Creating Mojo in our Dojo by Champion Erica Gorman of CoderDojo NSC, Cork

When people walk into our Dojo for the first time they are often a bit surprised by what they see. A Dojo, after all, is a place of learning right? But to a newcomer it can seem as if our children are just hanging out having fun. The buzz of cheery chatter that fills the open plan office area has lead some first timers to wonder what time we “actually start” – unaware that what they are witnessing is our Dojo already in full swing. There are no adults trying to quieten the children down or tell them what they should be doing. Actually the parents / Champions at our Dojo can be found sitting separately to the children and seem more interested in having a good old chin wag and enjoying home made cookies and a decent coffee (The only Java most of these older folk are familiar with I might add!). There are children sprawled throughout numerous rooms, some not even within reach of their own laptops, others reclining on large beanbags – this is certainly no classroom environment. Yet if you hang around for a while and take a closer look you will discover that not only are these children making leaps and bounds in regards to their coding but more than that – for many of these Ninjas, CoderDojo has changed their lives.

Over the last two and a half years I have had the privilege of watching many children, including my own, blossom through CoderDojo. By simply focusing on putting the fundamental philosophies of CoderDojo truly into practice, our club has developed into so much more than just an IT Class. Our children feel part of a close knit team, in which they are in the driving seat. If I had to choose one key wisdom of CoderDojo that I believe has played the biggest role in conjuring up the mojo in our Dojo, it would have to be peer to peer learning. An awesome thing happens in our club when a child begins to Mentor other children.

The transformation from newcomer to young Mentor seems to happen in three phases. Initially a child will walk into our Dojo for the first time often looking sheepish and clutching their laptop, not quite sure what to expect. Usually one of our parents / Champions will welcome them in and introduce them to the  children and ask for a volunteer(s) to sit with the newcomer and introduce them to some basic HTML. Our brilliant Ninjas are always happy to help. The newcomer is usually hooked from the first time they click “run” and see what they have managed to create through code. They come away feeling very pleased with themselves. Usually within a few weeks the child enters phase two. No longer a newcomer, the Ninja can be seen striding in the door with a smile and a sense of purpose. By now they have begun to understand how our Dojo rolls. They do not turn up expecting spoon-fed learning, instead they understand that it is up to themselves as to how they wish to use their time. Usually by this stage the child has begun working on a project and they are keen to earn their white belt. It does not take long before they are at the stage where they now know enough to start sharing what they have learnt to newcomers and they have their eye on achieving their own blue belt for becoming a Mentor. It is during this final stage; when a Ninja begins to Mentor, that a magical metamorphosis takes place. The child now enters the Dojo with a swagger, flashing their blue Mentoring belt with pride. It is when they become an integral and effective part of the team that we notice that the Ninja seems to just flourish. Whether they Mentor one to one or to a group of peers, the act of sharing their knowledge is such a confidence booster.

Peer to peer learning is not only a fulfilling experience for the child Mentor, but there is a knock on effect that greatly benefits the entire Dojo. Beginners can find their first coding session a bit daunting – all the symbols and letters of code can seem double Dutch at first glance. But being taught by another young person can automatically help the beginner feel at ease because the young Mentor is testament that children can learn this stuff and that coding is cool. Also, a seed is planted in the beginners mind; they could one day share what they know. I have also noticed a Ninja’s pride when someone they have Mentored in the past, then receives their blue belt, this greatly strengthens the sense of oneness in our Dojo.

Mojo in your Dojo

Photos by Ninja: Kieran Pyke

I think peer to peer learning also naturally supports all the other philosophies of CoderDojo. Peer to peer learning inspires children to start their own projects, to discover knowledge together, become self motivated Ninjas, and develop skills in presenting their work to their peers. I also believe that it is partly thanks to peer to peer learning that it  has become quite normal for say a 12 year old and a 17 year old to work on a project together. There is no sense of shame in receiving help from a younger Ninja, age becomes irrelevant. Our Dojo has also achieved roughly a 50:50 girl / boy ratio. I also account much of this success to peer to peer learning. It has taken a while for us to build up our number of female Ninjas, but slowly as we have produced some fantastic young female Mentors the number of CoderDojo girls has gradually increased.

Of course we still welcome adult Mentors, and we have one fantastic Mentor that has been with CoderDojo since almost day one. Other adult Mentors come and go, and we greatly appreciate any help they offer. I have nothing but appreciation for adult Mentors who give up their time to help out at Dojos. I have noticed however, that sometimes when adult Mentors feel they must have a prepared lesson week after week, they can eventually find it a bit of a burden. I think too much pressure can be placed on Mentors when Ninjas and their parents turn up expecting a formal planned session week after week. I believe one of the reasons our club seems happy to run 51 weeks of the year for nearly three years now, is due to the fact that no-one really feels like they need a break because every member of our club shares the load. I would love to see more Dojos open during the summer school holidays, because it is a great opportunity for the children to focus on coding projects whilst they have no homework commitments, but I think this can only happen in Dojos where Mentors and Champions are not over burdened.

Formal adult led classes – if kept short – can be a brilliant learning tool however I believe the majority of an adult-Mentor’s time should be spent helping out with Ninja’s specific questions regarding their own projects; in a fashion whereby the interaction has more of a peer to peer or coder to coder approach – where the adult is simply sharing their knowledge just as a Ninja would with another Ninja.

I know that different Dojos run differently to ours, and I think that the diversity of different Dojos is a fantastic facet of the CoderDojo movement. I am simply offering some food for thought for those Dojos that run things more formally. In short, I believe that allowing the Ninjas to hold the reins makes for a special Dojo. I think peer to peer learning should be encouraged from day one. I think a Dojo should be an informal environment more like a jamming session where children collaborate and create together; a place where they are free to experiment and try new things. It is incredibly empowering for Ninjas to know that the reason coming to their CoderDojo is the highlight of their week is because THEY are responsible for making it something remarkable.

Mojo in your Dojotwo

Photos by Ninja: Kieran Pyke