If you've attended a Vue.js-focused conference since 2018 (Vue London, Vue Amsterdam, Vue Toronto, Vue US) or even a multi-focused web/mobile development conference over the past year and a half (Connect.tech, All Things Open, JS Mobile Conf), you might have noticed the announcement that there would be a Vue Vixens Skulk occurring. In addition, people who identify as women were invited to this workshop to learn the basics of Vue.js in a full or half-day workshop, a breakfast, or a lunch 'n' learn. In this article, I want to talk about the "method behind our madness", or, as I call it, "The Way of the Fox". Why are our workshops designed the way they are? What pedagogy underlies our technique?
Before I begin, a reminder that a 'skulk' is the name for a group of foxes; a group of geese is a gaggle, a group of foxes is a 'skulk'. A group of foxy people in one of our workshops is also a skulk. English is weird.
Attendees at a Vue Vixens skulk benefit from our community's deep technical knowledge and the commitment of our volunteers. Natalia Tepluhina did a phenomenal job shaping the web chapters in our full-day curriculum; subsequent PRs from the community have made them even better. I wrote of all the mobile content in our mini workshops and 'nanos' (code warm-up activities). Marina Mosti and Egwuenu Gift also contributed nanos. The curriculum itself has benefited from the technical expertise of our community.
But why did we decide to create the workshops the way we did, in chapter format with building blocks of code snippets, done within Code Sandbox and the NativeScript Playground (a similar online setup to Code Sandbox, but for mobile development using NativeScript)?
That decision was driven by two main elements: the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and by my own experience as a classroom teacher with a Ph.D and a Fulbright. Let me explain some more.
We have benefited very much from our forays outside the Vue community, most notably by working with ng-Girls workshops. We were influenced in terms of the format of our workshops by theirs: build an app over a day, working with mentors, in a self-paced format. Learn Angular as you go. Likewise, similar workshops for women by Django Girls, Py Ladies, R Ladies, and many more similar groups, paved the way for our events. We are extremely grateful to stand on the shoulders of these amazing forerunners.
When I was a graduate student working towards a Ph.D in French literature at Cal Berkeley (13th century prose romance, to be exact, but that's not relevant), graduate students who were not independently wealthy or on scholarship (e.g. most of us) were obliged to teach intro-level French language courses daily. I had the 8:30 section, and we did jumping jacks to wake up...also irrelevant. Because few of us had experience teaching language classes, we were also obliged to take "Pedagogy" classes weekly, to ensure that all the GSIs (Graduate Student Instructors) were properly trained and following Berkeley's curriculum.
Although we complained constantly about these classes, Professor Kern's pedagogy seminar turned out to be a gold standard as we determined how to teach programming to folks who come to our workshops from all walks of life (experienced programmers looking to learn a new framework, folks entirely out of the field who are curious, boot camp students, career-switchers, fellow educators).
Our workshops have integrated two ideas from those classes: the idea that we have to lower the affective filter of students to help them learn a new concept, and the inductive method of learning a new language. In addition, our in-person events are enhanced by using the Grandmother Approach, outlined below.
We eschew lecturing in favor of fun. In fact, we start off by giving out stickers and pins, introduce ourselves and tell each other our backgrounds, show some slides about what we're going to learn, and then take a Cosmopolitan-style personality quiz to determine "what kind of fox are you" - a fun icebreaker that instantly gets people to smile and prepare themselves to learn. We then allow attendees to work at their own pace, learning by reading through our materials and working with a mentor to get over the harder parts.
Our workshops are characterized by small 'wins' as an attendee progressively builds a web or mobile project and sees it shaping up in a browser or on their mobile device. If someone gets thoroughly lost, they are able to start fresh in each chapter by cloning a new version of the project in a fresh Code Sandbox, so as not to get overly frustrated. By the end of an event, attendees can be expected to feel a real sense of accomplishment. Lowering their affective filter at the very start helps students feel comfortable, accepted, and ready to learn.
When we were teaching French language, we were expected to teach using the Berkeley-approved Inductive Method.3 Rather than using old-fashioned "Grammar/Translation" methods where the instructor gives out a grammatical rule and the student gives examples to illustrate their understanding of the rule, the Inductive method obliges the instructor to give many examples of a grammatical rule, and to oblige the student to generate the grammatical rule based on the examples presented by the instructor. It's a time-consuming and tedious process, but effective.
In our workshops, we use this method, modified. We don't present many ways of writing code, but do instead help students to deduce truths behind the 'way of Vue' by offering up one way of doing a task and then asking the student to refactor that sample to learn better ways of doing the same thing. Repetition helps reinforce. Refactoring helps retention. Inductive is always preferable to proscriptive.
In our events, since we don't lecture to our students or live-code, what do we do for an entire day? Well, we circulate. Together with mentors, we, as event leads, act as quiet cheerleaders to our students, helping them over rough patches, explaining if explaining needs to be done, questioning, answering, and helping in an unobtrusive way. This technique actually has a name: the Method of the Grandmother - appropriate, given our audience! We are in the business of helping and cheering the wins. We encourage, we coax, we help people help themselves. And we create community while we're doing it.
Do these techniques resonate with you? Find us online at vuevixens.org. If you identify as a woman and are attending a tech conference, why not sign up for a skulk? If you are part of a Vue.js community, think about partnering with one of our worldwide chapters to host an event. Students, what workshop experiences particularly resonated with you? Teachers, what techniques do you find particularly apt in your workshops? Post in the comments! I'm eager to hear your experiences.
1Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press. A rundown of the Natural Approach in second language acquisition can be found here.
2This method was influenced by observing how children learn language and codified by the research of Chomsky, Crain and Nakayama. Grammar induction is proven by showing that "given typical child-directed speech...an ideal-learner could recognize the hierarchical phrase structure of language without having this knowledge innately specified as part of the language faculty." See this paper for more information.
3I haven't been a GSI since the late 1990s, so it's highly likely that Berkeley's pedagogies have shifted significantly in keeping with newer research in applied linguistics and cognitive science. However I believe that the solid principles that we were taught do retain relevance, especially as they were taught as part of a suite of possibilities.
4Thank you to Michele Cynowicz, Vue Vixens CTO, for alerting me to the name of this methodology, outlined here.