Return to site

Seven Learnings from the Classroom that Extend Beyond the Classroom

Earlier this week, I had the honor of speaking at Glappitnova, a Chicago-based event that describes itself as a "mixture of South By Southwest and TED Talks with a Coachella vibe." I was deeply humbled to be included on a speaker lineup that included many brilliant people I admire, including Harper Reed, Seth Kravitz, and Antonio Garcia. It was an inspiring night of eclectic lightning talks. Presenters spanned industries ranging from tech to food to fashion to music. It reminded me yet again that creativity — as Jonah Lehrer describes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works — happens when we synthesize and mix existing ideas that had previously seemed unrelated. And that can only happen if we bring together disciplines and people who don't normally mingle.
After my 10-minute talk, a few people approached me and asked if what I spoke about was available anywhere online. So here we go: an edited and more detailed version of the talk I gave!
A non-linear journey
Hi, everyone. My name is Annie Lin and I'm currently the Chicago Regional Director at General Assembly, a global network of campuses offering education and opportunities in design, tech, and business topics. I've been working in education and tech for a while. What I want to do today is give you a brief overview of my trajectory so far, and then share some of the main learnings I've taken away from the classroom environment that I think apply beyond the classroom as well.
I have what probably seems like a rather eclectic background. I was born and raised in Taiwan, and went to high school in a fairly conservative suburb of Los Angeles. In college, I studied social theory. My thesis advisor was one of the biggest British Marxists alive, and I spent many, many hours during that period thinking about how to overthrow capitalism and build alternative societies.
My first foray into the professional world was working in retail, at Apple stores. There, I was blown away by the impact of delivering thoughtful end-to-end, holistic experiences for customers as well as employees. I led trainings on Apple technologies for the general public, and saw how much interest there was in these tools, and how difficult it was for people to learn them without guidance.
I spent several years at the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia. I worked with universities and colleges around the world to assign their students to edit Wikipedia as coursework. So, instead of writing a paper that ends up in the trash, you'd do extensive research and add that information to Wikipedia articles, where thousands or tens of thousands of people would see it. It became so clear to me during that period that an immense gap exists between what is being taught in most schools, and what skills are actually needed to succeed in our world today. In our Wikipedia education program, participants learned to do objective research, write effectively, and communicate with fellow editors with dissenting viewpoints. They also learned to take a critical approach toward the accuracy and reliability of information. In an age where we are bombarded nonstop with information, this program taught students how to sift through all the noise.
After Wikimedia, I went to work for a startup called Uber. There, I was able to build communities — both on the driver side and the user side — from the ground up, around a fantastic product. I worked with some insanely driven people (no pun intended) who showed me that a "Yes we can" attitude is half the game.
Now, at General Assembly, I feel I've been able to combine all of these interests. On the cause side, I am working every day to help close the gap between what is being taught in school, and what skills people actually need. We offer a variety of events, workshops, and courses on topics such as web development, user experience design, data analytics, and digital marketing — skills you need to advance in the job market today. On the functional side, I'm doing what I love: building communities and working to create environments where people are both happy and productive. I get to work with a large number of motivated instructors and students with impressive and inspiring backgrounds, as well as with the incredibly talented members of my staff team.
Having operated in the education space for a while, today I'd like to share with you seven major learnings I've taken away from the classroom environment that I think are relevant beyond the classroom as well. If you run an organization, manage a community, or teach, I hope some of these will be interesting and relatable to you.
1. Too much freedom is a bad thing
I'll start with the most controversial one. Too much freedom is a bad thing!
One of the most common mistakes that we see new teachers make is they give their students too much creative freedom. We see teachers give instructions like, "Take some time now to do some research on Google about a product you're interested in. See what you can find out about that product, then share what you find with classmates around you." This inevitably leads to confusion and a lot of questions from students, such as "what kind of product can I research?" or "what should I Google about it?" or "how much time do I have?"
People want to do well. But to feel like they're doing well, they need to know what "doing well" looks like. Especially when someone is new to a topic, they need very clear instructions and parameters on what to do and what not to do. A much more effective set of instructions is something like, "Take the next 4 minutes to research one of these 3 products I've pre-selected for you. When you go to research that product, I'd like for you to answer these 5 specific questions about it. Then, we're going to take 2 minutes to have you share your answers to those questions with the person sitting right next to you." It sounds unromantic, but the constraints and specificity of this second set of instructions actually gives students a much clearer idea of what "success" looks like, which really helps with their confidence and level of comfort as they tackle the exercise.
The same idea applies for leading any community of people. Someone on your team who is brand new to a task needs clear parameters and structure on what "success" means. This doesn't in any way mean you should tell them what the "right" answer is. You still need to give them space to exercise their intelligence and creativity. It does mean you need to provide them with a clear framework and set of boundaries within which to run free. So instead of asking them, "Go come up with an activity for the team meeting tomorrow," you might say, "Go come up with an activity for the team meeting tomorrow, and here are some guidelines on what the activity should accomplish, and here are some examples of previous activities that were effective." As someone becomes more familiar with a topic or a task, you can pull back on the level of specificity.
2. The first 15 minutes set the tone for the rest
The first 15 minutes of the day really set the tone for the rest of the day. "Culture" is a set of beliefs, values, and norms that people hold, often unconsciously. And people start observing and assimilating what "normal" looks like in the first 15 minutes. At General Assembly, I often tell our instructors that if there is a set of behaviors you want your students to follow in a class, you need to make sure they are exhibiting those behaviors in the first 15 minutes of class. So, if you would like to have a lively class where students are actively engaged in group activities and ask a lot of questions, you need to find a way to almost force them to do those things in the first 15 minutes. That might mean starting the class with an icebreaker that requires them to engage actively with classmates, or coming up with an early exercise that involves having each person speak up in front of the group.
If you're building a community or a team, the same applies. Make sure the first 15 minutes (and the first 15 days) of someone's entrance into your group represent the tone and culture that you'd like the rest of their experiences to look like.
3. Collect feedback, constantly
One of the most common mistakes we see new teachers make is they don't do something called "checking for understanding." If you've worked in formal K–12 education before, this might be a familiar concept to you. The idea is that built into your lesson should be regular intervals where you are doing small (or big) exercises that help you see whether or not your class is still "with you." This could be as simple as, "now that we've covered what Javascript does, turn to your neighbor and explain — in your own words — what is the primary usage of Javascript." This allows you to look around the room, and if someone is just sitting there unable to do the exercise, you'd know that person probably didn't fully comprehend what you just tried to teach them. At General Assembly, we coach our instructors on a lot of different ways to check for understanding, because it is such a critical part of teaching and making sure you're not just charging forward with a topic when your students are lost.
This idea applies well beyond the classroom. If you're developing a program, or running a team, or managing a community, you have to collect feedback constantly and actively. You cannot rely on people to just tell you what they think. A lot of people won't speak up. It's up to you to make sure there are frequent and regular intervals when you solicit feedback from them. Ideally, there are multiple means for them to give you clues on what they really think. Some people are comfortable directly responding to your inquiries for feedback, others prefer anonymous channels, and sometimes you need to construct situations where you can see for yourself how someone responds to something in real time.
4. People who focus more on effort (than on results) usually achieve better results
This is probably one of the most surprising things I've learned throughout my years working in education. It's usually the people who emphasize effort over results who tend to have better results!
This is closely tied to a concept called "growth mindset," frequently affiliated with Stanford professor Carol Dweck. In her studies, Dweck found that kids who were motivated based on effort (e.g. "Nice work - I can tell how hard you worked on this!") tend to achieve better outcomes over the long term, compared to kids who were motivated based on results (e.g. "Nice work - you got 9 out 10 questions right!"). The kids in the latter category came to tie their self-identity to certain results, and became afraid of not getting "good" results. They became afraid of "failing." But most things are hard to learn, and you're not going to be amazing at them off the gate. If you are afraid of being "bad" at something, you're going to have a harder time making it through the part of learning where you still kind of suck at the skillset, which is an inevitable part of learning almost anything new.
At General Assembly, we have a full-time, highly intensive program that takes people with little/no programming background to being fully employable web developers in a matter of 12 weeks. It's a very challenging program. At the beginning of each cohort of this program, I like to tell this story from Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Here's the original excerpt from their book:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot -- albeit a perfect one -- to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes -- the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
I tell this story to students because, when I first heard it, it really changed my own understanding of how "success" and "failure" come to be. When it comes to learning almost anything — whether it's coding or French or guitar or ceramics or sales or people management — doing more of it and continuing to do more of it makes you better at it. There's no way around this. You're going to be "bad" at it for a while. Being "bad" is an inevitable phase before you become better at it. And there is always a "better" ahead of you, even if you're years into the field already. And that's the whole point. It's the people who keep pushing themselves and focus on continuing to put in the effort, who will achieve better and better results.
In our day to day as teachers and leaders, it's important to keep this in mind and use language that motivates effort. Instead of just focusing on someone's numeric metrics, it's critical to also call out the work and thought they put in. This is how you'll help that person become increasingly better over time.
5. Things are going to go wrong - it's how you deal with it that matters
People entrenched in the startup scene can probably relate very personally to this one. This is something we tell our teachers too. Things are going to go wrong. That's not "failure"; that's just called a normal day. What really matters is how you react when things go wrong. 
Dear teacher: the projector is probably going to break at some point during your 10-week class. One of your guest speakers will likely get sick and cancel last minute. It will be a very rare day indeed when you actually do everything you set out to do in your lesson plan.
Dear team member: the projector is probably going to break at some point during your presentation. A serious lead you were banking on might fall through last minute. You will likely hire someone who seemed great but turn out to not be a fit for the rest of the team. It will be a very rare quarter indeed when you actually do exactly what you set out to do in your quarterly planning session. At some point in your career, you'll probably enter a new job that doesn't match your skillsets and interests as much as you expected.
Things are going to go wrong. It's not a question of "if"; it's a question of "when." What's really important is how you respond when things go wrong — how you pivot plans on the spot, how you deal with emotions maturely, how you make the most of the altered circumstances, how you learn from it to minimize the chances of it happening again down the line. 
6. Trust is the lens through which people will see everything
Salespeople know this very well. For someone to buy something from you, they have to like your company and your product, but most importantly, they have to like YOU.
People who run classes intuitively know this as well. If students don't trust you, you have a very steep uphill battle to fight. Students will be actively looking for flaws and mistakes in everything you do. Without trust, they will see everything you do through a lens of "I wonder what they're going to screw up today?" You can be sure that with that mindset, they will definitely catch the tiny grammatical error in one of your slides, and get really upset when the projector breaks (and the projector is probably going to break at some point - see the previous section of this blog post). Even an act of kindness can be interpreted the wrong way ("Why did they buy us this cake? And why aren't there enough napkins for the cake?") When there is trust established, the same thing can elicit a very different reaction. Even projectors breaking can be more easily reframed as a teachable moment (to never rely too much on technology) and/or a bonding moment (Hey let's take our lesson to the park today!). Trust is rose-tinted glasses. Mistrust is blood-tinted glasses.
This obviously applies beyond the classroom as well. You have a tough road ahead if your community doesn't trust you. This is why first impressions are so enormously important, and why it's so critical to spend time building close personal rapport among team members. "Team-building" activities are not just fun; they provide the grease that helps gears turn, and they make it much easier down to line to rebound from things going wrong.
7. There are some lines you simply do not cross
Regardless of what your success metrics are — profit, funding raised, number of people impacted, scores on a test, etc. — I recommend identifying an alternative set of values and principles that you and your community hold dear, that absolutely cannot be violated no matter what. For me at General Assembly, one of these non-crossable goals is maintaining a "safe space" for learning, meaning an environment free of any offensive, hurtful, or discriminatory behaviors or remarks whatsoever. This isn't written into any formal OKRs or quarterly goal-setting frameworks, but it is exceptionally important to me and to my organization. No one gets to cross this line. No one. Not even the best of the best team members. The idea of defining and having these values and principles is that they are above all other metrics. If someone is an absolute rockstar at their functional responsibilities, but violates one of these absolute values/principles after having warning, they need to go. And they need to go immediately.
Identify what are the lines that no one can cross, for you and your organization. Then be clear and proud about them. They are what people will remember the most about your community and the culture you're cultivating. They are what make you and your organization "human."