Getting it: facilitating understanding,in timely chunks

Facillitation, Plan No Comments

A friend was saying this week how she now ‘gets’ her iPhone. A shop assistant was describing a feature, and she just understood it. That wasn’t always the case for her.

In the late 1990s ‘Knowledge Management’ was at the peak of its fad cycle.  And at that time I heard US leadership expert Peter Senge explain a model of learning he finds helpful. He described two sorts of knowledge transfer:

A) First The Syntactical. This is where colleagues share many common assumptions – so there is a basic level of understanding that allows easy communication of meaning. Like two chess grandmasters, one person can merely outline a new idea (e.g. on a move), and the other person gets it. They tend to be equally motivated – and connected with sufficient trust and respect to value the other point of view too. This peer to peer approach is seen in ‘communities of practice’ where there is curiosity and enough common ground to allow the use of shorthand – so things move fast. In Syntactical knowledge transfer ‘straight transmission is easy and often swift – however, even dry talks and dense articles engage becasuse the content is so meaningful and shared.
B) Or The Transformative. Here a shared understanding needs to be built – and this requires relationships to be developed, different points of view understood and the meaning of words to be explained. The quality of the experience (whether a talk or a workshop session) really matters. It takes time.

As moderators and facilitators, we are concerned with both. However, it is easy for us (or bosses or clients) to make assumptions about how fast things need to move, assumptions that might not quite reflect the needs of the group.  Our desire for pace may be due to the ambition we have of completing certain things by the end of the day and our learning style/needs, not the groups.

When designing an event we need to think of the time required to ensure each session achieves its learning goals. Thinking and asking “is this a time for syntactical or transformative learning” really helps.

So when considering the design of an agenda, here are a few pointers:

1) A facilitated day tends to be made up of four 75-90 minute chunks – interspersed with breaks (i.e. arrival, chunk 1, coffee, chunk 2, lunch etc). Think of each of these chunks as the length of a film, many sports matches or a sleep cycle. After an hour and a half or so the human body needs some movement and transition. There is a natural cycle and rhythm at work – and we do well to remember that.

2) Remember a little known Russian psychologist for the Zeigarnik effect – the legacy from Bluma Zeigarnik is that the human mind finds it helpful to be reminded what is about to happen, regularly and especially at the end of one chunk (before the break and heading into the next chunk!). This creates a helpful suspense between the parts – when we state what is coming up, others start to anticipate it and move to wanting it – a bit like a trailer in a cinema.
3) Think about how long each part within a chunk is likely to need – what will it take for the group to understand a presenters point or work through an issue? This is where knowledge transmission A or B comes in: syntactical learning means participants are ready to apply ideas much more quickly. Think of this as about how long you would allow for a scene in a film if you were a director or scriptwirter. Or, as a home viewer, are you going for fast forward or slow-mo!
4) Even when you allow longer because you know transformative learning is needed, long talks are not required.  We see in the popularity of TED talks (at less than 20 minutes each) that any input is probably best being kept short before a group can reflect, speak and apply. Do you practise the key sandwich principles for adult learning? Do make sure: first, you start with where the group is at; before taking any input/talk;, then ensuring lots of time to consider and trial and review the application of what has been learnt.
5) And a recent blog, argues that even if a presenter has a short slot, keep it shorter than scheduled anyhow! Do you rehearse your speakers? Do you know how to timekeep a contributor in an relaxed manner, stopping a session in a way that seems calm and respectful (and in tune with interest of the group)?

I hope that made sense – I sort of assumed an type A audience…did I get that right for you?

All the best in applying the ideas…these relate to the Ps of participants, principles, potential risks and process in our 13Ps.

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