Tenn. He advocates the important role schools play in fostering a strong sense of academic "swagger" in kids as a counter weight to the powerful influence of pop culture in their lives. Picture students with "sky's the limit" confidence about their academic potential, grounded in a good work ethic and growth mindset, and you'll get the idea.

Makes you stop and marvel at the superhuman powers we're expecting of our teachers - and parents - to rally against the allure of reality TV, does it not?

It also makes you ponder the notion that kids today are mostly clueless about the skills necessary to be successful in the modern workplace.

Today's high school students, otherwise known as "digital natives," have grown up immersed in technology and have a heightened awareness of the viability of engineering careers - increasingly so, given new initiatives like Code.org and others.

At the same time, my hunch is that the vast majority of students who express interest in programming know very little about 1) the level of self-directed learning required for success in the field, both as a beginner and throughout one's professional career, and 2) the day-to-day reality and office culture of a high-growth technology company.

Not one to let an itch go unscratched, I recently challenged my team at Kickboard to consider how we might address this problem, given our unique relationship with our partner schools.

And so, as is typical of a tech startup, we set out to create a "minimum viable product" that would test this hunch - the smallest scale version of a job shadowing program we could design to gather meaningful insight about our hypothesis and point a way forward.

We researched existing programs like SPARK and Chicago's Summer of Learning for inspiration. We were honest with ourselves about what we could realistically accomplish as a lean and scrappy organization. No one on the team had the bandwidth to plan and manage a project tailored to a student's skill level and interests. That meant that a student's time in the office had to be 100% self-directed.

We used this constraint to our advantage. We came up with what essentially amounted to a week-long independent study program for high school students that just happens to take place in a professional workplace.

The two goals of the program were described to prospective student applicants as follows:

1) To learn the fundamentals of software development and programming in a self-directed way. (There won't be teachers or typical lessons here, instead you'll "teach yourself" through online materials, with modest coaching from Kickboard engineers.)

2) Gain exposure to the inner workings of a fast-paced technology company by shadowing employees across departments (engineering, marketing, sales, customer success, etc.).

After reviewing dozens of applicants, we selected our very first test case. Fast forward to this past week. Monday morning, Matthew* showed up early, unpacked the Chromebook we'd ordered for him, and hunkered down at a small desk we squeezed between our Product Manager and QA Analyst.

He then promptly logged into a website called CodeHS.com and started plugging away on the video tutorials and web-based coding lessons. By Friday afternoon, he was standing in front of the entire company presenting the software programs he'd built and demonstrating a growing command of the software development lexicon.

In between lines of code, Matthew made a point to sit in on heated technical debates, routine bug reviews, whiteboard brainstorming sessions and even a sales demo, often without being explicitly invited to these meetings.

Perhaps most telling about his eye-opening experience was the set of notes Matthew took while observing two young professionals interview for full-time positions at Kickboard: Wear a suit and tie. Make eye contact. Have a portfolio of work samples to show what you can do.

Endearing and inspirational? Absolutely. Enough of a sample size to prove or disprove my theories about Generation Y? Probably not.

That said, given our small win, indulge me for a moment as I think about the implications of our prototype.

Putting on my researcher hat, I'm wondering...

1. Can a simple change in the physical environment in which learning takes place have a measurable impact on students' content acquisition and retention?

2. How does one measure the effect of an immersive experience like this?

3. Is one week enough? What's the optimal "dosage"?

4. What long-term outcomes are we're expecting?

5. How quickly after the independent study "treatment" are those outcomes evident?

Putting on my policy wonk hat, I'm wondering...

1. What does an off-site independent study program look like at scale? Perhaps a bit premature, but hey, I'm an entrepreneur, and I'm conditioned to think in terms of hockey stick growth curves.

2. How does independent study jive with the current value-added trend? Who gets the credit for adding said value when a student is directing their own learning?

3. Are there variants of this program that would encourage viral growth? Hinder growth?

4. How would you optimize for both "fit" between a student and a workplace and for a rigorous learning experience?

In the spirit of connecting this to the broader of theme of collaboration this week, I question the limitations we impose when we define formal learning as something that must happen within the four walls of a classroom.

Collaboration both in and beyond the school building is a powerful lever for promoting the academic swagger, the work ethic, and the self-direction that young people will need as they enter the diverse and ever-changing world that awaits.

And with that, please chime in below. Policy gurus and researchers, what questions did I leave out? Practitioners, how would you ideally collaborate with the broader community outside your classroom? All, do other programs like this already exist?

* student name has been changed

--Jennifer Medbery

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