In the fall of 2010, I was about to graduate from college with a degree in Art History, no particular interest in working in the art industry, and no idea what I wanted to do next. Remembering that I had always enjoyed studying foreign languages, I figured I might like teaching English as a second language. I enrolled in a 4-week course to earn my CELTA certificate, an entry-level credential for ESL teachers.

As I expected, the CELTA program helped me get my first job teaching English. But it was so much more than expected. I had gone in very cynical about the value of school, and it opened my eyes to how good it can be. At the end of those four weeks, I felt that it had been the best educational experience of my life.

Fast-forward to 2016. After several years of teaching English, I wanted to change careers, and I decided to enroll in LEARN Academy’s web development bootcamp. One of the reasons I felt good about choosing a bootcamp was because I knew that the teaching style would be similar to the CELTA program. I even wrote a post for LEARN’s blog comparing the two.

And I was right. LEARN had everything I liked about the CELTA program, but even more so. At the end of the course, I felt that I had learned as much as I possibly could in twelve weeks. CELTA was relegated to the second-best educational experience of my life, because LEARN took first place.

Best compared to what?

I’ve studied in a variety of formal academic settings. I attended a private college-preparatory school for K-12 and NYU for my first bachelor’s degree. I took one graduate-level linguistics course while I was teaching English in New York, and two semesters of Spanish at the local community college a few years ago. Right now, I’m studying computer science online at OSU.

When I say that CELTA and LEARN were the best two educational experiences of my life, I am comparing them to all those things, and I think it’s incredibly important to note the immense amount of privilege behind that list. I was very fortunate to experience the kind of education that many people only dream of. I think that fact makes it all the more striking that a teaching certificate and a code bootcamp were the best classroom experiences I ever had.

So, what did the they have in common?

They were vocational

Both programs were geared toward training us for a specific profession. CELTA was designed to train us to teach English, and LEARN was intended to train us to be junior web developers.

I found this super refreshing. I studied a lot of topics in high school and college, and while some were interesting to me and some were boring, none of them ever felt very relevant to my life. Knowing I was learning skills that were directly applicable to a profession I wanted to enter, on the other hand, was extremely motivating. Coming to class every day felt like an exciting opportunity, not a chore.

They were practical

In both programs, we learned by doing. In the CELTA course, that meant teaching actual students (who got free lessons in exchange for being our guinea pigs) starting on day two. (On day one, we observed our trainers teaching.) Every morning, I either taught my own lesson, or observed and critiqued my fellow trainees.

At LEARN, we learned by writing applications. This ranged from half-day challenges to a final 2-week group project. Everything we learned, we applied: we never learned any theory that we didn’t apply by writing code.

They were social

The CELTA program involved a lot of collaboration. There was the peer critique of our lessons in the morning, and a variety of pair and group activities in the afternoon. At LEARN, we pair programmed every day, and the morning lectures were highly participatory.

I am still in close contact with several of my LEARN classmates, who are both my friends and an important part of my professional network. I’ve lost touch with my CELTA classmates over the years, but their camaraderie was an important source of support during the program. In both cases, I think the large amount of pair and group work helped build relationships, as did the small class size. My CELTA class had twelve trainees and my LEARN cohort had ten.

They were focused

Firstly, the curriculum was focused. Everything about CELTA was designed to support the goal of making us effective language teachers, and everything about LEARN was designed to prepare us to be junior web developers.

The institutions were focused as well. I got my CELTA at Teaching House, an institution that specializes in CELTA training. LEARN offers a few kinds of courses besides the full-time bootcamp I attended, but all of them are designed to provide practical training to web developers.

I think this kind of specialization is really powerful, because it means that the schools can do one thing and do it really well. During my career as an ESL teacher, the time I felt most effective was when I taught the same 8-week intermediate level course using the same textbook for an entire year. Why? Teaching the same course over and over allowed me to practice iterative design. Every 8 weeks, instead of having to start from scratch, I was able to retain the activities that worked, refine the parts that needed refining, and add new stuff here and there. I think my CELTA and LEARN instructors took advantage of the same phenomenon. Both courses felt like a well-oiled machine.

No grades, no tests

CELTA is a credential, so formal assessment was involved. However, assessment was based on practical demonstrations rather than tests: mainly the lessons we taught, as well as two written assignments that basically entailed writing lesson plans. There were four possibilities for the final grade: pass, fail, “Pass A” and “Pass B”. The A and B grades were intended for truly exceptional students, and our instructors repeatedly assured us that a simple pass was perfectly fine, so I never worried about my final grade. My main motivation to do well was my desire not to embarrass myself while standing at the front of the classroom!

LEARN is in the business of teaching skills, rather than awarding credentials, so there wasn’t much in the way of formal assessment. We simply did our projects, motivated by our own desire to understand so we could succeed in our future jobs. The instructors were very invested in my success and we had frequent one-on-one check-ins, but we never spent time on activities whose main purpose was to demonstrate that I had learned something.

Admissions were not a big deal

I mention this one because it contrasts so strongly with my experience applying to college, where selectiveness and quality were often treated as synonymous.

LEARN and CELTA both had a screening process, but it was much more laid-back than applying to college. LEARN’s involved an interview and a JavaScript challenge, while the CELTA required a detailed questionnaire that asked me to describe how I would explain various concepts to a learner. I think these methods did a good job evaluating students’ motivation and ability to succeed. However, I never worried about whether I would get in, and neither school promoted their low acceptance rate as if it was a sign of quality.

No textbooks

While studying at OSU, I’ve been frustrated by reading assignments that look like “Read chapter 6.1-6.3, 7.3, and 12.1, but not page 458.” When assigned reading jumps around like that, I think it’s a sign that the textbook isn’t serving the needs of the class.

So I think it’s worth noting that textbooks were not major part of the instruction in my CELTA program or at LEARN. LEARN didn’t have a book at all; they used a curriculum they developed themselves. The CELTA program had two recommended textbooks, but they were more of a supplement than a central part of the instruction.

Learning happened onsite

Both courses had a 9-5 schedule, meaning that we spent the entire day in the classroom. In the CELTA program, there was a decent amount of homework after that as well, whereas at LEARN we were encouraged to go home, relax, and not think about code.

Compare this to a typical university, where 40 hours of study a week typically consists of around 10 hours of lecture or other classroom time, and 30 hours of reading, writing, and studying on your own time.

The 9-5 schedule was perfect for me, because it meant that my tendency to procrastinate was a non-issue. All the energy I didn’t have to put toward fighting my desire to procrastinate, I was able to put toward actually learning instead.

Beyond that, I think the schedule was in many ways like a magic puzzle piece that made many of the points I mentioned above possible. Hands-on learning is easier when you have more hours in the day to work on projects. Social bonds grow closer when you spend the whole day together. Formal assessment is less necessary when the instructors spend the whole day with students, and can gauge their progress by simply observing them working. Textbooks aren’t needed when you have enough contact hours to present all the information you need to cover in the classroom.

They were short and intense

CELTA was four weeks of full-time training and LEARN was 12 weeks (not including the 4 week internship at the end). I am really glad I was able to choose this format both times, as opposed to a longer, part-time program.

For one, it was convenient. My goal was to start a new profession, and the short length allowed me to achieve that goal sooner.

More importantly, I think a short, intense program is better pedagogically. I was able to focus completely on learning, rather than juggle work and classes. Instead of having to force myself to study after a tiring day of work, I arrived every morning feeling fresh and clear-headed, ready to learn.

University studies can be intense too, but the intensity comes from taking several classes at a time, rather than condensing one class into a shorter amount of time. Even if you are only taking classes within the same major, these classes may have little to to with each other, and they are taught by different instructors who don’t know much about what the others are doing. In a full-time intensive course, the curriculum can be designed as a cohesive unit to an extent that is simply impossible with a traditional university schedule.

What can other institutions learn from these examples?

It’s no coincidence that the CELTA program and LEARN had so many things in common. A lot of these qualities are uncontroversial aspects of good teaching. I think everyone agrees that a supportive social environment, hands-on learning emphasizing projects rather than tests, and available, engaged instructors are good things. On the other hand, I really wish a few of these things were more widespread.

Vocational training is one of them. I think it has the power to motivate a large number of students who are not engaged by traditional academics, if we can only change the perception that vocational training is a last resort for students who are failing out of the mainstream track. I got through high school and college with pretty good grades, but I still would have benefited massively from some job-specific training during my teen years.

I would also like to see more options for full-time, intensive classes where learning happens onsite. I think it would be very effective for a wide range of disciplines, one example of which is writing.

In his blog post “Writing is Hard”, John Warner describes how the structure of school makes it nearly impossible for students to find the time and focus required to produce good writing:

Many of us have lamented the predictable pattern of students waiting until the last minute to produce a draft, and then waiting again to the last minute to do any revisions on that draft.

[…]

I believe procrastination is often rooted in fear, but this kind of procrastination is also strategic, a recognition that writing will require some period of sustained concentration, and there’s no point digging in until that period of time becomes available.

Given the relentless triage students must do as they weight the demands of their studies and their lives, it shouldn’t surprise that the only available time for writing is at the last minute.

[…]

Unfortunately, the time for the kind of sustained, immersive, and recursive thinking writing demands is largely not available to students. It’s unsurprising, then, when their work evidences this fact.

Condensing a standard college writing course into, say, 4 weeks of full-time study, would significantly ease the demands on students, simply because they would only be worrying about one class at a time. They’d be able to devote a lot less energy to triage, and a lot more to actually writing. Of course, such a big change would create a lot of new challenges, but I think it could be hugely beneficial both for learning and for students’ mental health.

This would mean completely overhauling the traditional college semester schedule, for most universities, but it’s not unheard of. Colorado College, for example, already splits its year into three-and-a-half-week blocks with students taking one class at a time.

Finally, from my current perspective as a software engineer, I would like to see continuing education opportunities in the form of full-time mini-bootcamps. For example, how about a four-week Elixir bootcamp, aimed at mid-career developers? That would be an amazing perk for employers to offer their engineers, and an efficient way for developers to pick up new skills in between jobs. Taking a break from working to focus 100% on learning is, unfortunately, a luxury, but also a highly effective way to learn.