Dojos: One conversation in the room not in the driving seats

Bruce Durling and I had a conversational meeting/talk last week about doing a Clojure dojo here in London for the last year. One of the attendees was Nicholas Tollervey the organiser of the Python dojo. In the course of discussing formats there was an interesting discussion about the concept of “one conversation”, which is to say that people stand a better chance of understanding something is there is just one conversation going where everyone is contributed to the shared understanding rather than several conversations where nothing may be getting understood. Nicholas had read the original Paris dojos and interpreted their rules as saying that the conversation is entirely owned by the pilot and co-pilot and that the audience cannot contribute.

My understanding (this may be a Brazilian addition to the Paris method) and the way I would practice dojos is that all the participants are in the conversation but that once a point or question has been raised by the audience then that issue must be addressed before the coding pair continue. So for example if an audience member doesn’t understand a piece of code or a function they should ask what it means and then the coding pair pause and an explanation is explored until the person asking the question feels they understand what is happening. The coding pair then resume.

With that said there are some important points of concern in terms of facilitation. Firstly the coding pair should be shielded from barracking, “Why are you doing it like that?” can be a good a question but is rarely helpful. A better question would be “Are you trying to solve the problem with method A? Would method B be better?”. But the best type of this question is not asking it, there may be a better way to do something but watching people explore an alternative route might be informative in its own right, even if it ultimately confirms your own views.

Questions should be “points of order”, ideally based on facts not opinion and aimed at clarifying understanding. Philosophical points of view are best expressed at natural break points in the coding or down the pub.

Once a question has been asked the focus of the conversation moves to the person asking the question. This often means that the person asking the question feels a tremendous amount of pressure to say that they understand something and allow the focus of conversation to move on. I know I have often been frustrated and embarrassed with myself for not getting a point. However if you don’t really understand something it is important to say so as it is likely that other people in the room feel the same way and that those trying to furnish an explanation have not done so satisfactorily and need to try again. Facilitators need to keep the safety up here if the group struggles to be supportive.

A final point is that every once in a while you get the really good question. The one that is either going to take a massive amount of effort to answer, that is fundamental to the problem or that lacks a definitive answer. Some people regard these questions as rabbit holes and while it is true that you can often kiss the coding goodbye for the rest of the night it is often these questions that lead to the most memorable moments of a dojo. I remember this happening when Ola Bini gave a spontaneous lecture on Ruby’s object lifecycle event hooks. It started with someone using an unusual technique and it ended up being a really enlightening trip through the guts of Ruby.

Dojos are primarily about learning and these side trips are as important as powering down the highway.


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