Cultivating Community and Promoting Continued Education through Carpentries Instructor Training

The Carpentries is an organization dedicated to teaching researchers computational skills through a scalable and community-centered model. Since 2019, CZI and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation are supporting The Carpentries’ instructor training program and the development of CarpentriesLab — a centralized repository for high-quality, teaching materials contributed by the community. This post was authored by The Carpentries’ team.

“Teaching Carpentries workshops is a good way for me to learn more about best practices in computing, and to share that knowledge with other people in the scientific world. This makes me feel like I’m doing what science is supposed to be all about — sharing ideas and teaching others.” -Carpentries Instructor

At The Carpentries, one of our foundational goals is to build global capacity in essential data and computational skills for conducting efficient, open, and reproducible research. We teach foundational computational and data science skills to biomedical researchers, most of which would otherwise only acquire computational training through informal education. We do this by prioritizing community and inclusivity in our workshops, curricula, and support structures.

To allow our efforts to flourish, and provide workshop opportunities that meet our learners’ needs, The Carpentries has put a great deal of effort and care into our Instructor Training program. We have over 3,000 instructors teaching across the globe, from courses on “Data Organization in Spreadsheets” to “The Unix Shell and Programming with R”, who bring experience and expertise across many scientific fields.

By approaching Instructor Training as a way to promote skills-based teaching and learning, we reinforce our overarching pedagogy and ethos, while ensuring Carpentries instructors are learning as much as the individuals attending our workshops. The results of these efforts are clear in their efficacy.

The Carpentries Instructor Training program includes a two-day workshop that engages trainees in discussion of educational psychology, evidence-based teaching practices, and the nuts and bolts of Carpentries technical workshops and resources.

Like all Carpentries workshops, the Instructor Training workshop is situated in a context of continued, independent skill building. In technical workshops, such as those teaching R or Python skills, this context is more apparent: most learners arrive at a technical workshop with explicit goals of gaining support with skill building, and with the expectation that they will need to actively continue to pursue skill development after they depart. With Instructor Training, it is less common for trainees to arrive with the understanding that they are beginning a journey towards skill development that will demand effort over time. The Carpentries’ philosophy, support, and collaborative teaching opportunities serve to reinforce this understanding and guide Instructors as they embark on this journey.

The flow of the Instructor Training program from Instructor Trainers to Instructors to Learner. Image courtesy of The Carpentries.

The Carpentries’ philosophy is conveyed in our Instructor Training workshop, where we are emphatic in communicating that teaching is a skill to be developed with practice. Like computing skills, people often approach teaching with a “fixed mindset” — a belief that good teachers, like “computational people,” are born, not made. We make it clear that evidence-based teaching practices can be adopted by anyone through a process of deliberate practice with regular feedback. We teach Instructors to provide each other with useful feedback, and to engage productively with feedback that they have received.

After completing the Instructor Training workshop, trainees are onboarded to The Carpentries Instructor community through three “checkout” steps. In one of these steps, they are asked to give and receive feedback one more time on a prepared teaching demonstration, further reinforcing our emphasis on development of skill through deliberate practice. In addition, they are asked to attend a Carpentries Community Discussion. A typical Discussion meeting is focused on preparation and debriefing of Carpentries technical workshops. This resource is available to all of our continuing Instructors and provides an opportunity for new trainees to learn by discussing the plans and practices of others.

Teaching opportunities with The Carpentries offer more than just practice because we ask Instructors to “never teach alone.” This rule serves many purposes, including in-class support, backup in case of unforeseen circumstances, and lightening the load of preparation. However, from the perspective of development of teaching skills, it also ensures that every Carpentries workshop comes with a chance to observe at least one other person teaching related content under the same conditions. Instructors may share feedback with each other directly if they are comfortable doing so, or they may collaborate on review of learner feedback — which we ask them to collect throughout the workshop — a process which facilitates exchange of ideas about building on strengths and finding room for improvement.

Aleksandra Nenadic, one of The Carpentries Instructors and member of the Executive Council, wrote about the Incentives and Benefits of Getting Involved in Teaching Researchers that underscores the value of our “never teach alone” ethos.

“Getting involved in big, international teaching communities of practice, such as The Carpentries, brings real personal and institutional benefits. Institutionally, it helps create a skilled research force and increases capability and capacity. Personally, it opens the door to a diverse, vibrant and active community with vast experience and willingness to help and collaborate. It offers increased social connections, gives instructors the chance to learn skills such as teaching or coding, creates stronger cross-disciplinary networks and improves the instructor’s own research.” -Aleksandra Nenadic

While The Carpentries is formally organized around the purpose of teaching technical workshops, most communities form at the local level, within our member institutions and beyond the reach of our central organization. The Carpentries global community is, substantially, a community of Instructors. This global community and the support provided to it by The Carpentries core team offers sustained support for skill development of Instructors over time. Our mentorship program, for example, can address any aspect of community engagement, but frequently focuses on further development of instructional skill.

And the results of these efforts are clear for our community of Instructors. By promoting community and continued skill-building at all steps of Carpentries processes, we consistently see our Instructors and Learners value community. In a report generated by Beth Duckles in 2016, we asked Instructors, “What is the benefit, personally and/or professionally, to you in being involved with the Software Carpentry/Data Carpentry Community?” The most common response? Community.

“I’ve viewed my participation in these organizations (through mentoring subcommittee meetings, teaching workshops, Twitter, etc.) as an intellectual lifeline of sorts. The management and development of policies for these groups model the type of transparency, clarity, and cooperation I wish was more pervasive in science. The attention to diversity and inclusivity help me feel welcome, and encouragement from others in the group let me know my contributions are meaningful and helpful.” -Carpentries Instructor

Another participant in Beth Duckles’ report states, “The way the teaching was done — collaboratively, very open and welcoming format, stickies for instant feedback, attentive to each participant’s pace — felt like a revelation for me. I knew I wanted to learn more about the teaching process as well.”

And this sentiment is echoed elsewhere as well. In the Analysis of The Carpentries Long-Term Surveys, posted by Carpentries Core Team Members Kari L. Jordan and François Michonneau in 2020, 80 percent of workshop participants reported that they felt more confident using the tools that they learned during the workshop than they had before the start of the workshop. Around 75 percent of participants reported they felt more confident working with data after completing a Carpentries-based workshop, and over 50 percent of participants reported that they used the skills that they learned at a Carpentries workshop to advance their career.

Looking ahead, we’re actively working towards adding new opportunities for Instructors. In 2020, when we transitioned our technical workshops to operate online due to the pandemic, we developed our first “bonus module,” a three-hour workshop targeting instructors to provide supplementary training on a specific topic. We plan to build on the success of this new program in late 2021, adding a module on Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility, with more topics in 2022.

By ensuring Carpentries Instructors are trained in a way that is consistent with our values, and with a focus on skill-building at every stage, we are working to create exceptional training environments for the learners. We consistently see this bear itself out, and in many cases this leads to interest in becoming Helpers, who assist with workshops, and eventually Instructors, after attending technical workshops.

Group photo from CarpentryCon2018 in Dublin. Photo courtesy of Bérénice Batut.

We also recognize that community longevity and sustainability are dependent on continual opportunities for community members in The Carpentries to learn, grow, and give back; and are heavily invested in availing opportunities for community members to participate meaningfully. In addition to teaching in workshops, community members are co-owners of all initiatives, and heavily inform the direction that organizational activities take — from curriculum development, maintenance of existing lessons, internationalization efforts, peer mentoring programs, and leadership programs as part of our committees, task forces and organizational governance. This is what qualifies The Carpentries as a community-led organization — success is a community effort.

Interested in learning more about The Carpentries? Check out our strategic plan, or follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Serah Rono is the Director of Community Development and Engagement at The Carpentries. Serah leads the development and implementation of an overall community engagement strategy, oversees inclusive content design, develops programming to support community building and sustainability efforts at the local and global level, and manages community-led initiatives to organize events for The Carpentries’ global and regional communities.

Danielle Sieh is the Workshop Administrator at The Carpentries. Danielle supports Hosts and Organizers during the Carpentries workshop organization process, helping with logistics and sorting details for a successful workshop.

Karen Word is the Director of Instructor Training for The Carpentries. Karen manages the Instructor Training program, trains and supports The Carpentries’ community of Instructor Trainers, and collaborates with the community on maintenance and development of Instructor Training curricula.

Supporting the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.