If Schools Were More Like Coderdojos, How Would Teaching Change?

In a previous post I wrote about features of coderdojos that could be emulated in schools. Among the features I identified were:

1. Learning comes about through solving specific problems
2. Learners choose the problems and tasks that they work on
3. Mentors are experts in the content to be learned but not necessarily in pedagogy
4. Expertise is spread among mentors rather than concentrated in any one individual
5. Learners are organised by their interests and not by their age
6. Learners choose to work alone or in groups
7. Learners can actively teach others
8. The atmosphere is informal

If such features were applied in many schools, the work of teaching would change and particular aspects of teachers’ work would require more emphasis. I identify some of those aspects in this post.

It’s easy enough to imagine that school subjects or parts of school subjects could be taught in the way coding is taught in coderdojos. Volunteer mentors with expertise in languages could help students learn Irish or other languages, volunteers with expertise in sports could help students learn a range of sports, mentors with expertise in writing could help students to write, and so on for other curriculum subjects such as visual arts, history, music, maths. Volunteer mentors could be recruited from people who are retired, unemployed, seeking work experience, and others (who have first been Garda vetted). The learning could exhibit many or all of the features evident in coderdojos. Indeed similar arrangements already happen in some schools and educational initiatives – think of sports clubs and initiatives such as Fighting Words or Bridge 21. It’s likely that the number of volunteers wouldn’t suffice to roll this out nationwide, but it could happen in many towns and could enrich many children’s learning in many subjects.

But what kind of demands would that place on the fulltime teachers who have to ensure that learners experience a curriculum that “is designed to nurture the child in all dimensions of his or her life – spiritual, moral, cognitive, emotional, imaginative, aesthetic, social and physical” (Primary School Curriculum, Introduction, p. 6)? Or how would the skills a teacher needs have different emphases to skills teachers currently need? If schools worked like coderdojos, key skills for teachers would be motivating learners, monitoring challenge, assessing and record keeping, spotting potential, integrating subjects, supporting children with special needs, advising on pedagogy, and being flexible. Although teachers need some or all of these skills at present, they would become more important. Less important might be the range of subjects in which teachers need to be expert, at primary level anyway. Let me elaborate on each of the points above.

A coderdojo works well as long as participants opt into it. If you enjoy it enough to “give up” a Saturday afternoon, you’re unlikely to need much more motivation to be engaged in learning. The coders I met willingly selected projects and worked hard to advance them. But if a coderdojo approach was extended to all schoolchildren, student motivation could become a problem. Teachers would need to motivate many students to take part, especially for topics in which students have little interest. Students would first need to be motivated to get started on an activity and then not to give up before targets are reached; coderdojos work because students have the freedom to be there or not, to work or do nothing. Understanding and implementing the psychology and practice of motivation would become more important in teachers’ education.

Related to this is the importance of monitoring the challenge level of the tasks students engage in. It’s one thing to be busy on a project. But school needs to consist of more than busy-work. It needs to give learners opportunities to push themselves to higher goals rather than resting on a plateau. Even learners who are interested in a subject, may find a comfort zone and hover around it rather than raise their game. Monitoring and raising the challenge in an activity – without making it frustrating – would become a priority for teachers if classrooms were organised like coderdojos.

If learners aren’t following a set textbook, at a set time, with their same-age peers, teachers will have to become good at keeping track of what learners currently know and prioritising what needs to be learned next. Various types of summative and formative assessment, from self-assessment to standardised assessment, helps students, their teachers and parents keep track of students’ learning. Because students will be working on various projects, one-to-one assessment will often be required. Furthermore, students will keep artefacts of their work as additional evidence of their learning. And specific qualities that are developed in coderdojos, can be assessed such as students’ ability to collaborate and their ability to be autonomous learners.

Teachers will need to be good at talent spotting; every learner should leave school having found something in which they can excel. By spotting talent, teachers can match outside experts with students who have interest or potential in particular curriculum areas. This might be in music, sport, art, language, mathematics, science, history, dance or several of these. If students find at least one thing to be passionate about in school, this can be nurtured from a young age and sustain them as they go through life.

But as well as discovering passions, teachers need to ensure that children experience a balanced curriculum. If learners are given more leeway to choose their tasks, they might choose from a limited menu. A teacher must identify gaps in children’s learning – subjects that can enhance a life, even if they’re not one’s primary passion. Imagine how impoverished a person’s life would be without some experience or appreciation of literature, mathematics, music or the visual arts. A teacher must aspire to make all subjects accessible to all learners even if no volunteers are available to help out dojo-like with the subjects.

Teachers will need to ensure that the needs of all children in the classroom are met. Volunteer mentors may not have experience in meeting the needs of learners who have special needs or specific learning difficulties or conditions. A teacher’s expertise will help ensure that such learners can progress in their learning alongside their peers.

Teachers would need to advise mentors on pedagogy. By definition mentors have expertise to share in a given area, but they are not teachers – or at least that is not their role in a dojo. Yet, they may need advice on aspects of pedagogy – such as using age-appropriate language and metaphors to make content explicit, determining the amount of new content to introduce at a time, knowing how to explain a complex idea to someone who is struggling to understand it, and how to promote high level curriculum goals (Primary Curriculum Introduction, p.7) – to ensure that their time with the youngsters is as productive as possible.

Finally, the teacher will need to be flexible. If mentors are volunteers, there will be days when they can’t or won’t show up. The teacher needs to be able to implement alternative plans at short notice.

Primary teachers teach all curriculum subjects from Irish to maths, P.E. to music, and visual arts to drama. The expertise required to teach all eleven subjects makes considerable demands on teachers at all class levels. If experts in some subjects were available, they could complement strengths held by the class teacher so that not every teacher would have to excel in every curriculum area.

Teachers already do many of the activities outlined above. But the need for these skills comes more into focus if the principles of coderdojos become more embedded in schools. Admirable, and essential as the principles of coderdojos are, they will not work universally without the expertise of teachers. The expertise required of teachers may have different emphases to what is currently needed, but adaptability and ongoing professional development in light of changes in education will equip teachers with the skills they need. If teachers have such skills they can ensure that all students can experience a broad curriculum in primary and post-primary schools.

Even if schools become more like coderdojos, some aspects of teaching will still be best done as they are currently done – class discussions and storytelling come to mind. Part of the teacher’s job will always be to know what format is best for what kind of learning and to plan their teaching accordingly.

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One Response to If Schools Were More Like Coderdojos, How Would Teaching Change?

  1. Andrea Manieri

    Good points! I’m also looking at the coderdojo experience to improve the curricula studiorum of my son’ school, in Italy.
    I appreciate the way it is used the gaming experience and the focus on programming.
    However, I have some doubts about the possibility both to have a coderdojo-like school and the completeness of this approach to nurture programmers.

    As you pointed out much more are needed for scholar curricula than what can be learnt in a dojo-like classroom. The universal nature of primary school is somehow in contrast with the elective approach of coders in a dojo (the opt in/out).
    Moreover, having a computer science background, I concern that the dojo approach could be useful to learn programming or just introduce it. Several basic information seems to be avoided in the practical dojo approach. How this will affect the completeness of the learning process over the years?
    A final thougth is about the type of programming is teached in the coderdojo: you may have notices that from PC to smartphones, the number of “cores” in CPUs and also the number of CPUs is increasing. In 2020, when our primary school students will enter in the market labour, the averaged programmer will have to write parallel programs, not sequential anymore. Understanding parallelism is difficult for those who started “sequentials”.
    Schools should also consider this trends when and if will start coderdojos…

    Happy new year,

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