Key Insights from George Lakey’s book, “Facilitating Group Learning”

I recently finished reading George Lakey’s new book, Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book because it provides a clear description and examples of what experiential education, or what Lakey calls direct education, is and entails.  Having been an experiential educator for several years now, Lakey and his colleagues at Training for Change, have become a real source of learning for me and my work.  Below are several key insights from the book:

On the history and origins of direct education…

The old paradigm of education is also wearing out, and parts of the new paradigm have been emerging in my lifetime.   John Dewey (1966) famously insisted that “we learn by doing.”  During World War II the U.S. government’s effort for educate families to eat foods formerly wasted discovered that homemakers were more likely to change through discussion groups than through lectures.  Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (1972, 1994) found that peasants learned to read more effectively when he used participatory methods that supported their power; his work flowered into popular education.  The activist intellectual Ella Baker gained influence in the U.S. civil rights movement through her brilliant organizing skills and coached the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to use her version of popular education to empower Southern African Americans to stand up to the Ku Klux Klan.

On a definition of direct education…

Direct education cuts through the fluff and pretense that distances learners from the subject…Direct education take the most direct path to the learner in the here and now…Direct education is highly experiential, using a variety of methods to move participants out of their comfort zones into encounters with new possibilities.  Although exercises are structured, they stimulate spontaneous responses rather than demonstrations or rehearsal of previous thinking: facilitators choose interventions that go for the “here and now.”

On individuals and groups…

I assume that to learn, people need to risk: to revise their conceptual framework, try a new skill, unlearn an old prejudice, admit there’s something they don’t know.  To risk, people need safety.  To be safe, they need a group and/or a teacher that supports them.

The mere physical presence of a collection of bodies in the room is no indication that someone is learning something new.

On harnessing the power of intention…

Participants cannot become powerful learners while coasting on the objectives set out in the curriculum.  Each participant needs to state what it is she or he wants to learn, concretely and realistically.  I rarely believe it important for me to know exactly what each person’s goals are, but it is important that someone in the group – a learning buddy or members of a support group – know what each person’s goals are.  Witnesses often empower us to be our best.

I’m grounded by the view of three perspectives on power suggested by Starhawk (1988): power-over (oppressing people and holding them down), power-with (the influence on has in a group of equals – and I would add facilitating collaboration); and power-from-within (the hope, courage, and compassion needed for the long run).  When I invite participants to take power-with and power-from-within, I notice that I’m centered.

It’s possible to design social arrangements where the individual’s well-being is in alignment with society’s well-being…If we go with the flow of a typical high school and university design, we’ll continue with the implicit structure of competitive individualism in our workshops and courses.

Direct education is not about balancing the competing claims of individual and group.  It’s about dropping the competition.  It’s about supporting both, in such a way that the whole experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  The learning break-through available to the participants is a product of both their own motivation and responsibility and of the considerable support of their group.

On strengthening the container…

The process of agreeing on a set of norms can itself be container building, especially if the norms are elicited from the group.

Intelligence, it is said, lies in the ability to make connections.  The wide-awake learner is busy making connections between the content of the curriculum and her or his own previous experience and cognitive map.  Supporting this bottom-line task is the strength of the connections already made in the room.  Because human beings are social creatures, we make connections best when we are already connected.

On facilitation…

The relief is that it’s not all on us to make sure the learning is happening – we are indeed engaged in co-creation and the participants are mainly responsible for what they learn, using the assistance of us and the group.

Pretense is the enemy of learning.  Adults have many years of experience pretending to be students, going through the motions, eyes on the lecturer while the mind is a million miles away.  Real learning happens when people decide to be real.  Although it may be anxiety-producing for teachers who enjoy the appearance of “the good students,” our full power as teachers is only available when participants drop their pretense.

On acknowledging differences…

…when the group goes beyond its superficial phase of politeness to a deep acceptance of the differences within it, it frees itself for accelerated learning.

What makes trouble is that the mainstream is by nature clueless about the experience and perspective of unfamiliar margins.  The challenge for us as teachers and facilitators who want optimum performance for our learning groups is to assist the mainstream to see how clueless it is…Our job as facilitators and educators is to maintain a perspective that supports everyone, margins and mainstreams alike, to stop hurting each other, to drop the judgments and get curious, to struggle cleanly for their points of view, and to learn, learn, learn.

On the importance of authenticity…

The habitual stifling of emotional expression is about control and domination.  Those who enforce suppression tell us they are teaching us to be “appropriate.”  The habit of suppression is not, however, about appropriateness; parts of our population are taught from childhood that it is never appropriate for an adult man to cry or for an adult woman to express anger.  It’s exactly that rigidity which makes this issue huge for classroom teachers and for workshop facilitators.  Rigidly holding back emotional expression prevents authenticity.  And authenticity is essential for deep learning.  The accusation of “touchy-feely” is, therefore, a diversion entirely beside the point.  The question for learning groups is not “Can we feel here?” but rather “Can we be authentic here?”  Authenticity supports learning, and pretense prevents it.

On organizing content…

Someone, somewhere must have known that what goes on in education when it is real is not the receipt of knowledge, but the pursuit of knowledge!

The onion is not only a metaphor for a complex, multilayered body of knowledge; it is also a metaphor for the self and our own layers of resistance and passion as we encounter the juiciness of the quest.  It assists participants in a  learning group to understand that if there are thirty participants in the room, there are also thirty workshops, and they have the responsibility to peel their own onion to discover how to fully empower themselves in relation to the knowledge in this particular field.

This way of thinking about curriculum excites me because it invite empathic imagination: What are the successive layers of approximation through which participants’ understanding of reality becomes ever more accurate and complex?  Then, how to design activities that will lead to deeper layers of the onion?  And how can we tap into the corresponding layers of the participant’s own challenges and goals?

On the model of experiential education…

This sequence [the four-step model of experiential education developed by David Kolb (1984)] – experience, reflect, generalize, apply – is relied on increasingly by teachers and trainers around the world because it produces the most consistent results for empowering the participants to use what they’ve learned.

When we use the experiential model for design, we are teaching on a meta-level one of the most important lessons of all: a methodology for lifelong learning.

On building on what learners know…

The value added from the teacher is only partly the content we present in the course.  Our larger contribution is in our ability to assist participants to access the knowledge that is already present in the group, to generalize from it, and apply it.

Contrary to conventional thinking, the best way to use our knowledge is usually not to present it.  Its best use is to inform ourselves how the participants are doing as they pursue their learning goals.  Based on this diagnosis, we can devise the additional activities that will enable their success.  We can’t assess how they are doing and assist them to reach their goals if we don’t know the field.  “Knowledge is power.”  That’s precisely why it is the knowledge held and discovered by the participants that leads to empowered action.  This is direct education.

On elicitive questioning…

An elicitive question is not a probe to get the “right answer;” it is not your seventh-grade teacher asking what year the American colonies declared independence.  In direct education the facilitator asks the question knowing that understanding involves peeling the onion, so various answers are entertained to support the group’s peeling.

I’ve found questions that use the word “why” can more easily elicit premature philosophizing then “how” or “what” questions (What are some characteristics of…? What lessons could be learned from…?). Elicitive questions accelerate learning because they prevent the teacher from going over material that most of the group already knows – participants teach each other much more quickly that logic-controlled teachers do – and they help keep the group alive rather than tuning out.  They also provide a powerful diagnostic opportunity for the facilitator: we find out where they group is in several respects, including who might be in the margin at the moment.

On key criteria  for workshop design…

Are there activities that will give everyone a chance to shine, no matter what their background or rank?  Are there activities for auditory, kinesthetic, visual, and emotional learning channels?  Are there activities that can be adapted for the differently abled?  Are the container-building tools suitable for a variety of cultures?  Are there activities that invite participants to self-responsibility?  Are their activities that allow for the expression of the emotions people have going into the retreat, especially anxiety?

From Matt Guynn: “The most powerful design incorporates each activity into a powerful sequence that has intentionality in every choice.  How can the introductions, the opening activity, the closing for the first evening all contribute to the goals of the workshop?”

On the difference between negotiated design and direct education…

The difference between negotiated design and direct education are substantial.  In the direct education model, the goals are worked out ahead of the workshop through agreement with the sponsor of the workshop, or the goals are publicized to attract individuals to sign up for the workshop.  Once the goals are set, they remain the goals for the workshop, and in the direct education model I hold myself accountable to them.

On setting the tone and building safety…

I learned from a presentation by John Grinder, co-founder of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), that groups are more likely to be successfully guided when they are met where they are, energetically.  NLP calls it “pacing and leading.”  I’ve found it a major principle not only for the beginnings of a learning group but throughout the course or workshop, especially when participants get back together after a break.

…most of what we do in direct education in setting the tone is to remind the participants that the workshop is about them and their goals, not about the facilitator or teacher.

What never works is to try to defend the exercise.  Defending the exercise (or the video clip or the handout) colludes with the deflection itself – I’m joining the participant who may be trying to avoid the discomfort zone by going away from the substance of their experience.  If they disliked the exercise, the activity is probably twice as meaningful to them in reality, bu they won’t find that out by debating pedagogy.  They might find it out during the group’s discussion of content.

…no activity works for everyone.  There’s always a margin!  My job is to design a large enough variety of activities in it so there’s something for everyone.

On sensitivity in cross-cultural issues

Am I committed to capacity building?…For me this is essential because dependency is the opposite of empowerment – if the inviter remains dependent on us to come in and do trainings, an important opportunity is lost.

Is this the “American model of education” that I’m spreading abroad?…The essentials of direct education go back to Brazilian Paolo Freire and his liberation pedagogy and the popular education movement is spawned…direct education could [also] be seen as fully in alignment with ancient Buddhist teaching and practice.

Conflict is often a builder of group cohesion.

On looking for transformational moments…

Most of us who lead groups are used to looking for the teachable moments, the times when the group is particularly open to new learning.  I find it useful to watch also for transformational moments, the times when a group is open to letting go of a block to learning.

Human beings have a deep yearning to grow past their limitations.  For me it’s a joy in this work that I get to accompany some of them on that journey.

Concluding thoughts…

Direct education harnesses two resources generally left untapped: the unique motivation of each learner and the group container…In the traditional paradigm, participants are usually assumed to bring sufficient motivation because they signed up for the course, although the reality is that the teacher has no idea what combination of factors really lands a person in her or his seat.  In direct education, we believe in the power of intention – the usefulness of each individual clarifying how her or his like could be different if she or he learns specific things in the course, whether skills, knowledge, capacity, attitude or wisdom.

We believe that for the most part learning proceeds best not through comprehending linear, finished statements as in the field’s definitions; learning proceeds best through experiences that introduce successive approximations with the aid of various learning channels.

In direct education we put first things first: the activity, so everyone can share a here-and-now experience to learn from, then the reflection time so members of the group can share the meaning they make from the experience.  After those two steps are done, group members are equipped to manifest their own considerable knowledge and theory to the past, making a zestful generalization time that has a fair chance of getting integrated into the cognitive map of the learners.

The more deeply experienced teachers are with direct education, the less they need to worry about working in cultures that are new to them, because direct education puts the group and its needs first and has a toolbox that implements that priority.  By embracing the diversity of learning styles, building a container, and stressing the individual’s learning goals, and placing elicitive tools in an experiential sequence, direct education avoids the characteristic pitfalls that so often replicate the imperialist theme of domination.

We are also guided my a humble metaphor: a tour guide in a museum.  We don’t need a know-it-all attitude because our authority doesn’t rest on knowing more than the participants do about the art on the walls.  We don’t need a condescending attitude because some individuals in the course may be wiser, more integrated, more spiritually developed than we are.  We just need to know the museum – in other words, the design of the course and the facilitation moves that enable a group to make it to the end of the tour.

One response to “Key Insights from George Lakey’s book, “Facilitating Group Learning”

  1. Daryn, I am also having a very powerful experience with this book, and appreciate your insights. I have called out and highlighted many of your important points as well.

    Nice to know about you and your work.


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