By Sonja Burrows

I have always loved working with beginners. I’m not entirely sure why, precisely; perhaps it has something to do with the sort of patience I have, or with a certain empathy for the beginner mindset. Whatever the reason, over the course of the various teaching experiences in my career, I have been the most inspired when working with learners at the novice level.

Just like learners at all levels of proficiency, beginners thrive in spaces that provide the right balance between challenge and safety. In a novice-level second language class, for example, if you throw out an open-ended — albeit thought-provoking — discussion question without first providing students with the language they need to discuss it, your students will not be able to proceed (even if they want to!) because you haven’t given them the structure they need to enjoy the freedom of the activity. Too much freedom, not enough structure. Likewise, if, in this same class, you were to project a scripted dialogue and have students read it out loud in pairs without modifying any of the words, your students would not be encouraged by the activity to make connections and expand their understanding of the language through experimentation. Too much structure, not enough freedom.

It’s hard to get the balance between challenge and safety just right, yet doing so is of critical importance for beginners — more so, I would say, than for learners at higher levels of proficiency. In my experience, this principle applies not just to language learners, but also to novice-level learners of almost any subject or skill. Consider, for example, a novice-level user of a digital tool like a learning management system such as Canvas, or a web designing instrument such as WordPress. This novice learner of the digital benefits from the same careful balance between structure and freedom as the beginning language learner. In this case, structure might look like a tour of the WordPress dashboard before the freedom of web design, or an orientation to the LMS before the challenge of setting up a course shell.

Learning is optimal for most human beings when they are given just enough structure to feel safe and just enough freedom to feel challenged. This, in my opinion, is the special sauce of meaningful learning design.

Often (though not always), some beginners bring to the learning environment what is referred to in the field of language pedagogy as a high affective filter. Stephen Krashen uses the term affective filter to refer to the complex of negative emotional and motivational factors that may interfere with the reception and processing of comprehensible input. Such factors include anxiety, self-consciousness, boredom, annoyance, alienation, and so on. A learner with a high affective filter experiences emotional barriers to learning, often having to do with the negative emotional experience of “being novice” and the subsequent feelings of insufficient agency to make headway through the learning environment.

A learning environment that strives to encourage a low affective filter is one which works to reduce anxiety and self-consciousness so as to allow learning to flourish without the interference of negative emotional and motivational barriers. For novice-level learners, a key to lowering affective filter interference is providing learners with enough solid structure so that they feel supported and prepared for the more open-ended and often ambiguous experiences that await in freer activities. With the safety of a scaffolded learning environment, students can choose to challenge themselves in new ways, rather than being forced to do so in order to just make it through the activity or experience.

Modeling and the Beginner Mindset

For learners in many environments, a structured learning experience is one which includes adequate modeling. Modeling is an instructional strategy in which the teacher demonstrates a new concept or approach to learning, and students learn by observing. For many learners, especially at the novice level, learning by observing constitutes a first comfortable step into the vast unknown. Modeling allows students to observe, make connections, and receive input without having to produce or act. Learning by observing challenges learners but does not ask them to take risks until they are ready. Once learners have observed the demonstration or model, they can try it out themselves if they so choose. First watch, then do. For many beginners, this simple yet careful progression from structure to freedom enables them to move forward comfortably with their learning, and to do so without feeling threatened, anxious or embarrassed.

Modeling in the language-learning environment is fairly straight-forward: students are given the space to observe the teacher using the new language in clear, authentic, contextualized ways. A good learning design would then gently prompt students toward using the language they have observed in progressively more open-ended ways, with plenty of support along the way, until they have learned to experiment and make new connections on their own.

What does modeling look like in the digital environment? As always with digital pedagogy, it depends. It depends on the tool, it depends on the goals, it depends on the learner, and of course it depends on the teacher or designer of the learning environment. So far in my experience as an instructional designer working with newcomers to the digital, there have been a few approaches I have had the opportunity to utilize in guiding novice-level users of digital tools. Modeling in this context is often simply a set of examples of the kind of work the learner is trying to accomplish. For instance, in working with various study abroad teams at Middlebury in designing pre-immersion language-learning websites with WordPress, I have found it helpful to begin by providing the new team with a list of similar projects our office has already completed for other schools abroad. These examples often help spark the imagination of the new team, and encourage them to think about design and functionality within the context of what can happen in WordPress.

On a more basic level, modeling in the digital environment could be as simple as literally modeling problem solving for users who seek help with questions about digital tools. When I am asked a question about Canvas which I cannot answer (which happens all the time), rather than respond with the answer, I usually respond with a description of the process I go through to find the answer. How do you make a copy of a quiz in Canvas? Hmm, let me see. First, I go to the online Canvas Guides, type in the search words “how to copy a quiz” and scroll through the results. Oh, here’s a tutorial about copying content from a course. It looks a little counter-intuitive because they call it “importing” instead of “copying” but in glancing through the instructions I see this could explain the steps you need to take.

This kind of modeling resists the instinctive urge that many beginners understandably feel to have an expert simply “give the answer” so that they can implement it and move on. However, I am here to tell you that I am no expert, especially when it comes to Canvas; rather, I simply know how to rely on my own skills to find answers to questions that come up. Anyone can do this; it doesn’t require special training or expertise. As a guide of sorts in this realm, I feel it’s more productive to model finding the answer, rather than simply delivering said answer outright.

As with the language teaching experiences noted earlier, it’s hard in the digital realm to strike the perfect balance between challenge and safety when it comes to working with beginners. For example, in providing models of already-completed work in Wordpress, are we in danger of limiting the novice-level learner’s creativity and imagination to what has already been done? Or, are we simply providing the learner with helpful inroads to visualizing the new worlds created with this digital tool?

Regardless of the subject matter or skill we are instructing, the key with modeling is to remember that it is always about the learning and not the teaching. As a language teacher, my ultimate goal is always to give students the space and support to express themselves and to communicate as they wish, not to have them sit around and listen to me. Because in my class, it’s about less me, more you. As an instructional designer, I want teams with whom I partner on projects to take the helm and grow their own agency with the digital, not to rely on me to make it happen. In both contexts, I deliver a model when needed, and then try to get out of the way as swiftly as I can. The right kind of modeling remains a key step in providing adequate structure and safety for beginners, so as to help create a learning environment in which affective filters are lowered and learning can flourish.


This piece appears on Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry

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