CoderDojo: What you can learn from the success of this free, volunteer led, international movement

CoderDojo: What you can learn from the success of this free, volunteer led, international movement

In the lead up to #dojocon2013 (, I’d like to share what I’ve learned as a CoderDojo Mentor and Organiser, and how CoderDojo is a great example for running a successful organisation. (At DojoCon I’m particularly looking forward to the Working Groups and discussing things like collaboration, avoiding mentor burn-out, shared educational resources, etc. I’m facilitating “Starting, Running and Improving Dojos Without Burning Out”.

CoderDojo is an ‘open source’ movement of computer clubs for children that started in Cork, Ireland in the summer of 2011. Within weeks there were Dojos starting up in venues across Ireland and within months there were Dojos set up across the World. What is it about this initiative that has made it so successful?

CoderDojo is fulfilling a need that is not being met in schools or computer/IT training providers.
Despite the fact that web and software development is one industry where there are a large number of job openings across the World, schools are not putting out graduates with the skills to meet the need. Most Dojos have a strong emphasis in providing a different kind of learning than schools: more individual, free structured and led by experts from the industry; which seems to best suit the content, and those with the knack for coding.

Children are interested in using games and other apps and CoderDojo provides a way for them to become creators instead of consumers.
OK, so kids are ‘obsessed’ with being online or playing games – and many parents are concerned – and CoderDojo not only provides a more ‘productive’ way to use IT, but also helps to show parents the value of allowing their children to play, and create, games and other applications.

Children are learning other valuable skills in the Dojo.
In the Dojos kids are encouraged to work together, give presentations and mentor other children. In this atmosphere, the kids are highly motivated to share and see projects through to completion.

CoderDojo is showing amazing results.
Harry Moran, who became the youngest Mac app developer after a few months attending CoderDojo, has been a great example to all of the CoderDojo kids; but there are endless stories of children that have improved their school performance, are socialising better, teaching coding to friends and others in their schools, etc.

The Dojos provide a meeting place for like minded children — and parents.
While there are kids in the Dojo that are involved in sports, music and many other activities; there are many that really haven’t had an interest in, or perhaps feel that they ‘fit in’, other organisations.  CoderDojo has created places where kids like this, and their parents, fit perfectly. While the children are participating in the lessons/projects, parents are either learning along or chatting and networking with other parents.

CoderDojo is Free — and in more than just entry fees!
In most cases, Dojos don’t charge an entry fee.  I used to love when parents would come in and ask how much the charge is, then see the expression on their faces when they learned it was absolutely free. The Dojos also try to avoid having to pay any fees, and local businesses and other organisations have been extremely generous in providing venues, equipment, etc..  I won’t forget the immense relief expressed by the parents setting up the Clonakilty Dojo when I told them they wouldn’t need to do any fundraising! CoderDojo is also bureaucracy free, apart from what’s needed to manage attendees and child protection; there’s no need for officers, bosses, bank accounts, constitutions, etc.

The CoderDojo ‘ethos’ is conducive to building a happy, vibrant community in all the Dojos.
While each Dojo is run independently, the basic formula set out by James Whelton and Bill Liao, the founders, and the positive mind set that they both project and encourage; runs throughout all of the Dojos. The children, and the adults involved, grow and thrive amidst the positive and community attitude.

CoderDojo Mentors & Organisers are leaders in their industry, generous and just awesome in just about every way!
It’s a great opportunity for the children to learn skills from those that are leaders in their industries.  This also creates an amazing atmosphere in the Dojos that attracts more interesting and great people to contribute, even if just for a single session.  One of the things that kept me driving the hour to Cork City and back each week, was looking forward to hearing about up and coming start-ups, new technologies being developed, debates on a variety of topics, etc.

I joined the first Dojo in Cork just a couple weeks after it had started. In the months that I attended the Mahon Dojo, I  got to spend week after week with Bill Liao and the great mentors, organisers (esp. Tori Hawthorne), kids and parents (esp. Erica, Galina and Elaine); and picked up great ideas and inspiration that help continually in running the Clonakilty Dojo, advising other Dojos — and have also helped me at many times away from CoderDojo:

In the first months of the Dojo, throughout 2011, there were only few children each week. We put on a PR push at the end of the year and, be careful what you wish for, at the first Dojo in 2012 at least 100 children turned up, accompanied by about 50 parents. I was pretty much running around trying to make sure everyone was happy and at one point, without me even saying anything, Bill placed his hands on my shoulders, looked in my eyes and said, “Chill”. I now remember this, during Dojos and many other times in my life, when I am feeling pressure, and just tell myself to “Chill” and it really helps. I’ve passed on this advice from Bill to other Dojo mentors and organisers that have also found it key to keeping going. Margaret, main organiser of the Clonakilty Dojo, often jokes about this with me, but we both understand how “Chill” has been important in keeping our Dojo going.

There isn’t another place where you can get this — especially at this price.
With my background in customer service and business management, I had always focused on making sure that the customer always gets what the customer wants.  Even though we had more children at the Mahon Dojo than we actually had room or mentors for, I was getting very disappointed when people would leave and not come back. When I approached Bill to discuss what we should do about it and he said, “Look around at the 100 happy kids in the room.” This assured me that this was working for the people it needed to work for. Who is it that said, “When you try to make everyone happy, you make no one happy”? Providing a great experience for those that appreciate and learn from the experience is what counts.

It’s all about the kids!
At one point when looking for solutions to some issues I thought we were having at the Dojo, I realised that I was spending too much time worrying about what the parents thought. (Why is my child playing games? Is there no set curriculum?  Are the kids learning enough? etc.) CoderDojo is about the children and while we do take on board all feedback, there is a lot less stress when I keep focused on what’s best for the children and not about what do the parents think about what we are doing? (See the point above.) Instead of worrying about curriculum, making announcements, etc. sometimes you need to just stand back and let the kids get on with it. It’s not about politics, it’s not about proving what we know, it’s not about jumping on the bandwagon — it’s all about the kids!

Keep it simple.
I have a tendency to over complicate things in my OCD inclination to make everything ‘perfect’, while with CoderDojo we’ve found that it’s important to keep it simple.  Start small and build as you can. Use software and tools that you can get for free. You don’t need to fly or even run, before you can walk.

Each Dojo can be just what it needs to be.
When I’ve advised groups starting up new Dojos, they organisers are very often quite worried about setting up the “right way.” There is no right way.  Each Dojo is different, depending on the available organisers, mentors, children, facilities — and what’s desired from the group. Once the organisers realise this, it makes it so much easier to get started.

Stop and Feel the Buzz.
Inline with what I’ve learned about “Chill” there is nothing like standing in the middle of a room of 100 kids focused on creating, sharing, showing off what they’ve learned. Each Dojo I try to take a few minutes to just stand in the middle of the room and feel all the energy coming from the participants, reminding me why it’s so great to be a part of it.

We all know a lot more than we give ourselves credit for.
I never really appreciated my ability to code html/css by hand until I started teaching it to children in CoderDojo. I’ve now used it to teach hundreds of children how to set up their own webpages. I’ve seen many others that thought they didn’t have the expertise to mentor, become great mentors, with just a bit of a push from us to get going.

Do what you do best and let others do what they do best.
Having had not so great experiences with community groups in the past, it was a great relief that, while I was very active, I was able to focus on mentoring, while someone else focused on the administration. Most Dojos don’t have enough mentors and many don’t have separate administrators, but if the mentors are free to work with the kids without having to also worry about bookings, setting up, etc. things work more smoothly and everyone is much happier. What makes someone a good mentor, doesn’t particularly make them a good organiser. Also, if someone has an idea, let them run with it.  If a mentor wants to run a session a way different to me, I let him or her go with it. Parents that don’t have skills in IT can contribute in a number of different ways from organising to creating great posters.

I’ve learned more from the kids than they’ve learned from me.
At this week’s session, I taught Scratch for the first time.  I hadn’t had a chance to pick it up, so left that mentoring to others that had; but this week there was no one looking for my help with web development and one 7 year old new to the Dojo, so I thought it was a good time to for us both to learn something.  We have some great tutorials printed out, so it wasn’t going to be so hard.  We created an animation where a shark moves back and forth, opening and closing his mouth.  I said I think that we can add some little fish for him to actually eat, but the boy said, “What about brains?”  I said I didn’t think we had any graphics for that, but he went ahead and named the file “Brain Eating Shark”. So I said that maybe next time we could work on getting a graphic for a brain, but throughout the session he kept saying, “Where do I get a brain?” So I showed him how to go online and get an image of a brain, and we figured out together how to import it into Scratch.  The boy then figured out, with just a tiny bit of guidance from me, how to resize the image and make the background transparent so it would look good in the animation! I would have left it at step 1 or 2, but the boy was so determined to take it all the way through to have the full game with a “Brain Eating Shark” keeping score. This is just one example of how I’ve learned as much or more from the kids that I was supposed to be teaching at CoderDojo!

A couple hours of your time can make influence someone for a lifetime.
It’s not just my couple of hours, but the couple of hours from all the great people involved in CoderDojo that have brought about story after story from parents that tell how CoderDojo has changed the lives of their children and their families: a coding prodigy that spent hours trying to teach himself code, whose mother searched across the world for courses for him, now has mentors looking to him for answers; a very unhappy autistic boy, whose parents worried he would never make friends, is now happy with a great social circle; a boy with great intelligence who was having trouble focusing on his studies and getting poor grades, now gets great grades and create apps in his spare time.

Getting thanks from the kids and parents, community awards, recognition in the press, etc. are all great; but to see the smile of a child that has just created his or her first webpage or game is all the thanks I need. (Though chocolate is good too 😉

If you are involved in CoderDojo and have some additional tips,
or if you have a question or issue you’d like some advice on,
please leave a comment below.