Why should the FOSS community (and other communities of practice) think about education?
Parts and Crafts is a youth and community hackerspace in Somerville, MA. We work to create an environment where kids feel excited and able to free to make and do awesome things and learn about their own enthusiasms in their own ways. While my work is primarily directed at youth, I believe that the choices we make to facilitate education and community building are widely applicable to groups across many age groups and interest-areas and that the lens of education is a particularly valuable one to use when examining the FOSS community and other communities of practice.
FOSS is a community of self-taught people. Many programmers and probably most FOSS programmers became interested in software and computers as a hobby or a recreational curiosity, rather than as a career or path of academic study. My guess is that most of the folks in the FOSS community started out working with tech as a kind of “play,” and started to learn about how to use and develop software through joyful fearless experimentation before embarking on any more formal kinds of study. We still tend to teach ourselves and each other more through conversations and forums and mailing lists and irc channels and blogs than we do so in classrooms or with textbooks.
FOSS is an informal education community. While it presents and defines itself as a group of people who are working on projects together, a huge amount of what needs to happen to makes these projects work is education. In order to grow and be self-sustaining, community projects need to encourage contributions from new participants. To make this work, There’s a lot to teach and learn, from how to organize large distributed projects and how to actually solve complicated technical problems to how to correctly make a pull request in GitHub. If we want more people to develop ,or even use, Free Software, we need to think a lot about how to present technical topics to non-experts.
None of these principles are unique to open-source software. Any community based around getting something done needs to welcome new participants and new ideas, develop interest and talent, and help community members coordinate actions to accomplish their goals. The bulk of this work will always happen in incremental and informal ways, through conversations and relationship-building, but the kinds of informal interactions that can happen are governed by organizational and community structures. Below is a short and non-exclusive list of some of the formal organizational design decisions we have made to support our informal community learning goals.
1) Space Design and First Impressions
When you walk into Parts and Crafts the first thing that you see is activity. There is always a lot going on. If you come during programming when there are kids in the space there is the noisy and buzzing energy of twenty-some kids, split into their own small groups and clusters, hanging out, building things and working on projects. But even if the space is empty, it feels alive. Looking in from the front door on your left you see a table of plants by the window adjacent to a large mural that kids painted when we moved into the building. Next to that we have a large circle of circle of couches around a coffee-table. The coffee-table probably has a board game or a bunch of Legos on it, and behind the couches there are three work-tables — one for hot-glue guns and random building and craft materials, one for soldering irons and electronics components, and one in the middle that we do our very best to keep clear.
The couches, the plants, the mural and the familiarity of Legos and board games make the space feel warm and welcoming. We call this front-area the “living room.” It’s the place where we have some of our morning meetings but it’s also just a place to hang out and be cozy and comfortable. Adjacent to the living room we have the workbenches with hot glue guns and soldering stations and building materials. The space is warm and homey and friendly and relaxing, but it’s also a place for work and for making things. We very deliberately have some “serious” tools front and center because this is a place where you’re welcome, and encouraged, to use them. This juxtaposition of workspace and hangout space also facilitates easy transitions between them. If you are hanging out and chatting and sitting on a couch in the living room you will almost inevitably end up seeing someone doing something interesting and be inspired to ask them about it or do something yourself.
We’ve set up this arrangement of space and materials because the first thing you see when you walk into a space, or join a community, matters. Our wood-shop, our computer lab, our classrooms are arranged around practical use and storage logistics, but we designed this area at the front door around appearances, feelings, and first-impressions. Your first impression of a place sets your mindset, seeds your expectations, excites (or bores) you, and makes you feel welcome (or alienated.) The things that we, as community members and community organizers, choose to make visible communicate our values and our intentions about how we want people to feel, what we want people to do, and what we want to help people do, when they are in our space.
2) The Rules
W have six of them.
- Don’t hurt anyone.
- If you make a mess, clean it up. If you break it, fix it.
- If someone says “stop”, STOP!
- Don’t damage anyone else’s tools, resources, or projects.
- Stay where an adult from Parts and Crafts can see you.
- Ask for help before you get mad.
Each of the rules accomplishes a specific thing, solves a specific problem, or communicates a specific value. When we started running programs we just had the first three, but as our community grew we found that we wanted to say a little bit more up-front about expectations and we slowly added the rest. This set of six has been stable for six or seven years now.
We post the rules prominently in the living room, and we go over them during our first morning-meeting of any new program to describe what they mean and what they are for.
“Don’t hurt anyone” is an invitation to talk and think about risk. Don’t hurt anyone else but also don’t hurt yourself. Don’t hurt anyone on purpose but also don’t hurt anyone by accident. Think about the things that might happen before you act.
“If you make a mess, clean it up. If you break it, fix it” is about responsibility to the community and the continual maintenance work that’s required to keep a community space usable for everyone, but it’s also about empowerment and agency. If there is a mess you can clean it up. If something is broken you can fix it.
“If someone says “stop”, STOP!” This is about the responsibilities we have to each other.. It says that if you’re doing something that someone doesn’t like that you should stop doing it, but it also describes the process that you should follow if you are experiencing something that you don’t like.
“Don’t damage anyone else’s tools, resources, or projects.” We want people to work on personally meaningful projects. Ownership isn’t the only way that people can feel connected to their work, but it is a powerful one, and in order to be willing to devote the time and attention required to do a project well you need some assurance that the project can be safely put away and that you will be able to come back to it at some point in the future. Going over this rule also provides a convenient context for describing the process of how you label something as “yours” and where you put it to store it for the future.
Noisebridge, a hackerspace in the Bay Area, has the converse rule: “Everything in Noisebridge is hackable. If you don’t want something taken apart and turned into a giant robot the moment your back is turned, leave it on your shelf, or mark it clearly with your name, a way to contact you, the date, and what you’re doing.” But both rules have the same effect, because they describe what you can expect and how you can communicate your intentions around objects and property.
“Stay where an adult from Parts and Crafts can see you” is barely our rule, and is in many ways just a concession to the norms and rules around childcare. But it also says that we care, that we’re watching and interested and it defines some of the terms of our relationship — we can help you and keep you safe but only if you let us do so.
“Ask for help before you get mad” might be my favorite of them all. I love this phrase because it presents itself as a rule but it’s actually an invitation. It says that it’s okay to ask for help and okay to be upset and frustrated and that the earlier we solve problems the more effectively we can do so. It’s equally applicable to problems with projects and problems between people.
Above the six rules, we have what we refer to as “Rule 0”: “Be Excellent To Each Other.” Not just “good”, not just “okay”, but “excellent.” We promise to be excellent to our students and ask that they be excellent to each other as well. This is the primary demand we put on the young people that we interact with and we acknowledge that it’s hard work.
Our rules are set up to work in a childcare center with power tools for kids ages 7 to 14. They are not the universally correct rules for all communities but it is universally correct to have rules that define the terms of participation in your community. In formal organizations these are usually called “codes of conduct.” It doesn’t really matter what they’re called, as long as they are obvious and visible and taken seriously by community organizers.
3) Tool Use Policies
In many ways our tool-use policy is simple. Tools are color-coded: red, yellow, or green.
Green tools are freely available for anyone to use at any time. These are screwdrivers, wire-strippers, hot-glue guns, and basic hand-tools. They’re out and visible and you don’t need our permission to use them. You don’t need permission but if you’ve never used them before we’re very happy to show you how to use them.
Yellow tools require staff approval and permission. These are soldering irons, box-cutters and x-acto knives and saws. You’re never going to severely injure yourself on these, but you might still hurt yourself or the tools in a way that you’ll regret. These are tools that demand attention, technique, and setup. I’m happy to give a child of almost any age a a saw to cut something with, but I want it to be the right saw being used in the right location in the right way. I want to make sure they have picked a good place to work away from traffic, that the work is clamped effectively and that they have enough instruction on technique to be both safe and successful.
Red tools, on the other hand, require direct staff supervision. These are tools that can maim you if you do something wrong — generally high-powered power tools. Tools can also be red tools if they are easy to break — our particularly finicky 3D printer was a red tool for a little while because the slightest miscalibration in software could cause a problem in hardware that would take hours for me to fix. We want you to use these tools, but we want you to use them while we’re watching so we can interrupt and stop you if you start doing something that seems unsafe.
We don’t have a formal tool-training procedure that you can go through to get “certified” to use these tools because we don’t think that that’s really how safety works. Instead we work with you again and again over a period of months and years, watching and showing and pointing out mistakes and potential mistakes. As you develop experience and as we develop confidence that you’re taking the tools and risks seriously we can give you more and more independence. Safe habits come from repeated exposure and continuous attention and our system is designed to demand those things over a long period of time.
We want kids to use tools and we want them to be safe and we don’t believe that these desires contradict each other. We trust the kids that we work with but we also know that they come into our programs with very little experience using real tools. We are usually the first place that a kid uses a soldering iron or a power drill or a saw. Kids are told over and over again that they aren’t capable of doing certain things and they internalize these ideas. Kids tell me that they shouldn’t use tools much more often than I tell them that, and the most confident kids are the ones that are the most privileged.
Without explicit tool rules and procedures the wood shop and soldering irons would be dominated by kids who are trained culturally and socially to be confident and to do and take what they want. Less privileged kids — girls, children of color, and kids who for various other reasons don’t think of themselves as builders or tool users — in general assume that the tools aren’t for them. Any time you fail to set a policy or communicate an expectation about access to a resource you allow societal norms to set that expectation. In a context in which kids are generally prohibited from using things that might seem dangerous, a clear policy on what tools can be used under what conditions isn’t really a set of restrictions, but an offer of permission.
4) Morning (and Afternoon) Meeting
We have two meetings every day at Parts and Crafts with all of our staff and students. One is in the morning, shortly after everyone arrives, and the other is in the middle of the day right after lunch. These meetings are largely straightforward and procedural — we make announcements and talk about the schedule for the day. We give precedence to organizational announcement (“we’re having a field trip on Friday!”) and the written pre-planned schedule, but there is always space for random interesting facts, stories about your weekend, and spur-of-the-moment activity plans. Meetings fulfill their obvious logistical function of distributing information but they also do a lot of important and much subtler culture-building.
Meetings destigmatize confusion. The most difficult thing that we ask of our students at Parts and Crafts is that they make decisions on a day-to-day and moment-to-moment basis about how they want to be using their time. This is difficult and confusing and most kids, most people, actually, don’t have a lot of practice doing it. To be successful at this they need scaffolding and community support. Meetings are one way to provide this — the process of getting everyone in one place to talk about schedules and plans says that it’s okay to be confused about what you want to do and what’s going on and that we care and are curious about the things other people are doing.
Parts and Crafts is an unfamiliar place with expectations and norms that are very different from those of most other childcare programs. There are things that traditional schools expect of kids that we don’t expect and there are also things that we ask of them that most programs for children do not. All communities and institutions have their own systems, structures, and values. Some of them will be familiar to newcomers and some will not. Communicating these expectations and opportunities clearly is form of being welcoming.
When people are new to a space or a community they tend to want more guidance than established community members. People like to do things and in order to do things they need to know what to do. As a general rule,the longer people spend in a space not doing anything, or not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, the more anxious, awkward-feeling, stressed out, and generally unhappy they feel. At the same time, people don’t like having too much to do, feelish rushed, and this also causes stress and anxiety. We open our doors at 9:00 and have a morning meeting at 9:30. This small window of time creates room for informal, unrushed hanging-out before meeting and formal activities, but it happens soon enough that it gives newcomers an easy expectation, and thing to look forward to/wait for.
Most community design decisions are something like this — a compromise between competing values. In this case we want people to feel purposeful without feeling rushed and the solution is just communication. By having meeting at a certain time and making sure everyone knows when it is we make sure that no one has to worry about what happens next.
We run a school, not in the legal sense (legally we are a child-care center), but in the traditional sense of “place where kids come to learn things”. In many ways it feels silly to explain or justify the existence of classes — for most people, in most contexts, “classes” are simply what school is. Traditional schooling is based around the idea that learning happens primarily in formal settings, in classes and through instruction so the primary goal of traditional schools is to get students into the right classes where they will learn the right things. Our goal is different — we want to facilitate the growth of “learners”, not “learning.” For us, instruction is only a secondary purpose of having classes, the primary purpose is to support the creation of an environment and community interested in informal, and self-directed learning.
Formal learning is its own topic, and classes play an obvious role in structuring formal teaching and learning. My focus on informal learning is not meant to diminish the importance of formal, teacher-based learning — having a good teacher provide an intuitive and digestible structure around complex information is unambiguously great and helpful. Rather, I want to elucidate some of the less-obvious ways that the existence of formal, structured classes support an environment of self-directed learning and open inquiry.
Like all formal structures, the existence of classes communicates a value: that as a community we are interested in, focused on, and in some way about learning, and that we believe that there is value in learning things together in a group.
Classes elucidate possibilities. There is a more-or-less infinite amount of knowledge that you can gain in a more-or-less infinite number of possible directions and courses of study. Classes are a way of artificially breaking this set of possibilities into digestible chunks that you can choose from. Making an artificial boundary around a set of topics, giving it a label, and a brief three-sentence-description is a necessarily limited and impoverished way to think about knowledge, but this kind of conceptual chunking gives us something to think about.
Having the class to think about as a specific unit gives us something exciting to imagine learning, knowing, using, or doing. It is easier to choose to pursue a particular area of study from a discrete list of classes than it is from the infinitude of all human knowledge. Furthermore, these discrete classes become a way for people with common interests to form groups and learn together. These interpersonal connections among learners can grow into a powerful driver of informal work and study, frequently one that is more powerful than teaching and mentorship relationships.
Finally, classes are good for teachers. There is a danger, when talking about education, especially when talking about youth education, to focus entirely on the happiness and efficacy of the student. This makes sense — schools are for students, after all, schools, classes, and institutions of all kinds are communities, with learners,and teachers all of whom need to be well-served and supported. Teachers need to have a class to prepare for in order to prepare well. They want to know how many students they’ll have, they want to know how much time they’ll have to meet, whether the students will be the same each week, or different. Classes set some of these base expectations and give teachers a point to jump off from. Many of the default structures and expectations around classes are designed primarily for the benefit of the teacher and the class rather than the student as an individual. The ultimate goal is to produce an experience that serves the interests of students, but classes do this primarily by creating a good space for teachers to teach in rather than a good space for learners to learn. This doesn’t make them bad — having effective teachers is ultimately good for students — but if we look at the structure of a class primarily through the lens of the student’s experience rather than the teacher’s we will miss some of what makes it a useful structure for students. Every structure has a variety of effects on a variety of individuals, and it’s important to know the intended purpose of a structure and who it is serving when we think about what it should look like and how it should be changed.
Tutorials are preplanned one-on-one meetings between a teacher and a student on a topic of the student’s choosing. Most of what I said about classes holds true for tutorials as well, and most of what I say about tutorials probably relates to classes. The difference is that classes are fundamentally about breadth and exploration whereas tutorials are about depth and focus. Classes create community by facilitating shared interests and shared experiences, but tutorials create mentorship relationships.
Tutorials create a space for valuing expertise and they communicate one of our primary cultural values — that knowing things deeply, and sharing them happily are two of the best things that someone can do. They give students a space to appreciate expertise and teachers a space to demonstrate it. While classes show students the sheer wide variety of interesting things that they can know and do, tutorials demonstrate the power of narrow focus and deep knowledge. Motivating engagement and perseverance is one of the biggest challenges for educators at any level and the mentorship relationship of a one-on-one tutorial gives teachers an opportunity to clearly demonstrate the relationship between hard work, effort, expertise, and skill. All of our staff are generalists with many different areas of focus and interest, but they all also have particular areas of deep passion and incredible skill and sharing these passions can create some of the most powerful and memorable learning experiences any student can have.
Tutorials model the structuring and scheduling of time. Unlike classes, which students can choose from a menu of options, tutorials require active choice and specific scheduling. You have to decide you want to set up a tutorial, figure out who you want to set it up with, and negotiate with them to find a mutually acceptable time. All of these steps are part of how you go about making plans and working with people and getting things done no matter what your age is regardless of whether you are in school, at a job, or pursuing a hobby. Our goal is to help people be self-directed. We usually contrast self-direction with a kind of top-down other-direction — letting a teacher tell you what to do, for instance — but it’s also important to contrast it with self-directionlessness. Realizing that you want to accomplish something and then figuring out how you want to structure and prioritize your time to make it happen is one of the fundamental skills involved in being successfully self-directed but also successful in general.
For a student, scheduling a tutorial with a staff member is a way of saying “I want to learn this thing and I’m making a plan to devote time to doing so,” and for a staff member scheduling a tutorial with a student is a way of saying “of all of the million things I need to do, I want to make sure that helping you learn this thing doesn’t slip through the cracks, so I’m going to make sure this block of time is set aside in order to prioritize it. It’s a connection and a sign of mutual respect. When we set up a tutorial with a student we implicitly tell them that their goals and ambitions, whatever it is that they are passionate enough about to ask for help learning and working on and doing, is valuable and interesting and that we want to help them. The tutorial structure creates a straightforward way for community members to ask for this kind of mentorship relationship, but it’s up to the students themselves to do the hard work of making it worthwhile.
Every student has a staff advisor whose job is to help them figure out what they want to do and how they want to do it. An advisor checks in with their students periodically, asks them about what they’ve been up to, what they wish they’d been up to, and what their plans for the future are. It’s a good system to have in place but most of the time this process is either superfluous or nonexistent. Our students generally know us well enough to know who they should talk to if they want to work on a programming project or a math tutorial or write a screenplay or make a puppet, and we know them well enough to know how they are spending their time and have a sense of their goals and their needs. Most of this happens automatically, as a process of getting to know each other, sharing space, and paying attention and the formal advising process becomes irrelevant.
That’s okay — in those circumstances it’s not that the formal advisory role isn’t working, it’s that it has become unnecessary. The advisor’s job is to make sure that these things happen. It’s fine if they are happening in some other way. Like most formal structures advising exists primarily for the benefit of new community members. Your advisor gives you someone to talk to and ask questions of so that even when the community is unfamiliar you still know how to ask for help. This is important because communities are complicated and as they grow and mature they tend to become increasingly illegible to outsiders. To combat this, it’s really important to have people with a conscious interest in mapping resources and sharing knowledge and doubly important that newcomers to a community know who they are and feel encouraged to ask them for help.
Over time students will likely develop relationships with other staff and community members that are deeper and more meaningful than the one they have with their initial advisors. When this happens it’s fine for these informal relationships based around work together, shared interests, and other connections to solve the kinds of problems that the advisor does, but everyone needs to have some initial connection and first point of contact available to make sure those deeper relationships have a chance to grow.
8) Stuff, Bricolage, and (Dis)organization
We have stuff everywhere. This is another piece of explicit environmental and experience design and it’s one that requires constant effort, management, organization, and curation. Essentially everything we have, all of the tools and materials and projects around our space, are freely available for kids to use and consequently they get used quite a lot. This means that there is always a bit of a mess because mess is the inevitable result of activity. Too much mess prevents activity, so we work to keep the space clean and organized enough to be usable, but it’s equally important to have the space not be perfectly clean. An environment that is too neat, where everything is perfectly placed, is one that feels pristine and sterile and untouchable. A small mess is evidence that the things we have around are for using and it’s permission to do things with them that make small messes.
The choice of material and tools is as important as the layout of them. We pick things that are interesting, versatile, and understandable and we try to avoid “black box” kinds of objects with invisible properties. The best building materials and tools are tangible things that you can understand with your eyes and hands and which encourage creative manipulation and recombination. We try to avoid having any tools or materials that are precious or particularly valuable because it is extremely difficult to tightly control access to certain materials while encouraging people otherwise grab things and just start playing around with them. This is a limitation but for our purposes we find that we have much more to gain from making things easy to access than we have to lose from having our options limited in this way.
This is a nice ideal, but of course there are always exceptions — some tools and techniques require explicit explanation and instruction and some materials are obtuse or precious but so useful that they are worth having around anyway. We try to make things obvious and visible and within easy reach to the extent that they are understandable and self-explanatory. “Understandable” is a different quality from “easy to use” — many things are easy to understand and begin to practice with while still being difficult to master and others are extremely simple to use but completely opaque and confusing without explicit instruction.
We keep the soldering iron sitting right out on the workbench along with the LEDs, switches, and simple DC motors because while some of these things require practice and skill to use correctly they don’t require much in the way of knowledge or explanation. Someone playing around with these components without any help or instruction would eventually succeed in building simple circuits. This is in contrast to more abstract electronics components like integrated circuits and transistors which don’t do anything visible or tangible on their own and are essentially impossible to use correctly without documentation.. Things in easy grabbing distance should be self-explanatory. It’s OK for things that require more expertise of explicit guidance or instruction to take work to find because if you are looking for them you probably know what they are for and how to use them, and if you don’t know these things having them in front of you isn’t going to help you anyway.
This is a good way of prioritizing real-estate in an always too-small space, but it’s also a great way to implicitly encourage folks to look at or do certain things. I can get our kids to read a book by strategically and conspicuously leaving it out on the coffee table in front of one of the more comfortable couches. We had a sewing machine stashed under a work-table for a long time, that we pulled out when we needed to sew stuff. This was fine, but it basically never got used outside of adult-led activities or projects until we actually set up a specific sewing station with machines and fabric and needles and thread and other tools and materials. When we made these things visible and reachable sewing became an almost constant activity almost immediately.
People are always looking for things to do, so if you make sure they see things they will also do them. This property of attention can also be used to encourage people to step outside of their comfort zones and try new things just by juxtaposing the new and the familiar. During our first year of summer-camp we set up the space for the first time and we automatically and unthinkingly built our own preconceptions into our physical organization. We had an electronics work area in one section and an arts and crafts table in another and we immediately noticed that we had lots of boys hanging out at the electronics table making spinning things and blinking lights and lots of girls at the crafts table building and painting creatures and sculptures and houses and people. It took us an embarrassingly long time to realize that we had created this segregation by artificially separating the crafting you do with wires from the crafting you do with paint and popsicle sticks and colorful pipe cleaners.
When we combined these two sections girls started building circuits and boys started painting projects because we got rid of the idea that there was something special and technical and hard and different about electronics. When you mix it all up having a flashing light or a moving part becomes just another design decision with the same weight and importance as being furry or tall or colorful or having googly eyes.
All of these structures have meaning because they are designed to support the end goal of informal learning. They exist to help students make meaningful choices and to develop and follow personal and community interests. Our basic, fundamental organizing principle is that students should be both allowed and required to make decisions about their education and all of our structures are designed to make that happen. There are two sides to freedom, though, “freedom from” and “freedom to.” It’s easy to find ourselves talking and thinking about “freedom from” — what are the things that we are not required to do, the things that we aren’t being coerced into doing — when thinking about education and institution design. Removing something bad from an existing design is an easy and good way to improve on it. We decided that we were not going to impose a set curriculum or schedule on students because we want them to be actively and personally engaged in their education. This is a fine starting point, but we very quickly realized that we couldn’t be defined just by what we weren’t doing. In the end the things you are free to do is at least as important as the ones that you are free from doing.
When I am having early advising meetings with new students they tend to focus on the negative definition of freedom — “you’re really not going to make me do anything?” This is understandable — students that we work with frequently come into our programs having had very recent negative experiences in traditional school. They have usually developed an antagonistic relationship with traditional school authority structures so they are focused on the ways that Parts and Crafts is different from the thing that they’ve come to hate. As an adviser, it’s my job to make them look at the other side of freedom. “We aren’t going to make you take classes or learn things. What that means is that you have to decide to do that for yourself.”
School provides a relatively simple bargain that’s easy and effective for those who enjoy it. School says that if you follow along and meet expectations and do the things you are asked to do that you will end up with a solid, well-rounded, useful education and you will be “prepared” for the next steps in life. Parts and Crafts, on the other hand, doesn’t provide that guarantee. We say that if you throw yourself into your passions and interests and you try your hardest and spend your time well you will do amazing things. We also promise to do our best to help you. At final count, though, this educational freedom is as demanding as it is liberating — saying “you are free to decide how to spend your time” is equivalent to saying “you are required to decide how to spend your time.”
Everything that we do is an attempt to encourage this attention and active decision-making. We care much more about our students having the experience of learning than we do about what they learn. We want them to work hard enough on a personally meaningful project to find success and when they do we want them to experience well-earned pride in their accomplishments. This is ultimately the most powerful learning experience, and learning to learn and be engaged in your learning is the most important skill. This kind of en gagement and pride can only come from something that you are fully invested in doing, and the only way that you can be fully invested in something you do is if you had the choice to not do it.