Training for Change Workshop – How to Teach Theory

From Thursday, Feb 24 – Sunday, Feb 27, I attended the Training for Change workshop, How to Teach Theory.  This is the second TfC workshop in which I have participated.  The first was their Training for Social Action Trainers (TSAT), which I found to be a highly effective, engaging workshop that helped me develop new skills as a trainer and educator in ways that made it more likely that I would actually use these skills in my professional work.  One of the TSAT trainers recommended that I take the How to Teach Theory workshop, considering both my work for ICNC and at AU – two teaching and training settings that require exploring theories and abstract ideas.  The goals of the workshops were: (1) increase your skills at presenting theory and concepts without lecturing, (2) gain confidence and experience in moving a group from stage 2 (reflection) to stage 3 (generalization) to stage 4 (application) in the direct education model/experiential learning cycle, (3) Identify key teaching concepts and theories in your teaching area, and (4) have fun!  Below I have outlined what was covered in the workshop and some thoughts on why I think they are important.

Thursday, Feb 24
6:30pm – 9:30pm

The facilitators with a welcoming exercise, which involved welcoming all aspects of what people are bringing to the workshop and all the various elements of our identities – welcoming all men, women, and people who may not identify with a specific gender.  Welcoming all ages and generations.  Welcoming all races, ethnicities, and our ancestry.  Welcoming the various emotions that we may be bringing to the workshop – fear, excitement, anxiety, fatigue, curiosity, etc.  Welcoming the history of the people whose land we are on.  I think this exercise is important because it acknowledges from the very beginning that the facilitators and the learning environment they are seeking to foster is one which is open to all that the participants bring.  It has the ability to make people feel both comfortable and a bit exposed, perhaps as parts of their identity may be “called out.”

After the welcoming exercise we did a drawing activity, which asked us all to draw on a piece of flip chart paper what it is that we are bringing to this workshop.  We were given about 5 minutes to create our image.  I drew a large peace sign and inside each section of the sign I drew different thing that influenced the way I teach, train, and facilitate.  I drew lots of stick figures in different colors, different sizes, and different shaped heads to represent the diversity of people that I have had the privilege of learning with in workshops.  I drew the side of my head with my ear enlarged to show I was enjoyed listening and hearing other people’s experience and stories.  And I wrote a bunch of acronyms (CUF, TfC, ICNC, AU, SCA, DM, CC) to represent the various organizations for which I have worked that gave me the experience and education to develop skills as an organizer and trainer.  After each person finished their drawing, we were invited to come to the front of the room one at a time and present out drawing to the rest of the group. We were strictly held to one minute during our presentation.  I felt this activity was a bit rushed in the drawing phase, but I like everyone’s presentation – it was much better than just going around the room one by one saying our names and where we work.  I also like that we were strictly held to just one minute.

The facilitator then went over the schedule for the next four days.  The outline was rather vague not really delving into the specifics of each activity or exercise we would be doing.  This was probably intentional since there is some level of adapting to the needs of the learning group when making certain training choices.

We then did a maximize/minimize activity, where the facilitators asked us to recall a learning moment when we really felt like we were learning something.  As participants shared those moments, the facilitators asked elicitive questions to get at what we were doing or how we were operating at that point that allowed that learning to be maximized.  All those ideas were written up on flip chart.  They then asked us to think about a moment when we were not fully engaged and minimizing our ability to learn.  As people shared the trainers asked what we have done to pull ourselves out of those habits.  In other words, what do we do when we are slipping into minimizing behaviors and we need to pull ourselves back into maximizing behaviors.  This exercise makes us conscious and aware from the very beginning about what we need to to in order to get the most out of this experience and to take responsibility for our own learning.  I thought that a key insight on that was shared by one of the trainers was that, “learning is something that you do, not something that is done to you,” hence you must be actively involved in ensuring that learning takes place, not just passively consume.

We then did a comfort/discomfort zone activity, which involves making a circle on the floor with a long piece of rope.  Everyone then stands inside the rope, symbolizing being in the comfort zone.  The trainer asked us to share things about the workshop so far that made us feel comfortable.  As people shared, she asked if any of these examples people were sharing actually made them feel uncomfortable, and if so they should take a step outside of the circle.  As we talked about different things in the workshop it was a constant stepping in and out of the circle and actually seeing how different people react to different exercises and activities.  The trainer explained, after giving us a handout explaining the activity, that in training situations we want to create a certain level of discomfort because that’s when we are exploring new learning terrain and challenging ourselves, assumptions, etc.  But she also warned of not putting people in the “alarm zone,” which is an experience that goes beyond discomfort and can actually cause a participant to shut down all together.  This activity was a good reminder that we should not shy away or resist have moments of discomfort throughout the workshop and should instead embrace it as moments of real learning.

We then did an ice-breaker called zip, zap, boing.  In this activity we all stood in a circle.  One person starts by saying “zip” to the person standing on their right.  That person also then says “zip” to the person on their right, and so forth, sending the word zip all the way around the circle.  When someone says “zap” they say it to the person on their left and that word then travels around the circle in that direction.  When one of those words gets to a person in the circle and that person decides to say “boing,” the direction of the word changes.  So if the person on your right turns to you and says zap, and then you say boing, that person that turns around to the person on their right and says zip, sending that word around the circle in that direction.  This was a way for us to just have a little fun before moving onto the next exercise.

This was followed by another fun, kinesthetic activity called chaos to similarities.  In this exercise everyone just randomly walks throughout the training space, shuffling up the group.  Then one of the trainers asks you to get into groups with people who have something in common with you – number of siblings, favorite kinds of animal, etc.  Once this is called out people scramble to find people to group up with based on these similarities.

The last part of this chaos to similarities exercise, but us all into equal sized groups of 2-3 people.  These groups then became our workshop buddy, someone who we would check in with periodically throughout the training.

In our groups we did a sentence completion exercise, where one of the buddies was asked to finish a series of sentences.  In the first round they were supposed to keep talking starting each sentence with, “one reason you’ll be happy I’m your buddy is…”  The next round they had to start each sentence with, “one way you can support me is…”  The next round they had to start each sentence with, “one way I may resist that support is…”  And the final round they had to start each sentence with, “one way you can support me anyway is…”  After one buddy went through all these rounds, while the other just listened, the roles were then switched – the buddy that had been doing all the talking/sentence completion transition into doing the listening and visa versa.

After this was all completed we then did noticings, which are observations without judgment of evaluation.  It is a time for us to put on our trainer hats and bring up things that we noticed over the course of the session about which we are curios and would like the trainers to explain their rational behind certain choices.

Friday, Feb 25
9:00am – 9:15pm

We began the day by checking in with our workshop buddy.  During this check in we shared what our goals were for the workshop.  I found this to be a VERY important element of the training – to be able to vocalize and share with another person what it is that you want to get out of the workshop and accomplish over the course of the 3 1/2 days.

We then did a square/rope exercise – and adventure activity then gives a challenge to the entire group to work through.  This particular challenge required all of us to take a piece of rope and turn it into a square with four equal sides, 90 degree angles, with our eyes shut/blindfolded, and in ten minutes or less.  The other rule was that once we touched the rope we could not take our hands off it.  All we could do is slide it along the rope.

After we complete the exercise – which I am happy to say we did succesfully – we broke up into groups of three and discussed examples or strategies of successful communication that were used during the exercise.  This led into a list-making activity, where one of the trainers harvested from each group the successful examples or techniques of communication were as follows:

  • Authoritative (speaking with clarity, authority, and audible)
  • Listening balanced with speaking
  • Having a plan before jumping in
  • Boundaries around who is speaking and when
  • Reference common experiences
  • Multiple channels of communication
  • Varying the pace – small groups working together, then bringing ideas back
  • Gauging the time for introducing new ideas
  • Influencing and uniting
  • Reading the difference between trusting and disengaging
  • Watching the balance of participation
  • Balancing the group’s health/satisfaction and the product within the time constraints
  • Not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good
  • Collaboration and sense of strong group
  • Developing the group’s life – reference points, history, etc.

After this list was created the trainer asked us how would this list change or how would some of these techniques or methods be amended, if at all, if one the top of the list were written, “characteristics of a good trainer.”  Some of the examples were slightly amended, but what ended up happening was that each of these examples were discussed again, but in the context of training rather than within the context of the rope/square exercise.  The parallels were on point.

We then continued on the theme of what makes a good trainer by doing a metaphor/simile list creation exercise, where we were all given a piece of flip chart paper on which we finished a sentence that began with “a good trainer is…”  We had to finish this sentence with some type of metaphor or simile (e.g. a good trainer is like sturdy fence post or a good trainer is the trowel that cultivates the garden, etc.)  Once we completed one sentence, we folded over the place where we wrote and then handed the paper to the person on our left.  After this was done several times, each piece of paper had been folded like a fan and had several “a good trainer is…”  metaphors and similes written on them.  We all unfolded the paper we ended up with and read all the metaphors and similes.  The trainer asked us to share any of the ones that resonated with us and asked us why.  They then also asked us share any that we found confusing and wanted someone to explain what they meant.

We then went over what an elicitive question was and developed a list of all the activities we had done thus far and how elicitive questions were used during our reflection on those activities.  What we identified as what made up an elicitive question were the following:

  • open-ended
  • re-phrased is necessary
  • seeks to dig deeper
  • curious not judgmental
  • genuinely exploring, not leading
  • positive encouragement to share more
  • individual, personal (for you, specifically, not generally)

We then did an inside/outside circle activity, where we asked each other elicitive questions based on our experience in the workshop thus far.  This was a good way to actually practice developing and exploring elicitive questions.  After we asked one person an elicitive question, everyone on the outside of the circle facing in got up and moved one chari to the left in order to be paired up with a different person.  We did this several times, first just asking one question, and in later staged asking several elicitive questions that build off one another.

We then did more noticings.

After lunch we came back and did an ice-breaker – house, tenants and earthquakes.  In this activity some people paired with another by raising their arms and pressing their hands with someone else to form a “house.”  Those who were not making a house were then tenants and had to find a house by standing in between two people who had created a house.  When the trainer called out “houses” everyone who had been forming a house had to break up and find a new partner to form a house with and do it over a tenant.  When the trainer called out, “tenants” all the tenants had to shuffle around a find a new house.  When the trainer called out, “earthquake” everyone had to shuffle and find someone else to make a house and switch from being a tenant to being a house.

We then did a role-playing exercise, where one participant volunteered to role-play a disgruntled workshop participant and another participant volunteered to role-play a trainer trying handle the situation.  After a few people stepped into the role-playing mode, trying out different situations and conflict, we all reflected on the different approaches people took.  All of these approaches were connected to Arnold Mindell’s four options in the face of being challenged: (1) accept responsibility, (2) standing your ground, (3) pulling out more information, and (4) challenging their standing.  One of the trainers made an important comment that there is no right or wrong way to respond when faced with a challenge, rather it is important to be aware of which option you are taking and not mixing several of them together.

We then broke up into small groups based off of which kind of intelligence plays to our learning strengths – visual, auditory, emotional, or kinesthetic learning styles.  In our groups we put together an exercise, activity, or skit that presented that form of learning.  The visual learning group had everyone close their eyes as they talked about figures they had drawn on a piece of flip chart.  This of course representing how much we were missing out on when we could not see the figure.  The auditory group stressed the importance of repeating instructions and checking in with small groups to ensure that everyone understand the task at hand.  The emotional learning group facilitated a human sculpture exercise where people had to create a statue that represented how they were feeling thus far about the workshop.  And the kinesthetic learning group did a skit where they taught each other how to tie a know.

After a break we delved into the experiential learning cycle:

  • EXPERIENCE – sometimes it comes from your own personal experience.  Sometimes it comes from a shared experience in the learning space among the participants.
  • REFLECTION – how did that feel?  How did that go?
  • GENERALIZING – Where the learning is captured and explored.  A theory is introduced or created.  The experience is connected to a general concept.
  • APPLICATION – making a plan for putting the theory to use.  Actually practicing the skills or testing the theory in application.

After dinner we did the big wind blows exercise, where chairs are arranged in a circle and everyone is sitting except one person in the middle.  The person in the middle says “the big wind blows…” and thensomething that is true about themselves.  Everyone else for whom that is also true and the person who said the statement has to then stand up and scramble to find another chair.  This will leave a different person standing in the middle who them says does another statement.

We then did a closed-eye process, where we were invited to close our eyes and then asked to think back to when we were 12 years old and visualize where we were, who are friends were, where we went to school, what we were doing, etc.

After this we then lined up based off of what socio-economic class and then grouped up with people who grew up in a similar socio-economic class.  In our groups we talked about what it was like growing up in the class and look even more closely at the impact it had on our education.  We then opened up the conversation to the entire group in a type of dialogue process.  This revealed some of the politics of education and brought out some anger that some of us have directed at traditional forms of education and has driven our motivation to explore experiential education.  One of the trainers made a good comment that experiential education is about more than having more tools and techniques at one’s disposal.  It is about social justice and oppression.  It is about an educational model that is student-centered and liberates learners from the traditional model that is inherently oppressive to learners who do not fit into that model.

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