Curricula, Mentors, and Group Learning

Two days ago I outlined some of the changes that are coming for the North Dallas .NET Users Group. Yesterday I wrote about the change from listening to a more active learning environment. Today I’m going to discuss the role of mentors and developing learning materials. In other words, I want to discuss this bit of the announcement.

Provide training for those interested in teaching, creating labs, writing materials, and mentoring. What we are proposing above is more work than the leadership team can do alone. On top of that, to create effective activities and curricula, you need more than just knowledge of programming. You need to dig into theories about learning and learn about education generally. In other words, you have to learn more about being a teacher. To solve this, we will provide training for the trainers. We will talk about principles, discuss practices, dig into exercises that worked (or didn’t) in real teaching scenarios, and develop curricula together.

The goal: help developers grow into better teachers to prepare them to mentor others with us, hopefully improving the community and their careers.

Prepping for a Hands-On Group Activity

When you give a lecture-centric meetup talk, you are mostly in control of what’s going on. Sure, there can be wifi issues, demo demons might be creating mischief, or perhaps third-party services will be blocked or on the fritz. But, for the most part, the delivery of a good lecture will be mostly under the control of the speaker.

The essential difficulty of creating a hands-on activity is the variability of things learner-related. In a hands-on activity, all wifi problems, third-party service issues, installation needs, and lacunae in background knowledge requirements will all make everything much, much, much, much, worse. Trust me when I say that you can try to run an activity like this and fail utterly. I’ve done that.

But all hope is not lost! I have failed but have also succeeded. When it has worked, here’s some of the things that have helped.

In general, you also need to put a very important ground rule in place, that the group is more important than the individual. One learner, or even a small group, should not disturb the whole. With sufficient help and good materials, this is easier to do.

Based on the above, there are at least really two big requirements that must be met if you want it to be a success: enough good mentors and quality curricula.


For this to work, we need people who are willing to help mentor. Being a mentor in this context could take a few different roles.

A mentor could be a helper, someone who knows the material well enough to help others, who is willing to listen, and who is willing to be patient with and help those who are struggling. They don’t have to be software development experts. They don’t need to be public speakers (some people just don’t want to do that). Foremost, they need to be willing to learn and willing to help others do the same.

A mentor could also be a teacher. Even though hands-on labs won’t often be lecture-centered, people will often need to explain things or talk briefly to the group.

A mentor could also be someone who wants to write curricula. It’s a skill all its own (see next section).

Quality Curricula

Quality curricula don’t appear by accident. They are made by people who know the material and know how to shape it for a good learning experience.

Through reading books on education, discussing with other instructors, and a lot of trial and error, I’ve learned a lot about teaching and writing curricula. But what we are going to do will require more people than just me to write new stuff. This means that one of our tasks will be to work with the interested mentors to write materials.

Yes, this means teaching teachers to teach. This means hacking learning, which is a lot more difficult than learning a programming language. This means we’ll need to read some books on education together.

Benefits for the Mentors

This means a lot of giving from the mentors and writers, but there’s a tremendous amount to gain from it as well. Here’s a few things.

First, you get to help people. That’s good, right?

Second, just as you cannot learn to program without programming, you cannot learn to teach without teaching. It is something learned through practice. Some developers want to learn how to teach more effectively. Perhaps they enjoy it as a pasttime or they want to teach at a coding bootcamp. Maybe they want to do more training at work. Maybe they want to be one of those highly-paid traveling trainer people. I’m proposing to give them the chance to practice and guidance while doing so.

Related, some people want to create a Pluralsight or Udemy course. Some may want to write a book. Developing material and then trying it on people is a great way to prepare the same or similar material for some other avenue of publication. Much of the material for my (now out of date) book was practiced through user group presentations. It was better because of it.

Third, you want networking? Here’s your chance to sit down with other developers, help them learn, get to know them a little better, and expand your network.

Fourth, there’s a benefit for employers as well, even though most employers will be too shortsighted to really encourage this. Are you involved in hiring other developers? If you are, you know there’s a lot of risk involved. Interviewing is difficult. When you mentor, you get a chance to get to know some developers first-hand in a less sterile and pressure-filled environment. Maybe you can use this kind of activity in the community as a part of your job goals. Maybe they’ll even let you spend work time on this stuff. Like I said, most employers won’t see the value. But some will. (And thanks to Amir for talking through this and other things the other day. It was helpful.)

Final Thought

I’m personally very excited about this aspect of the change. I love teaching. And I’d love to help others do it as well. We need more good teachers and good materials. My hope is that we can play our part in that.

(By the way, we have a meeting on Wednesday!)

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