What helps create the right learning conditions for groups? Here are 8 strategies.

We envision a world in which all young people lead creative, purposeful lives.

Two decades of training adults to work in creative and empowering ways with youth, and we still keep hearing statements like “I haven’t picked up art supplies in years. I don’t know how to draw!” or  “I had never sang songs in a group before – I feel so liberated right now, having let my voice out.” If you work with groups in any way, you’ve probably experienced the same when you present something new to your participants. What is this about? Statements like these represent two states of mind that participants may experience when trying something new – anxiety and curiosity. As a facilitator of learning, a key role you play is to help participants manage these two distinct states.

Anxiety and curiosity compete for attention across most of our experiences, especially when we find ourselves in new situations. In their book Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind, Taylor and Marineau state that an anxious mind wants to be certain – it wants to avoid threats and be prepared to react to dangers immediately! On the other hand, the curious mind seeks experiences, makes meaning between past and present, creates patterns, and then rewards itself with feel-good hormones for tackling the newness! Think about it. When you visit a new city or country, there may be a part of you that wants to taste new cuisines and explore the place. On doing so, you could feel accomplished! And then, there may also be a part that is cautious – what if you lose important documents, or get lost yourself? To navigate this, you may plan your itineraries and immerse yourself in Google Maps or online reviews.

When the brain is scared, it has a foot on the brake; when it is curious, it has a foot on the accelerator,” say Taylor and Marineau. “Unless we first attend sufficiently well to reducing threats, adults may literally not have enough presence of mind to learn.” Their problem solving and reflection abilities will be on hold…just lowering the threat doesn’t guarantee less anxiety and more curiosity. We need to create constant balance, where there is enough structure and safety for the mind to try new things and reflect on them, without hitting the break and going into the high-alert fight or flight mode.

Based on PYE’s work of over two decades across 20 countries, we’ve learned that for us, the foundation of any learning event rests on activating participants’ imagination, and investing in it consistently. One of the ways we do so is through an 8-step process, which helps create a highly effective learning environment where participants can experience both safety and risk-taking.

  1. Preparation: This involves setting up the ‘space’ of learning – physical or digital. It’s about intentionality, right from the beginning. Think through how you want people to feel in the training space? What do you want them to see, do, and how do you want them to interact?
  2. Check-in: How are you going to ensure that you hear the voices of all participants, right off the bat? It increases their investment in learning. We invite the imagination here, by asking people to share how they feel, using metaphors, sounds, movements and so much more.
  3. Energizer: What can we do to get everyone involved together, and warm-up the group towards taking on larger creative challenges later? Again, the role of imagination is key here – how are we activating it, to start nudging participants out of their comfort zones?
  4. Goals: Once the group is warmed up, has built a connection, and ‘checked-in’, we get them on-board with the benefits of the training – why would they want to be part of this training?
  5. Agreements: With the direction we have, how do we want to be together as a group? What behaviors are okay, and what aren’t? How do we deal with conflict? As the group creates the ‘norms’ together, they create a safe space for them to take on challenges and risks.
  6. Main activity: This is the biggest chunk of your training, where the majority of your learning outcomes are focused. Here is also where the significant creative risks rest. Hence, the five steps prior to this have prepared the participants for the deep dive.
  7. Reflection: No learning ever happens without reflecting on the experience. This step is about making meaning of everything that has happened until now, and committing to applying it in our lives. This is where we celebrate achievements and learnings.
  8. Closing: The last step focuses on transitioning out of the experience, and having a clear closure, so the group is ready to move to the next thing.

Whether you are new to facilitation or have some experience, this model equips you with a simple structure that can be put into practice straight away, no matter the length of your training. Something to note: the group will not necessarily be aware of this structure or flow. It is for you, the facilitator, to remain aware of as you create the conditions for learning to happen, and steadily expose your participants to creative challenges. When applied with foundational facilitation skills, these steps go a long way in encouraging people to try things they may not have before and find connection with each other, themselves and the training goals.

And as we have always emphasized, it is the skill of the facilitator that brings alive any process or tool that the participants engage with. Without the facilitator’s experience and their ability to create powerful learning conditions, even the best of tools/ ideas might fall flat. To strengthen your facilitation skills, sign up for PYE’s cornerstone program Creative Facilitation.

Authors: Nilisha Mohapatra, Stef Turner, and Andrew Nalani

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