About learning and teaching

About learning and teaching

And maybe doing it right

So, I happens to have accidentally bootstrapped a sort of collective to “organize” cryptoparties in Paris (See Here). It’s quite cool because then, you know, I can skip some of them to actually get some rest when I’m on holiday.

Things works more or less smooth, but I have some issues with the way it looks like now. It’s not something easy to say, because it’s probably my fault – at least I do have some responsibilities – but we have some attitude issues among some of the co organizers. I hope it’s nothing that can’t be fixed and we will try to talk about it and see how it evolves.

However, the more I think about it, the more I think we didn’t talked enough about what teaching or do training actually is. And what are some responsibilities you have to endorse and accept when going in front of a group of people and try to have then learn new things, be it chemistry, astrophysics, politics or – in this case – cryptography and privacy.

So, as usual, I’m gonna brain dump here. Not sure if it will make sense or if I’m right, but I think people who wanna do some training might think about what it implies for them and for the people they’ll train.

Desorganised and non-planned

This how we kept cryptoparties organised around here. Everyone of good will is welcome to helps, there’s no skill prerequisite, no resume checking. We all do that on our free time and we try to remain between friends, so it implies a lot of parties (the Telecomix way of doing things) and sometime some harsh talk on a mailing list. But it’s how I like it.

I started those workshops at le Loop, because I wanted to explore technology I did not understand completely at that time, and I prefer doing that in group. The fact that it became a sort of institution is an accident and was never planned.

So, when we throw up a new cryptoparty, we follow the Chaos workshop Howto and we mostly tries to know who will be there and who can train on what topic, then ask the question to the people who have gathered here “What do you wanna explore?

And it was far from perfect, but at least it worked for a while. But now, we have some issues. Those issues are basically because we never talked between us of what knowledge transmission implies.

Cognitive biases ans Argument of authorities

First thing to acknowledge is that, when you put yourself in a trainer position, you have an immense power. You are the expert, the authority, the person who knows, and what you will say will be accepted like The Truth (with capital letters) by your audience.

It means that you need to be extra cautious regarding this power, because – has Peter Parker states it – with great power there is also great responsibility. Not to be exhaustive, or to be flawless, but to be as much flawless as you can toward the knowledge you’re trying to transmit.

Especially in the case where you train activists. Those people basically will use this knowledge in life or death situations and you must do everything you can to avoid them having wrong ideas about what they’re doing.

This is YOUR responsibility. You must know what you know and what you do not, you must accept that you can’t know everything and says when you can’t find an answer to a question (and note it and then look later for the answer). You can’t be good enough or approximative. You must be excellent. If you can’t, you should not do this training.

And yes you have internet to help you. When you don’t know, do not hesitate to fire up a web browser and search for the answer. That way, the people you’re training will learn how they can get better at understanding things. In the crypoparty context that’s also why I like doing them in pair. One can correct the other or helps when difficulties arises, and everyone is getting better at doing it.

That’s also why when I want to explore a new tool, I say upfront that I do not now how it works, but I want to find out how it works. And we dig deeper and deeper, while exploring.

That’s also why I do not teach the math behind cryptography, because I do not understand them fully (and that’s also why I’m not writing crypto code), so it’s hard for me to explain how they works besides rough generalities.

But – and that’s the important part – few people will question you. After all, you’re the person who have the knowledge, and they crave for it, they want it. So, it’s YOUR job to make sure that you won’t teach them errors.

Inclusiveness and accessibility

This part is more directed toward cryptoparties. It’s already a hard place for people to come to a cryptoparty, the name is scary – and that’s why we brand them Café Vie Privée or Privacy Café here – so we need to be the more polite, accessible and inclusive as possible.

It means that you should avoid to patronize people and accept their questions, and weirdness. It also means that when you have to pick up examples, analogies, and things like that, you really should avoid stereotypes because it only creates more stereotypes.

That’s also why you shouldn’t do level oriented groups. Or use terms like n00bs. It’s exclusive, it confront people to their lack of knowledge in a specific area (while they can probably teach you a lot of things from their experience).

The fact that our cryptoparties here are mostly ran by white cis-male is already a big issue. If you use sexist example or assume that people – because they’re female – are the ones who do not know a thing about crypto, you will have an issue.

And it’s not even because you’re an asshole. It’s still because you have the authority, and it have some powerful side-effects. If you tell to people that they’re fantastic and that they’re making progress, that it doesn’t matter if they fail now, etc., then they’ll be amazing. On the other end, if you think of them as n00bs and lamers who sucks at understanding basic tech because you knew it all before, then they’ll stay that way.

So always think of inclusion of everyone. Including the weirdest people you’ll see. Or the one you’re not comfortable with. You don’t have a choice, if you want to share your knowledge, you should share it with the biggest number possible of entities, and then you shouldn’t assume anything about their lives.

Stay humble

And that leads to our last part. Stay humble. You might know a lot of things about the topic you’re about to talk, or you wouldn’t or shouldn’t do it. But all the other people around you – including the co organisers – are also more or less expert on some topics, sometime even the topic you’re going to teach.

And you’ll always be in a de-facto authority, so do not brag about all the things you did. You do not need to justify yourself, if people came they already trust you to be good at what you’re going to train them. You do not need to confront them to their lack of knowledge.

And if you’re doing it with a collective – which is best, parties are better when there’s more than one person partying – you need to work with the collectives. Different people have different views on the same topic, that’s why it’s interesting to work with them. They will also helps you when’ you’re in difficulty, or helps you getting things together when your world will inevitably fall apart.

And it’s important in such a collective to not have to big of an ego, to accept to step back. Yes, you can promote your own projects because they’re cool, they can help people and the like. But you have to accept that, sometimes, someone else want to speak, or try to do things a different way, because we’re all learning how to transmit knowledge, and sometimes we need to experiment.

So yeah, you should listen at your co-organisers. But you must also listen at your trainees. They have questions and problematics you can’t anticipate. And since you’re not doing a lecture, you need to interact, to accept their view, to try to get in their shoes, because there’s a reason for that question you judge stupid.

Also, you need to transmit all the keys you may have to knowledge. It means that you, for instance, when you’re demonstrating a new crypto-tool you like, you should explain what each available options are and what are the differences, but also why you recommend using this specific set of options. You have a reason for doing so, so explain it.

And be patient. I mean, I’m doing help desk for a living (or well, part of my job is doing help desk) I can assure you that most of the people who will voluntarily come to one training are willing to learn. But they need to understand things, and sometimes you will need to answer the same questions many times. It means you need to rephrase until the trainee understand. And yes it’s exhausting. But it’s nothing like help desk, so be patient.


So yes, if you want to train people, you have responsibility toward them. You must think about that, you’re basically messing with their lives. It’s easy to scare them, and have them run away, but that’s not your job. Your job is to give them enough keys and support for them to walk then run then do a back-flip.

And it needs some prerequisite. Be humble. Know where your knowledge stop. Be inclusive. If you’re not, and if it happens when I’m around, I will probably rush into you and slaps you around with a big trout.

Training is a serious matter. It can be done in fun ways, but it must be done in a way that will manage trainees to be trained (and, one day, they’ll became trainers too, which is an excellent things and helps you stepping back