Wednesday 2 July 2014

How to make a workshop hum

On Monday I co-facilitated a two hour workshop. It was good, but not great. I felt that the room was a bit flat, and wasn't entirely sure that my message had been conveyed effectively.

Today I had the opportunity to run the same content again in a different city. Thirty minutes before the first student arrived, I decided to tweak the material. I wanted this version of the workshop to hum.

And hum it did. Though I can't be sure whether it was the people in the room or the material, I thought I'd share the three things I changed. I certainly think they contributed to the shift in outcome.

Give and Take

The first change was near the beginning of the session. We had asked the participants to do a series of activities in fairly quick succession, which came about as a result of attempting to condense some old material into a smaller time frame. We had valued our interactive exercises above our static slides, which meant that there was no longer any significant presenter content between some of our activities.

On Monday, it felt like we were taking a lot from our students and giving very little in return. We wanted them to think about this, and then think about that, and then think about something else, with very little time in between for them to pause, digest and absorb. Though we ultimately wove all the pieces together, the balance felt wrong.

Today I re-instated one slide. Just one. Doing this created a few minutes of space between two activities that asked people to think pretty hard. By adding this piece of content, I gave something back as the presenter. I gave people enough time to feel that the output of the first activity was acknowledged, and gave their brains time to recover!

This change altered the attitude of participants. The second activity in this series was tackled with enthusiasm instead of reluctance.

Grow the Numbers

The second change was in the classroom dynamics for our exercises. In the Monday session we jumped between asking people to work as groups, as individuals, as groups, then as individuals again. Working individually makes people introspective, somber and comparatively withdrawn. Working in groups is collaborative, dynamic and engaging. By mixing the numbers in each of our activities, classroom participation was see-sawing.

Today I changed the activities specifically to create an increasing momentum through the module of material. I started with an informal group conversation, which worked as an icebreaker to have people comfortable with those around them. Then I ran an individual exercise, an exercise in pairs, then finally an exercise in larger groups.

Creating this progression significantly altered communication through the workshop. Student engagement evolved in a much more cohesive fashion; I had attention and participation to the very end.

Set up for Success

The third change was to our final exercise. It was migrated from another area of our training, but on Monday we found that it was a much harder problem in its new context than in its original one. In addition, we asked students to complete this last exercise alone. Having a final exercise that was both challenging and silent meant that the class finished on quite a flat, serious note.

Today I re-designed this exercise so that the students had a better chance of success. I left the answers from the previous problem on the whiteboard, as a prompt for their thinking. I provided an expanded mnemonic as a reference. I also switched to a group format so that they could use one another as resources, and actively encouraged them to collaborate.

These changes meant that the answers provided by each group at the end of the session reflected a real understanding of the concepts that I was trying to teach. Further, the students themselves recognised that they had grasped the material, and the room was buzzing with their shared success.

In the coming weeks I plan to revisit the rest of my training material and apply these same three principles across each module; give and take, grow the numbers, set up for success. Today makes me believe that this is how to make a workshop hum.

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