Priorities for Positive Professional Development

This month marks workshop season for me. I’ve had the chance to facilitate three workshops in total in the last two weeks (2 versions of one plus a stand alone event). Every time I finish I feel grateful, satisfied and also a little wiser. I’ve been designing and facilitating workshops for at least 7 or 8 years, often for educator conferences in Europe and once in the US. My favorite topics revolve around effective communication and collaborative work.

image by Spelic

One of the things I have learned about myself in this process is how critical it is for me to see myself in my participants. I know what easily bores, tires or frustrates me in a professional learning environment and I take measures to avoid those habits when planning each event. Whatever the specific topic, I have established certain priorities in designing experiences that participants will ideally find stimulating, relevant, and worthwhile. These are:

  • high levels of participant activity – Whether talking, moving, writing, thinking, keeping participants actively engaged in the topic requires a steady diet of activity throughout a session. Sitting and listening may be good for a while but we all need brief breaks to process and digest what we are taking in.
  • Movement – I like to have participants physically move, by walking, standing, switching partners, perhaps even dancing or playing a short game. Movement injects energy into the space and offers a change of pace. Depending on the group’s needs, with movement you can slow things down or shake them up, calm the waters or stir the pot and it can loosen the atmosphere and allow participants to experience each other in a different light.
  • Experience over content. In an adult learning environment we often assume that content is what people are after. My experience tells that this is a “Yes, and” proposition. People want content – skills, tips, tools, ideas that they can use and apply in their specific context AND they want an experience which will help them connect with and retain this precious content. For this reason, I think of the content as a vehicle for creating a meaningful learning experience for participants. This means that processing time, practice and reflection are built into the plan. Being a realist, this priority has helped me see the need for the next:
  • Doing less.  In order to balance content sharing with high participation, I usually decide to cover less content. In my design I allocate the time that participants will need to share their experiences or  think carefully about a subject. Rushing folks through multiple activities is of little use if participants feel stressed and pressured as a result. I strive to be clear about my priorities and plan accordingly.
  • Being present to what the group needs and offers.  This is a broad, catchall way of saying, have an agenda and be flexible enough to tweak or alter it, if the needs of the group demand it. It is also a reminder to be open to the wisdom and experience that resides in the group and seek ways to tap into it – for ultimately, this is the reason we come together at all.
  • Designing a learning experience that I will like.  So far I have enjoyed the privilege of creating the learning experiences that I value. I have not had to deliver anyone else’s message or curriculum. So when I create a plan, I do so with my audience in mind as well as considering which content and methods excite me as the facilitator.

When I manage to pay attention to and recognize these priorities from the design stage through to the workshop’s conclusion, the results for participants and me are remarkably positive.  What has also become apparent to me when I work with adults is how important validation and recognition are. My teaching roots are in physical education, an arena where different people can feel inadequate and lacking at different times and the sentiment is often quite visible. So much of my work is grounded in cultivating an atmosphere in which all skill levels can feel welcome and free to express themselves. In my workshops, a similar frame of mind is critical. Creating a safe environment where participants feel encouraged to share and bring their whole selves to the learning lays the foundation of the work I aim to accomplish with any group.

To this end, I invest time and energy thinking carefully about the language, both verbal and body, that I use to communicate my essential values. I say, Thank you, after nearly every interaction. I try to listen without interrupting. I use an invitational tone of voice. I move around as I speak. I laugh at my own mistakes. These are habits which express who I am and they also represent a conscious and deliberate way of  “showing up” for participants and clients in these special learning spaces.

In my most recent workshops, participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And while the content was certainly of interest, what people most often acknowledged was how they felt as a result. Following a workshop on inclusion activities, the room did not empty until 15 minutes later as participants were still deeply engaged in conversation. Inclusion took place. In fact, one participant offered me the best facilitator feedback I believe I can ever hope to receive: “You practice what you preach.”

 

A hat tip to Laura Thomas (@CriticalSkills1), a facilitator over at Edutopia, who sparked my interest with this post on a recent experience she had with a group of educators. Let there be more positive professional development experiences for educators. We deserve them!

 

Inclusion, Intent and Extraordinary Value

It’s workshop season and I’m pulling my resources together trying to design adult learning experiences that create value for participants. When I am in this phase of mapping, planning, sketching and drafting, a number of competing ideas come up for me. I find myself zooming out, then zooming in; attending to the details while keeping the big picture in mind – these are the intellectual challenges that I love in this work. And this time I see that I have created a special task for myself. The workshop that I want to deliver struggles with the premise of the workshop that was accepted.

Let me explain. The title of my workshop is: “The What, Why and How of Inclusion Activities” and in a nutshell, it is billed as offering participants a framework for when and why to use activities which are designed to foster inclusion in a group setting and of course, practice selected activities as we go.  Sounds reasonable enough. For participants there’s a predictable outcome: ideally they will leave with some specific activities that they can use in their classrooms and offices. In practice the workshop looks something like this:

Participants arrive, we do an activity, I talk, we talk, we do another activity, I talk, we talk, next activity, I talk, we talk …time to wrap up, I talk, we talk, round of applause, participants depart, done.

There are worse models, to be sure. Participant involvement and reflection are central to any plan I create. At the same time, I want to do more. I want to bump up against the boundaries a little. The phrase that keeps coming up is: “mess with.” I want to “mess with” people’s ideas and assumptions about how this process works. It is not particularly hard to select a series of activities which may be useful, practice them a little, create a handout for folks to take home and send people on their merry professional way. In principle, that sums up most of what I have planned. Yet the call for more persists.

Here’s what more might look like:

  • After having participants circulate in the room for a minute or two, stop and ask them to note down: 1.) Their hopes for this workshop  and 2.) Their intentions for participating in the workshop.  The purpose here is to invite participants to make an internal commitment to the time they are about to spend on something. Asking about hopes and intentions alerts participants to their role in co-creating the learning experience they are about to have. That is more.
  • Create space for activities completed in silence. We tend to talk so much, especially in the role of facilitator, that we forget how powerful and revolutionary it can feel to let go of talk for a time. Just because we are not hearing each others’ voices  does not mean that dialogue will disappear. Calling for silence and restricting the use of voice can feel like a huge counter-cultural demand. And yet if we just go ahead and do it, model it, let it be – our results are often stronger for it. That would be more.
  • Create space and time for participants to connect input with pre-existing knowledge and experiences. Again it is so easy to fall into a trap of delivery. We offer a workshop and we should deliver new, interesting stuff to the participants. And yet, what allows any learning to stick is when it finds an anchor, a connection that already exists in the individual. Even if that connection is the realization: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” The key is reflection. The learning is not in the activity, it is in the reflection on doing the activity.  In our insufferable quest to squeeze lots of content into skinny little time pockets which should then be applicable, portable and transferable, we often do ourselves and our participants a great disservice.  Deliver less and value the wisdom and expertise of the room. This, too, is more.

While these ideas do not strike me as radical, I can acknowledge them as unconventional. They are not the professional development norm in education circles. And I know that I have to brave experimenting with them. I’d like to “mess with” my participants’ notions of what compelling adult learning can look like and I expect them to teach me in turn. Actively co-creating the learning experience is what I am after and it gets to the heart of what Inclusion Activities are actually about.

Inclusion assumes that every member has a contribution to make to the group’s success.

In Will There Be Donuts? a book that advocates for designing and running real meetings, author David Pearl says:

The question I always ask clients – and have them ask themselves – is how can this meeting create extraordinary value for everyone involved? Not just value but extraordinary value. Not just for me, but for everyone, most particularly the other participants…

When people are queuing up in the corridor for your meetings, camping overnight in sleeping bags for the doors to open, we’ll know that we are creating extraordinary value. And it’s the intention that gets us there.

(David Pearl, Will There Be Donuts, Harper Collins 2012., p. 76)

Applying that mindset of “creating extraordinary value for everyone involved” to my workshop planning, it becomes absolutely clear that the path to more for participants and me starts with clear intentions – internally formulated and explicitly stated. Every participant who walks through the door must be aware that her presence is valued, his voice is essential, that our work is shared.

This mindset also underscores the importance of only employing inclusion activities if inclusion is the genuine intent. When participants are encouraged to behave as if their voice mattered only to be quickly reconfigured back into traditional roles of power distribution (teacher-student, boss-employee), then they will quickly learn to resist such offerings and see them as a form of mockery. So I will make a point of asking participants to consider this intersection of intent and impact before trotting off to simply “try something new” with their unwitting groups.

In this way, the workshop as conceived and the workshop as advertised become one and the same: Art in the making, adult learning experiences eager to take on lives of their own. More than the norm. More about participant growth and connection than about content delivery. More about listening and sharing than about telling and showing. I’m going for more. Wish me luck.

 

 

I want to give a shout out to Elena Aguilar whose excellent post on Edutopia is a foundational reminder for me in this process: “10 Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development”: http://t.co/SBluT0jKjD