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  • Writer's pictureSumbella

Lowering the Barrier: Making Complex Topics Accessible for Learners

[#teachingandlearning] Well, teachers - today is the second day of our #LovetoLearn week at Cambridge University Press & Assessment, and in the spirit of sharing our skills, I delivered a session on Chinese for complete beginners. #Superfun. I want to share some reflections on how we introduce complex topics in the very first instance.

Chinese is widely regarded as a very difficult language to learn, and is very intimidating for many people. (I once knew a learner who would not even look at a Chinese character, and refused flat out to learn them. If I put some on a slide, they would look away! #teachingchallenge).

This isn’t unique to learning Chinese, though. Many teachers have reluctant, fearful learners who won’t easily join in and have a go.

One thing I have found to be successful in initial stages is to toggle the measure of success.

For example, I shared with my participants today: the only measure of success is that you try, you attempt. I don’t mind what or how the words sound at all, we’re only looking for effort here. And you’ll be the judge of it - not me. (I follow that with massive amounts of praise and encouragement all throughout, because for me, a personal measure of success in an initial session is smiles!)

Today, I parked pronunciation - even though I know this will allow certain mistakes to happen initially. This is a bit controversial, yet I’ve found it the single most effective way to get learners joining in confidently and keen to join another class. And then another. And guess what? When I do introduce the the complex pronunciation part and start measuring it, it’s so much easier for them to layer this piece on to their existing knowledge.

So this is to say - I lower the barrier a little if it’s very complex. I remove surplus pieces. I try to make it accessible for anyone. And doing this helps so much:

✅It helps everyone involved feel they can enter and have a go. 

✅It prevents comparison fear. 

✅It gives the teacher - and learners - a chance to focus on mastery of one thing well, rather than 5 all at once.

For both teacher and learner, I find it's a relief to focus on one, single, easy success criteria when you have so many new things to cover at the beginning of a complex topic.

If the goal is so wide that your learners cannot miss a shot, I find they’ll be more likely to join in with something intimidating in the first instance.

This isn’t always possible, I know. We have objectives, criteria, requirements, constraints we must work with and meet.

But… lowering the barrier to entry. Works so well for me with first-time learners of Chinese. 🙂

💭Have you ever consciously lowered the success criteria for introducing a complex subject like this? I’d love to know.

P.S. Next session I’m doing is on delivering engaging virtual workshops on Thursday! If you’re a #CUPA colleague, do join in. We’re going to have some workshop fun. 😁 

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