Beginners in a sea of experts

Thursday 18 March 2021

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:

  • 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:

  • 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.

» 11 reactions

Comments

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David Boudreau 2:48 AM on 19 Mar 2021

In terms of different motivations, maybe beginners want to do something or know how to do it, and experts want to communicate it/welcome? Some thoughts....

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.

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As an expert, step back. Don't be the person who introduces the session. Don't be the person who advertises the session. Don't be the person who answers the questions. Etc.
Perhaps you could pinch some ideas from Code Club or Coder Dojo?

[gravatar]
Christopher Allen-Poole 2:06 PM on 19 Mar 2021

If teaching, give beginners something they can succeed at quickly. Walk them through a basic tutorial so that they can "get their hands wet." If possible, have VM's already set up that they can connect to with some running template.

(Yes, that's a mixed metaphor. I find them amusing.)

[gravatar]
Alexander Kryklia 8:36 PM on 19 Mar 2021

Great points, Ned.
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.

[gravatar]

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.

[gravatar]

These are great suggestions, thanks! I especially like the idea of celebrating all questions as contributions, both to provide positive feedback for venturing a question, and to underscore the collaborative nature of the session.

[gravatar]
Jon Kiparsky 6:56 PM on 21 Mar 2021

In the spirit of "every question is a contribution", I find that one-on-one feedback is always helpful. If a beginner spoke up, find something to like about what they said and tell them about that, directly.

"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.

[gravatar]

Not directly related, but does it really make sense to remove all experts, or wouldn't it make more sense to keep one dedicated "supervisor" in there who will pledge to stay silent unless there is some groupthink of wrong ideas coming up? Maybe I misunderstood the format, but it reminds me of study groups at university and while it's cool and all to bang your head against a problem until you solve it, sometimes a silent teaching assistant who will correct your errors before you go on an hour long path in the wrong direction is really helpful.

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@_sr: you are right, a gentle expert in the room is a definite plus, for the reasons you mention. I didn't mean to imply we wanted no experts.

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The problem is, everybody wants to do a "beginners group", every conference and every user group wants to target beginners, and that's understandable because there are a lot of them.

But where are the explicitly labeled "intermediate to advance" groups for the people of intermediate level who want to improve?

[gravatar]
Steven Senator 9:52 PM on 25 Mar 2021

The facilitator of the meeting may structure the agenda so that there are points where questions or information are solicited. Depending on the topic these might be requests for experiences or projects that participants may have that are illustrative. These could be within a presentation topic, so there is less emotional weight. Another meeting agenda could be "Around the Room", where everybody is solicited in some known order, whether alphabetic, by time of joining the meeting, or if physically present, around the room's seating chart. Everyone is encouraged to say something, even or especially, if they are just agreeing with or emphasizing a previous participant's input, thanking some other participant, or saying "nothing to add."

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