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”:




Personal Professional Development

Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a workshop on Team Building and Reflective Conversations.

Work in progress

Work in progress

It was a rare opportunity to pull together several pieces of my recent thinking on teaching, coaching and group dynamics among other topics into a lively learning experience for some of my colleagues.  In my planning for the event I arrived at some critical insights:

  • I don’t need to have all the answers,
  • I cannot plan others’ experiences, and
  • my job lies more in creating space than in conveying content.

These ideas helped me to let go of some typical teacher/leader/presenter tendencies to

  • above all, appear competent,
  • take up most of the air time,
  • fear the unknowable.

What I learned was that participants sincerely appreciate having a chance to do their job well: participate.  That is, to engage, be active, to give as well as receive, to hear and be heard.  Any time that we dare to stand up and volunteer to share our expertise, it is easy to fall prey to a host of expectations, real and imagined, which assure us that we will be doomed unless we have our hands on the controls at all times. And yet we forget that, in many ways, we are often among friends, or among colleagues or folks who share an interest in our topic.  We are surrounded by rich and remarkable resources in the particpants we have before us.  What would happen if we tapped into those resources more fully?  What could we create if we put more effort into facilitating exchange than in animating our power point?  What if we actively shifted the spotlight from presenter/facilitator to participant-contributor?

My guess is that professional development, particularly in the field of education, would be radically enhanced. If many of us who have been carrying the reform banner in favor of a fundamental shift from teaching to learning would actively practice what we preach, fewer educators would dread PD that may be professional but hardly developmental.  It’s also time to begin personalizing and significantly energizing the learning of our teachers.  And it begins by inviting more of them to take the floor, to share the stage and to be recognized as experts and researchers.  It is sustained by encouraging exchange, raising more questions than answers and accepting an outcome in which people may not know more but perhaps understand better.

Here’s what I love about offering a good workshop: many smiles, a good dose of laughter, genuine connection and a sense of time and attention well spent; another healthy investment in my personal and professional development.

Many thanks to my participants extraordinaire: Renee, Sheryl, Otti and Bonnie!