Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

Replace “brain training” hype with something that works

Monday, December 26th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

Driving home from the post office today, I finally heard one too many promotions for Lumosity brain training on my local NPR station. Lumosity, in case you somehow haven’t heard, is a subscription to online games that claim to improve memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, speed of processing, problem solving, and, for all I know, world peace too.

Despite the Federal Trade Commission slapping Lumosity’s creator, Lumos Labs, with a $50 million judgment (reduced to a $2 million fine) in January to settle charges of deceptive advertising that claimed — with no “competent and reliable scientific evidence” — that the games could help users achieve their “full potential in every aspect of life”, the company continues to bombard consumers with ads. Meanwhile, research on the efficacy of such programs has found little or no evidence that they make any difference to global measures of intelligence or cognition.

“I think claims these companies have been making — and Lumosity is not alone — have been grossly exaggerated. They’re trying to argue that we’re going to take you out of [the] active world … that we’re going to put you in a room alone in front of a computer screen and you’ll play a game that will make you smarter.”
“There is no compelling evidence for that.”
Dr. Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity

At best, it turns out, these games somewhat improve the ability of players to … wait for it … play the games.

Which leads to a simple suggestion.

Instead of paying for programs that claim to “train your brain”, figure out what you want to do that actively engages your mind — and do it!

You’ll probably learn a thing or two about something that actually interests you. And, though I can’t guarantee that your mind will become healthier, your bank account definitely will be!

Illustration components from Flickr users isaacmao and gambort

 

Look back to look forward

Monday, August 17th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Janus-VaticanFrom September 2002 through November 2009 I kept a journal, writing each day before going to bed. Every once in a while I’ll pick one of the five thick notebooks I filled during those seven years and read some entries at random.

Why do I do this?

I don’t revisit my journals to immerse myself in my past. Back then, I wrote to capture and reflect on my experience while it was still fresh, to explore how I responded to and felt about the day’s events. I didn’t write for posterity, and there are many raw experiences in these pages that are painful to recall.

Instead, I dip into what I wrote to compare where I was then with where I am now.

Sometimes I discover that life circumstances have changed. Perhaps I’m no longer impacted by certain issues that once preoccupied me (e.g., my financial situation has changed for the better.) Perhaps some issues are still part of my life, but my response to them is different (e.g., speaking in public no longer scares me as much as it once did.) And perhaps I’m aware now of issues that were absent from my journals (e.g., the implications of growing older.)

Whatever I discover, when I look back at what I used to think and do I receive important information.

Often I discover that I am continuing to change and grow in specific ways. As someone who wants to be a life-long learner, someone who doesn’t want to be “stuck”, that is good and encouraging information to have.

I also notice that certain aspects of my life haven’t changed significantly. Frequently, that’s because they are core aspects of who I am and the world I inhabit.

And sometimes, I become aware that I’m stuck in some pattern of behavior or response that I’d like to change. That’s good information too.

Look back to look forward. At the end of a peer conference, a personal introspective allows participants to explore new directions as a result of experiences during the event. On a longer timescale, old personal journals (or any records of past personal introspection) can be a great tool for learning about ourselves and mapping our future path on life’s journey.

Creative Commons image of Janus courtesy of Wikipedia

Three key kinds of learning at events—Part 2

Monday, June 1st, 2015 by Adrian Segar

andragogy 2176517925_36eebf532b_bIn Part 1, I introduced three distinct categories of learning: factual information acquisition, problem solving, and building a process toolkit, and gave examples of how typical desired meeting outcomes involve different mixtures of each category. Here’s a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.

Pedagogy and Andragogy
In the 2014 post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way I explained how we typically extend into adulthood the pedagogy we’re all exposed to as kids. The word pedagogy comes from the Greek paid, meaning “child” and ago meaning “lead.” So pedagogy literally means “to lead the child.”

The much less familiar term andragogy, first coined in the 1830s, has had multiple definitions over the years, but its modern meaning was shaped by Malcolm Knowles in his 1980 book The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy, based on the Greek word aner with the stem andra meaning “man, not boy” (i.e. adult), and agogus meaning “leader of.” Knowles defined the term as “the art and science of adult learning” and argued that we need to take into account differences between child and adult learners. Specifically, he posited the following changes as individuals mature:

  1. Personality moves from dependent to self-directed.
  2. Learning focus moves from content acquisition to problem solving.
  3. Experience provides a growing resource for their learning activity.
  4. Readiness to learn becomes increasingly aligned with their life roles.
  5. Motivation to learn is more likely to be generated internally than externally.

My professional life journey illustrates all these transformations. At school I was force-fed a concentrated diet of science and mathematics. Besides making a broad decision to study the sciences rather than the arts, I had very little say in what classes I was expected to take. Since then:

  1. My subsequent career path—elementary particle physics research, running a solar manufacturing business, teaching computer science, IT consulting, and, most recently, meeting design—displays a steady movement from doing what I was told I was able to do to what I chose to pursue for my own reasons.
  2. As a physicist, much of my work depended on what I learned at school, university, and academic conferences. As my experience grew, my professional work became increasingly centered on creative problem solving for clients.
  3. In academia, I relied chiefly on classroom learning. Over time, my 30+ years experience has become key to my effectiveness as a meeting designer and convener.
  4. Discovering that I love bringing people together motivates the work of learning what I need to know to perform my work well.
  5. Although financial factors now play a smaller role in determining how much I work, my mission to share what I think is of value drives my desire to learn how to improve my effectiveness and scope.

Take a moment to review your own professional life and see if Knowles’s maturation concepts reflect differences in how you learned in school and now learn as an adult.

Of course, just as there isn’t a clear boundary between childlike and adult behaviors, there’s no clear-cut distinction between pedagogy and andragogy. Both terms encompass motivations and contexts for learning, and it’s most accurate to view them as endpoints on a spectrum of learning behaviors. Nevertheless, Knowles’s five assertions, each positing progression from passivity to action, provide critical insight into why active learning becomes an increasingly important learning modality as we mature.

Too many events still use child-based pedagogical instead of adult-centered andragogical modalities. By concentrating on the latter, we can improve the effectiveness and relevance of the learning we desire and require from our face-to-face meetings.

Photo attribution: Flickr user agent_ladybug

Three key kinds of learning at events—Part 1

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

learn 16846023595_b22b670d4a_kWhen asked, just about everyone mentions learning as a key reason for conference attendance.

So, given the clear importance of learning at events, it’s surprising that we lump distinctly different activities into the single word “learning”. Perhaps this reflects the reality that learning acquisition is a largely unconscious process, in the same way our casual familiarity with snow leads us to possess far fewer words for it than the Inuit. Whatever the reasons, it’s useful to distinguish between three different categories of learning: factual information acquisition, problem solving, and building a process toolkit.

Factual knowledge acquisition involves what it sounds like: learning factual information: multiplication tables, names and typical dosages of medications, foreign language nouns, and the millions of facts that we don’t even know that we know until someone asks us. It also includes sensory knowledge: the ability to recognize whether a skin lesion is benign, the sound of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the feel of satin, the smell of a skunk, or the taste of rhubarb.

Problem solving calls for a different level of learning. In essence, it requires noticing or discovering relationships between pieces of information and using these associations to infer answers to relevant problems. Problem solving provides useful process that operates on our knowledge.

Building a process toolkit is an even higher form of learning. After all, in many situations—for example, multiplying two 4-digit numbers using paper and pen—problem solving can be done by rote. But developing novel process frequently challenges our best minds, sometimes over generations, as illustrated by the growth of scientific understanding over millennia. Whether we construct our own process or appropriate useful process developed by others, building a collection of processes that are relevant to our lives is perhaps the most powerful kind of learning we can perform.

I make these distinctions because any specific instance of learning incorporates a different mixture of each category, and, to complicate things further, the effectiveness of each kind of learning is influenced by disparate factors. As a result, books about learning tend to contain a bewildering variety and quantity of information about aspects of learning.

Let’s illustrate with some examples.

Consider training workers to determine whether an applicant is eligible for government benefit—something that could involve many days teaching a large number of complex requirements. Success might be defined as the workers being able to consistently understand, remember, and apply the correct requirements for each applicant. Such learning will concentrate on acquiring relevant factual knowledge plus the capacity to follow a defined process determined by senior administrators. Factors such as retention of key knowledge, maintaining the level of accuracy necessary to make correct decisions, and the ability to recall relevant material over time are clearly important.

Compare this with the mysterious multiyear process by which some graduate students develop from novice researchers into leading practitioners in their field, which includes attending numerous conferences. This involves all three categories of learning: (1) obtaining a wide range of relevant and not-obviously-relevant knowledge, (2) comfort and familiarity with the discipline’s existing body of process and problem solving, and (3) developing a toolkit of novel process that can, hopefully, extend the field further. While the government workers need to concentrate on retaining well-defined information, the researchers will likely acquire far more information than ultimately needed to make an advance or breakthrough. Consequently, the graduate students need to learn how to refine—both narrow and broaden—their focus on a wide range of information, constantly making decisions on what they will concentrate and what they will, possibly temporarily, put aside. The capacity to do this well, combined with ability to effectively problem-solve and develop novel process defines successful learning in this situation.

So when we talk about learning at meetings, it can be very helpful to be specific about the kind(s) of learning that are desired. Trainings focus on the first two categories I’ve described, while more powerful forms of learning—typically experiential process that introduces tools that can be applied in a variety of future situations—incorporates all three.

In Part 2 of this exploration of learning, I’ll share a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jakerust

Sometimes you CAN learn from experience

Monday, October 27th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

banana peel 1517673819_8a2720cdd1_b

People do not learn from experience. You may think you learn from experience but…People only learn from reflecting on their experience…

…This is why all education programming needs to adopt and adapt reflection and debriefing exercises during the session. If not, people will not learn.
—Jeff Hurt, Time To Face This Ironic Truth: We Do Not Learn From Experience

Jeff Hurt’s recent post makes the case for incorporating reflection/debriefing into all conference sessions. While I completely agree with him that these activities should be included, I think a small clarification is in order.

His post implies that you must debrief participant experience at events in order for learning to occur. If that were true, you would never learn anything from a lecture. While it’s true that lectures are one of the worst ways to attempt to teach people anything, there’s no question that some learning occurs via lectures for some people some of the time.

You probably discovered at school that if you took notes during a lecture (interestingly, handwritten notes seem to be more effective than typed notes) you retained more of the material than if you simply listened and tried to remember the lecture points later. This is because note-taking is a form of personal reflection/debriefing; it forces you to process, to some degree, the information you are hearing and this improves your associated memory and understanding, and consequent accuracy, quantity, and length of recall.

What this means is that it’s possible to learn from experience without external prompting or exercises—if you are capable of doing the necessary reflection yourself. One of the most powerful learning disciplines you can cultivate is the practice of regular reflection on your own experiences. I know that many impactful decisions and changes in my life have occurred through ongoing self-reflection rather than the feedback or advice of others.

During our education, we are rarely taught the value of regular honest self-reflection. By “honest” I mean self-reflection that neither avoids beating oneself up over “mistakes” or hard-to-stomach experiences nor glossing over them. Instead, cultivating your ability to dispassionately notice what is happening to you and periodically reflecting on what you have noticed allows you to learn effectively by yourself.

Having said this, I want to be clear that there is great value in learning from others. Conversation and connection with others give you opportunities to uncover and clarify your tacit knowledge: things bubbling under the surface that you don’t know you know. I think that a majority of our important learning occurs in this way. But we should not discount our significant capability to learn by ourselves.

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection with others and by yourself will allow you to maximize your learning throughout your life.

Photo attribution: Flickr user markybon

A little humility leaves us open to learning

Monday, August 25th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Every time I’m sure of something that turns out not to be true is an opportunity for me to learn.

To remember that I can always learn something new.

Now if only I could be less all-knowing more of the time…

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by Adrian Segar

GMIC2014 collab session Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone. So here’s what I did.

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

2014-04-15 14.41.30

      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

2014-04-15 19.06.05

6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

2014-04-17 15.08.14

Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. I believe that reflective and connective processes like this should be used after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to meeting participants.

Cooperative Learning: Lessons from neutrino physics and pair programming

Monday, March 31st, 2014 by Adrian Segar

leptonic weak neutral current

As an experimental elementary particle physicist in the 1970’s I was lucky enough to work on what turned out to be one of the most important physics experiments in the second half of the twentieth century. Exploring the rare interactions of neutrinos in a huge bubble chamber at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, required labs in five countries to view and hand-digitize millions of filmed particle tracks projected onto large white tables. Only a few of these images were expected to show the crucial events we were looking for, so it was important that we didn’t miss anything important.

Gargamelle film scanning table

Gargamelle film scanning table

When you’re staring at hundreds of similar images, one after the other, for hours on end it’s easy to overlook something. So how did we minimize the chance of missing an infrequent crucial particle interaction?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Every set of film images was scanned at least twice on separate occasions by different staff. The resulting set of information on each image was then checked to see if all the viewers agreed on what was going on. If they didn’t, other staff viewed the film again to discover who was right, thus catching missing information or interpretative errors. Statistical methods then allowed us to calculate how accurate each scan operator was, and even to predict the small likelihood that all viewers would miss something significant.

This approach allowed us to be confident of our ability to catch a few, very important particle interactions. The best evidence for our results—which provided the first confirmation that a Nobel Prize winning theory unifying two fundamental forces in nature was indeed correct—was based on finding just three examples.

Another example of how people working together can create more reliable work is pair programming: a technique that became popular in the 1990’s for developing higher quality software. In pair programming, two programmers work together at one computer. One writes code while the other reviews the code as it is typed in, checking for errors and suggesting improvements. The two programmers switch roles frequently. Pair programming typically reduces coding errors, which are generally difficult and expensive to fix at a later stage, at the cost, sometimes, of an increase in programmer hours. Many software companies creating complex software find that the value of the increased quality is well worth any additional cost.

While these two examples of cooperative work concentrate on reducing critical mistakes, it doesn’t take much of a leap to see that working together on a learning task may increase the accuracy and completeness of what is learned. As a bonus, the two (or more) learners involved receive an opportunity to get to know each other while they share an experience together. With the right design, there is little downside but much to be gained from learning with others rather than alone.

What most schools don’t teach (and should)

Monday, December 9th, 2013 by Adrian Segar

First, watch the video above.

I learned to code at school when I was 15. No big deal? It was 1966. Learning to program a computer changed my life. Far more important than nearly everything else—facts I have long since forgotten—that I was “taught”.

Learning to code didn’t change my life because I could then make big bucks writing software—though my fourth career, as an IT consultant, was very kind to me. And the important truth of the video’s opening quote by Steve Jobs “Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer…because it teaches you how to think” isn’t the main reason my life was changed.

(more…)

How to create a safe environment for learning at your event

Monday, December 2nd, 2013 by Adrian Segar

safety 1446280208_58d3cf0aa2_o

In the events world, the word “safety” has a couple of meanings. The first is objective: the degree of protection from undesirable environmental hazards. At events we maximize the objective safety of attendees by eliminating or minimizing the likelihood of tripping, slipping, falling, falling objects, food poisoning, etc.

The kind of safety covered here is subjective safety: How safe do attendees feel? As the following quote indicates, if we are to optimize learning at a meeting we want participants to be relaxed but alert; in a state I like to call nervous excitement.

“…brain research also suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance between stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat. The brain needs some challenge, or environmental press that generates stress as described above to activate emotions and learning. Why? Stress motivates a survival imperative in the brain. Too much and anxiety shuts down opportunities for learning. Too little and the brain becomes too relaxed and comfortable to become actively engaged. The phrase used to describe the brain state for optimal learning is that of relaxed-alertness. Practically speaking, this means as designers and educators need to create places that are not only safe to learn, but also spark some emotional interest through celebrations and rituals.”
—Jeffery A. Lackney, report excerpt from the brain-based workshop track of the CEFPI Midwest Regional Conference

It’s easy to create a meeting environment that feels unsafe for most if not all attendees. Without careful preparation, asking people to walk barefoot over hot coals, dress up in costumes and dance on stage, or give impromptu talks to a large audience will evoke feelings of discomfort and fear in almost everyone.

It’s also easy to create a safe event environment by treating people as a passive audience who are not required to participate in the proceedings in any way. Unfortunately this is often the choice made by many meeting organizers who are themselves afraid of what might happen if attendees are subjected to something “new”.

So, how do we strike a balance between unduly scaring attendees and treating them as inactive spectators?

It’s not easy.

Creating the right amount of nervous excitement for a group of people is challenging, because each of us responds uniquely to different situations. For example, meeting someone new at a social might be easy for John and scary for Jane, while Jane has no problem skydiving from an airplane at 12,000 feet which is a prospect that terrifies John.

Ultimately, we can’t control other people’s feelings (let alone, often, our own)! Consequently, we are unable to guarantee that anyone will feel safe during a meeting session. But there are some things we can do to improve participants’ experience of safety when they are faced with the new challenges invariably associated with learning and connecting.

Create an environment where it’s easier to make mistakes

“Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures.”
—Laura Grace Weldon, Fun Theory

Why is feeling OK about making mistakes important? With traditional broadcast learning, your comprehension of the material presented—or lack of it—is something that happens in your brain and is essentially invisible to everyone but yourself. In a social context, this creates a great deal of safety; no one can easily see that you don’t understand.

But because experiential learning requires us to do something external, like talking to our peers about our understanding or ideas, or physically performing an activity, we lose this invisibility safety net. This brings up the possibility that others may experience us doing something “dumb”, “stupid”, “slow”, etc. (For an example, read the “Graduate student story” on pages 62-64 of my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.)

As someone who was educated in a school where knowing the “right answer” was praised and lack of knowledge or understanding denigrated, I felt ashamed about “making mistakes” in public for many years, and, unfortunately, this is a common experience that almost everyone learns to some degree while attending school as a child.

So how can we create an event environment where it’s easier to make mistakes? Here are three suggestions:

1) Tell participants that it’s impossible to make mistakes
A simple way to create a safe environment for what participants might otherwise feel is risky is to tell them that whatever they do is the right thing.

For example, when I introduce the opening technique The Three Questions at an event, I tell participants that it’s impossible to answer The Three Questions incorrectly. Whatever answers they give are the correct answers. This sounds almost too simple—but it works surprisingly well!

2) Improv exercises
One of the first games used to introduce improvisational theatre (improv) to those with no prior experience is keep the ball in the air, usually shortened to ball. Players stand in the circle and a ~12” diameter hollow rubber ball is tossed into the air. The object of each game is for the group to keep the ball in the air with any part of their body, with the game ending if anyone contacts the ball twice in a row or the ball touches the ground. Holding the ball is not allowed. Each ball touch adds one to the group’s score, which the group shouts in unison after each contact. A game rarely lasts more than a minute or two, so many rounds can be played in a short time.

Games of ball get a group working together on a goal, provide a challenge (reach a higher score than in prior games), include physical movement, and are fun to play. Sooner or later, every game of ball comes to an end because the ball hits the floor or is touched twice in a row by the same person. But because ball is a lighthearted game the thought that the last person who contacted the ball failed in some way never really matters. Everyone just wants to play another game of ball.

There are many improv variants of ball, played with one or more imaginary balls. When you are tossing and receiving multiple imaginary colored balls to people in your circle, everyone will “make mistakes” (if they don’t, the leader just increases the number of balls), and again it doesn’t matter. Everyone making mistakes is simply part of the game.

Improv exercises provide wonderful opportunities for people to get used to making mistakes. That’s why they are increasingly used for leadership development and organizational team building. Games like ball provide an enjoyable transition to environments where making mistakes is the norm, rather than something to be ashamed of.

3) Model being comfortable with messing up
It’s crucial that facilitators and leaders of conference sessions model the behaviors they wish participants to adopt. If I am not comfortable with facilitating new or impromptu approaches which may or may not work, how can I expect my participants to be comfortable attempting them? This doesn’t mean, of course, that I should deliberately mess up, but responding in a relaxed manner when I do provides a reassuring model for participants to adopt and follow.

The right to not participate
It’s important to explicitly give attendees the right not to participate. Clearly state that people do not have to take part in any given activity before it begins. When working with a group, do not put specific individuals on the spot to participate; ask the group as a whole for feedback/ideas/answers/volunteers instead.

At the start of an extended (adult) event I tell participants that I want to treat them like adults. I encourage them to make decisions about how and when they will participate, and explain that they are entitled to take time out from scheduled activities, or devise their own alternatives when desired and appropriate.

However, it’s also fine to set limits on non-participants—a common example would be to ask people who do not want to participate to leave the session for the duration of an activity rather than staying to watch.

Provide clear instructions
I think that one of the hardest things to do well when leading a participatory activity is providing clear instructions. After many years it’s still not unusual for someone to complain that they don’t understand the directions I’ve given. I recommend writing out a narrative for exercises beforehand and practicing until it feels natural and unforced, but this won’t cover ad hoc situations when unexpected circumstances arise and you need to improvise.

Besides sharing instructions verbally, also consider displaying them on a screen or wall posters, or providing a printed copy for each participant. Once you’ve shared your instructions, ask if there are any questions, and then be sure to pause long enough for people to formulate and request clarification of what they don’t understand.

Learn from participant feedback. Remember what was not clear and revise your instructions as soon afterwards as possible, so that the next time you run the exercise you will, hopefully, be better understood. It may take several attempts before you find the right choice of words, so don’t give up!

Consider providing explicit ground rules
Providing explicit ground rules at the start of sessions and events can, in my experience, significantly improve participants’ sense of safety while working together.

Conclusion

“There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
—Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

As Keith Johnstone reminds us, people choose to participate or not for their own good reasons. Respect their choice, while making it as easy and safe as possible for them to take the risk of trying something new.

Photo attribution: Flickr user willowpoppy

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