Science, Tech & Environment

At France's new school for coders, there's hot tech, little teaching, no grades or tuition — and loud critics

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Credit: Gerry Hadden
More than 1000 Macintosh computer screens light up 42's open work spaces, where students are given assignments, but zero instruction. Students must work in groups to solve the assigned coding tasks.

"42" is the strange name of a new school for code writers in Paris. And it isn’t just the name that’s odd. 42 is free, it doesn’t give grades — and it may just start cranking out the best programmers in the world.

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Did we say, no grades? 42 doesn’t even have classes. Or teachers, in the traditional sense. What it does have, though, is lots of computers.  

About 1,000 brand-new Macintosh computer screens stand on rows of desks in 42’s enormous, open workspaces. A 22-year-old student named Theo Hunerblaes shows up — at noon — for day three of 42’s inaugural school year. 

“We don’t have schedules,” he said. "In the afternoon, we’ll have a meeting about our next project. We’ll be upstairs, sitting on the floor, as usual. That’s how it is here.”

Getting here in the middle of the day is fine, but not everything goes. Hunerblaes sets his backpack at a work station, shakes a colleague awake, and tries to explain to me why you’d even call this a school.

“It’s a little bit like a cult,” he says. "But at the same time, it’s all very open. You learn to work in teams. You share everything you learn. If not, you’re lost.”

French education authorities are not very happy about 42. It’s a private school, so you might think, what’s the big deal? Private schools can make up all the rules — or lack of rules — they want. But France’s education ministry and teachers’ unions are bashing it, upset that an untested, unaccredited and free school could draw away so many of their potential students.

Judging by 42’s first round of applicants, the establishment’s angst is understandable.

This summer, 70,000 candidates applied. Then 4,000 finalists were invited to the school. They moved into the half-finished school itself, camping on the floor, sharing communal bathrooms, working 15 high-octane hours a day, 7 days a week. For a month.

Just 800 people made the cut.

It was their first taste of 42’s teaching methods. No theory, no traditional rote learning. 42 is hands-on and project oriented. Like the real world. Which is the school’s main draw, said co-founder Nicols Sadirac. At the moment, France needs tens of thousands of IT specialists, he said, but graduates from traditional schools increasingly lack the experience modern companies expect.

“The problem is the world has changed,” he said. “And now the French education system has a hard time to adapt. And we are in world competition about the digital world.”

Sadirac said France has the fifth-largest economy in the world overall, but ranks 25th in the new digital economy.

42 wants to reverse that trend. Lest anyone doubt the brain power Sadirac has gathered in this three-story building, here's an example. During the month-long try-out, some students hacked into Apple’s latest operating system — called Mavericks — on a lark.

“It’s already patched and part of the new Mavericks,” Sadirac said. And 42 got a special thank you in the system’s dedication.

Perhaps 42 may just be more dangerous than the NSA.

“Not yet,” Sadirac said, with a laugh.

Back in the workspace, student Hunerblaes is busy creating what he called the “building blocks” of coding for an assignment. “We’re nerds,” he said. “Geeks. A lot of us here come from the world of video games. Others are designers for webs and apps.”

And some have no coding experience at all. Cue more gasps from the establishment.   

Oh, and just why is the school called 42?  For those of you who aren’t geeks, 42 is from the Douglas Adam’s novel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The number represents the “answer to everything,” arrived at by a supercomputer working over millions of years. 

For Hunerblaes and the other students, the bar’s been set high.

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    Credit: Gerry Hadden
    Student Theo Hunerblaes punches in his security code before entering 42. The school is also monitored with cameras to protect the millions of dollars worth of computer equipment inside.
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    Credit: Gerry Hadden
    One of 42's "teachers" sits on the floor and gives out students' next assignment. At 42 there are no traditional classes or classrooms.
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    Credit: Gerry Hadden
    Teachers at 42 are not without a sense of humor.
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    Credit: Gerry Hadden
    Students mill around outside France's new revolutionary coding school, 42. 70,000 people applied for about 1,000 slots. 42 is free and you don't even need a high school diploma to get in. You do need brains and a lot of creativity.

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