Shifting ownership: facilitator vs learner led sessions

Some time ago I was having a coffee conversation with someone who was asked to facilitate a learning session on a topic they’d delivered many times before. They always chose to commence their session with some type of challenging activity; an activity that really surprised learners and left them wondering what their intentions are. The activity would be something that has been  manipulated somehow to help achieve their learning intention and “a-ha moment”. For example, they’d give the group origami with only picture or written instructions and wrong sized paper to illustrate just how important it is to have the right tools to do the job.

Although they’d take a long a supporting PowerPoint presentation with key information they felt the group would need to know, one day they decided to start the session with a blank slate and appear like they were completely unprepared. In the course of the conversation, they told me they planned to not show the presentation, ask the group a question, then jump into the practical activity after they’d had the group establish the key topics for the session. Perhaps a risky move for a trainer? A daring move maybe, but this was a session that was one in a multiple day learning program and they were a guest to facilitate a conversation about a particular topic. So there was already a framework and discussions being had.

They told me they’d never done anything like this before and felt rather anxious to start. Would the group hijack the session or would they be able to cover the content they needed to. As facilitators of learning, we often need to give adult learners a little more ownership of the conversations we lead them in. The session commenced  by asking the group…

What is it you’d like to learn from me this session?

This was new territory, however as the session was part of their learning sequence, they were there as a trainer to value add content and for them to be able to ask and seek whatever information they needed to help their learning. After initially asking the question, the group were set the task of giving at least four things they wanted to have a conversation about – relating to the broad session topic of course. As each of the topics were mentioned, they were written on a flip-chart and then referred to in a logical learning sequence.

Strangely enough the information they wanted to cover was exactly that which had included in the session preparation,  notes and PowerPoint presentation. By asking the group to set the content for the session, they were able to influence the two and a half hour discussion significantly and it recognised the knowledge they’d developed in the sessions beforehand and built upon it. I was surprised to hear just how well this notion of asking learners to direct the session worked.

Whilst their needs had been anticipated through prior experience delivering the session, the group were able to address the key knowledge THEY felt they needed to know and it was a refreshing change for them to have an open shift in focus from being trainer led to learner led. It just goes to show that having a great understanding of learning, learning design, sequencing and the content means you are skilled enough to:

  • anticipate their learning needs
  • plan a session outline based on what you think they’ll need
  • be flexible enough to facilitate a session based on group needs, not your own
  • recognise where they are in their learning and build upon it
  • be respectful of adult learners and apply adult learning principles
  • change it up and do it differently
  • make learning meaningful

Would this approach work in every situation? Perhaps not, but doing things a bit differently at times and taking a risk can often reap great reward in learning. The outcome in this case is that they have used the approach on more occasions and found it to be very successful with their groups. In this instance, their learner group is very much conditioned to learning being “done” to them rather than owned by them, and the trainer is the sole expert. Our conversation finished with a passionate proclamation that we would try to use this approach in other circumstances – after all, as learning professionals shouldn’t we be learner centric and model best practice?

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