How do you make a space that is good for beginners when there are too many experts who also want to help?
I help organize Boston Python. It’s a great group. We’ve been active during the pandemic, in fact, we’ve added new kinds of events during this time.
One of the things we’re trying to get started is a Study Group based on the observation that teaching is a great way to learn. The idea is to form a small but dedicated group of beginner-to-intermediate learners. They would take turns tackling a topic and presenting it informally to the group.
Here’s the problem: how do you make a space that feels right for beginners when you have thousands of experts in the group who also want to join in?
- Beginners can be shy and uncertain, both about the topic and about whether this space is even for them.
- They don’t want to appear dumb. They are afraid they will look foolish, or will be ridiculed.
- They don’t know that everyone has uncertainties and gaps in their knowledge. They don’t know that not knowing something is inevitable, and can be conquered.
- Experts want to help. They have knowledge and want to share it.
- Can forget how hard it is to be a beginner.
- Experts can be blind to how their speaking is keeping other people quiet. There’s limited space for talking, but more importantly, expert-level speaking can set the tone that you must be expert-level to speak.
Experts are very good at occupying these spaces. They are comfortable speaking, and eager to share their knowledge. How do we ensure that they don’t monopolize the discussion?
Beginners can be shy, and reluctant to speak. They may feel like they don’t know enough to even ask a question. They don’t want to appear dumb. They hear the experts around them, and feel even more certain that this is not for them.
The experts could have the best intentions: they want to help the beginners. They are interested in the subject, and have useful bits of information to contribute.
I’m looking for ideas to solve these problems!
How to keep the balance of attendees right:
- Explicitly label the event as “for beginning to intermediate learners.”
- Send a reminder email about the event, asking people to select themselves out of the event: “We’re really excited that this idea has gotten so much interest. Our goal was to have a smaller conversational group for beginning learners. If that doesn’t sound like you, now is a good opportunity to step back to make space for others.”
- Have other events labelled for experts so they have a space of their own.
- Invite specific people one-on-one to increase the number of “right” people.
- more ideas?
How to encourage beginners to join the group:
- Use lots of words to underscore the welcoming nature of the group, and that beginners are welcome.
- Invite specific people one-on-one so they feel sure it’s for them, and that they are wanted.
- more ideas?
How to encourage beginners to speak in the group:
- Ice-breaker question
- Set an expectation that everyone will ask at least one question.
- Be especially supportive when someone asks a really basic question.
- Contact them individually to ask if they have anything they want to ask, and help them get it asked.
- more ideas?
How to encourage beginners to lead a session:
- Demonstrate vulnerability while leading.
- Offer to pair with them instead of having them do it alone.
- more ideas?
Like I said, I’m looking for ideas. The more I run events, the more interested I am in helping beginners get started.
Start by, and repeatedly, confirm listeners are following along or that they asked something that will help them get what they're hoping for. Are there ways to keep such harmony between the speaker-listener? Back and forth. That a beginner does not necessarily know how to phrase the question itself is good to recognize. What's typically desired, ask if that's what they are going for. Prompt for, and suggest, examples.
Avoid getting too deep into tangents. Tangents themselves are fine and can add colorful nuance and charm to the experience, but going too deep without enough breadth is what I might watch out for. A second or third expert in a beginner group can maybe interrupt other experts to keep it focused in this sense, eg "no he means X, first get Y"-- and they agree quickly. Confirmed basics should be easy for experts for such purposes/context of helping, and if advice is confirmed by other (experts) maybe that's good too. If experts feel a beginner is barking up the wrong tree, suggesting other trees. Often, beginners don't have a sense of dependencies for their eventual goal, so adding things like "assuming you want to do X, you must do Y or Z first" might help.
When a beginner gets it, get them to explain what the critical point was in getting it, what was holding them up before, if they had started with something else or another tack, or if they had a time machine to go back and explain in a sentence or two, what to tell your former self. And recruit them to help other beginners with their new perspective, as well as ongoing.
Perhaps you could pinch some ideas from Code Club or Coder Dojo?
(Yes, that's a mixed metaphor. I find them amusing.)
Thanks for sharing.
I try to support beginners only slack project, but thar requires personal picking in-out and not sure if it is scalable.
One thing I’d emphasise is that asking a question is a contribution: everyone who didn’t know will benefit from the answer your question elicits, even if they didn’t ask or if the question didn’t even occur to them.
I don’t have specific suggestions for achieving this, but I think the mood should be that whether expert or beginner, you are not there to gain accolades or admission – you are there for the group, which is coming together to elevate all its members, and both sides learn by participating. Contributing isn’t a trickle-down process from the experts to the passive unwashed masses, it’s a give and take with each other.
"I liked your question about X in last night's [talk/study group]. I hope you'll ask more questions" is a good way to get that person to continue to model the behavior you want to see. Ideally, this leads others to follow this example, and you get a lot more opportunities to positively reinforce this behavior.
But where are the explicitly labeled "intermediate to advance" groups for the people of intermediate level who want to improve?
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