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Posted on:September 2, 2023

My wife once told me about something that happened in her coding bootcamp at General Assembly that’s stuck with me for a few years now. Depending on the situation, I re-tell this either as a teaching moment, or as a joke (sorry to the person involved! I don’t know who you are).

Before the coding bootcamp starts, students are asked to finish some pre-bootcamp material. There’s just so much to get through that even with a full-time, Monday to Friday, three month long bootcamp, it’s a whirlwind from start to end. Well, clearly some students missed the memo, because a few days into the course, as the instructor was wrapping up the intro to Javascript, this student raised his hand and asked: “can we use square brackets with functions?”

I mean, lol. Luckily I wasn’t the instructor, because this works in JavaScript:

let func = function () {
  console.log("Hello, world!");
func[0] = "This is the first index";
console.log(func[0]); // Outputs: This is the first index
func(); // Outputs: Hello, world!

Anyway, what really happened was the instructor took some time to regain his composure before answering “no, you can’t”. It was the beginning of a painful grind for the both of them, and the student eventually dropped out two weeks into the course.

My in-laws are tuition teachers. They’ve been teaching secondary school and JC students for close to 30 years at this point. To give you a sense of how long they’ve been at it, they’ve now taught students who are kids of ex-students. They are clearly good at what they do, and having been in the game for as long as they have they’ve developed a certain intuition about what works and what doesn’t.

They do this thing where they interview every parent and their kid who comes to them. Okay, I’m using the term “interviewing” really loosely here. It’s a friendly chat. Usually the parent tells them about how the kid has been struggling at school. The school teacher is bad, their existing tuition teachers are bad, or something else. They’re worried. I dont’t think my in-laws actually have a formal conversation template for this, but they’re listening, and they’re forming an intuition around whether they can help the kid or not.

It’s more nuanced than you think it is. It’s not like a college admissions interview or job interview where as an interviewer you’re just maximizing for academic giftedness and whatever other traits. I mean, If the kid were that smart they wouldn’t be looking for tuition, right?

To be clear, not everyone who comes through eventually does well (they make it a point never to ask about how well their students do on their Os or As). That being said though, up front you can tell that there are some students that they just can’t help, and they don’t want to waste their time and the student’s time. There is an element of receptivity. Some people call it “good attitude”, some others call it “try hard”.

In this video of a reaction to the “strictest family in Singapore”, YEOLO makes fun of the mother, who says the major role of her kids is to “perform the job of being a student”. Yes, it’s hilarious, but within that caricature there’s a kernel of truth. There’s more to learning than just showing up to school every day.

Maybe it’s a sense of “I want to learn” or “I want to get better” that makes infinitely easier for someone to teach them. It’s like the difference between trying to push a boulder uphill, along a flat surface, or slightly downhill, where the slightest change in incline can make all the difference in the world.

Now, the million dollar question is, can that desire to learn be induced extrinsically?

For what it’s worth, I wrote about some practical techniques here.