It amazes me to observe how quickly coderdojos have become established all around the world. I can think of no other not-for-profit educational initiative that has caught on so globally so quickly. Since July 2011, dojos have appeared in places like Tokyo, Kilkenny and Rotterdam. But for educators coderdojos illustrate how features of constructivism can work in practice. Let’s look at some of their key elements.
First, learners work on projects they care about and they learn by solving problems that arise when doing the projects. In one dojo I spoke to participants aged from 12 to 18 years old who were using programmes such as CSS, HTML, GIMP and Python to build graphics and code. Each group and individual had an endpoint in mind, typically developing an app or a website. Such goals give focus to participants’ work and many of them keep working on their project outside the dojo. They learn from trying to solve problems that stop them reaching their goal. As one young coder said to me, “You’re working on a project and you get stuck. You’ll go to someone and say ‘How do I do this?’ And you’ll learn from there.” In other words, you learn from tapping into a mentor’s expertise to help you solve a problem that arises naturally when working on your project.
Second, mentors are expert in a relevant, specific area. They volunteer because they know how to code and they are prepared to share their expertise with novices. Outside the dojo some mentors are employed as coders, some code as a hobby, and others have coded in the past but now work in another area. If the experts can’t solve a learner’s problem, the experts can model how to approach solving such a problem. Their expertise is typically in programming and doesn’t necessarily include knowledge of pedagogy or psychology. Nevertheless, the range of expertise available is a valuable resource for participants.
A third feature of coderdojos is the collective nature of the mentors’ expertise. Mentors work alongside each other and can easily refer a young coder who is stuck to the mentor whose expertise most closely matches what the youngster currently needs. Mentors bring various skills to the dojo, making available to the young coders expertise broader than what any individual mentor can offer. Expertise is distributed and one mentor’s skill complements the skills of the others.
Fourth, the young coders at a dojo can range in age from 8 to 18. At one dojo, I observed 12-year-olds collaborating with 18-year-olds. In schools, you would rarely find children of such diverse ages being taught in one classroom – you’d be even less likely to find them collaborating on a common task. In school we tend to take it for granted that children of the same age or children a year younger or a year older should be taught together but imagine if schools were designed more around interests and less around age. Learners could teach each other, learn from each other, collaborate with one another and inspire each other to create more accomplished work. Grouping learners by age may be necessary in some subjects, but in others, interest groups may lead to deeper learning. By working in groups, learners develop collaborative skills as they take on roles from leading to delegating to coordinating different roles and seeking consensus on choosing a project.
Consensus is needed because of the fifth feature of Coderdojo – the opportunity to choose the task you’ll work on. In most classrooms tasks are set by the teacher or by the textbook and rarely chosen by the learner. In Coderdojo participants decide whether they want to code an app or a website etc. and then choose the specific content and means of creating it. Participants are likely to be more committed to a project they choose for themselves, based on their interests and skills, than to one a teacher assigns to all the class. In Coderdojos, projects can be chosen by individuals because the mentors are not concerned about covering a curriculum for an exam. And yet the skills developed will serve learners well in future work or hobbies.
Other notable features of coderdojos are that as the young participants become more proficient, they can teach others in the group. Participants can work alone or with others. And the atmosphere, where participants work in various sized clusters, is quite informal – more coffee shop than school. That’s the kind of place where many teenagers like to be.
Of course many of these features are not unique to Coderdojo. They can be observed in school sports, in the young scientist exhibition and in other school events like debating or a school orchestra. Youngsters develop team work, leadership skills, collaborative skills and so on in such activities. But when I observed a coderdojo in action, I saw many features present in one setting from which schools could benefit:
- learning from problem solving
- tapping into the expertise of willing volunteers
- recognising expertise distributed among many rather than the expertise stored in “one small head”
- grouping learners by interests rather than just by age
- allowing learners to choose tasks to work on
- peer teaching and learning
- choosing whether to work alone or in a group
- coffee-shop atmosphere
Why can’t schools be more like Coderdojos? Maybe it’s because of the demands imposed on students and teachers by the Leaving Cert. Is it?