Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Structure, Chaos, Confidence: The Workshop as a Social Construct

I’m facilitating a Partners Assembly today in Brussels, and I’m awake early going over my agenda – the flow, the segue ways, the objectives and outcomes that we want overall and from each of our sessions. I need to know this agenda inside and out, and I realise that this is a lot about confidence.

Agendas for workshops, training courses, meetings, even work days for that matter, are just words on paper. They are words that a potentially large number of people share (we have 60 today but you might have 250 people), and they depend on strong group norms for people to follow them.

So the agenda says that the opening is at 09:00 and coffee at 10:30, or the discussion question is this or that – people could actually easily do whatever they want, not follow the little numbers or words on that paper called an agenda, and simply do their own thing for your 8 hour day (and sometimes people do, as we know.) But the fact that so many people actually do stand up at 10:30 and go for a coffee, and come back at 10:45 for the next session, depends a lot on confidence. Confidence that the agenda makes sense, that the topic and time spent is worthwhile, and that someone is in charge of what might otherwise be an 8 hour free-for-all.

So when you are leading such a workshop, as facilitator, what you are doing is giving people that confidence as the leader of the group in that particular context. It comes through your voice, through your body language, your level or organization, your complete knowledge of what people are doing at any given moment (must not get caught with your pants down not knowing what room Working Group 2 is in) and why (and you will be challenged over and over about the rationale for x or y). And of course you also need to be flexible, because as the group develops over the day, you will want to gradually hand over the invisible programme to them, so that the confidence that started with you, transfers over to the organizers and the participants, and they become the masters again of their process and the outcomes, and ultimately the application and follow-up.

But at the beginning of the day its me, so back to my agenda, and building my own confidence in proposing it and making it happen for a group of 60 people willing to donate 8 hours of their time today to the International Year for Biodiversity 2010.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Thought for the Day: On Tolerance

It is ok to be intolerant of intolerance?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Appetite for Experiential Learning

Can you go too far with experiential learning? This is learning by doing, as opposed to learning by more passive means (listening to a speaker, watching TV, etc.) Experiential learning has the potential to get deeper, be more memorable, to create an experience or a learning moment that you can draw on or act upon in the future.

The (all too) oft-quoted Confucian saying, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand," argues for this more interactive approach to learning. So how can we make, or take, more learning opportunities outside of formal learning situations - into the informal learning environment. What about this…

I am a member of a thoughtful book club which is just about to finish reading The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle. It is a powerful book about inequity, humanity, and the poverty/environment interface. In the book two families live within 500 meters of each other in the outskirts of Los Angeles, one on a fragile hillside in a makeshift hut of stolen pallets eating domestic cats and thrown away produce, all by-products of the incredibly affluent (in relative terms), gated, chardonnay- and smoothie-drinking estate which sits downhill; only a 2.5 meter high stucco wall separate these two worlds. One is a family of illegal Mexican immigrants, the other can be characterised by their upper middle-class, double-income urban flight.

So before this sounds like a book review, to the point, and back to my book club and learning. We try to link the evening of each of our book club discussions to a meal. I see a potential learning opportunity here. Now, I am not eager to sacrifice either of our pet cats, so how else might I make this discussion of haves and have nots, of the extremes between poverty and over consumption, deeper and more personal - more experiential?

Might I ask my fellow readers, when they enter my house to pick a number from a hat? These numbers might determine their places at the table for our discussion and meal. Maybe the “1’s” will sit at the head of the table. They might have a table cloth, polished cutlery, a nice bottle of wine and a warm meal, with a starter, dessert and coffee. And what about our number ”2s”? Maybe their half of the table will feature a newspaper covering, tin cans of tap water to drink, a spoon, and a small bowl of yesterday’s beans and rice, barely warmed over, to share?

How might that make people feel? What kind of a discussion would ensue – would it be different? More congruent with our book’s message and therefore more powerful? Will we learn more than we would have from our usual discussion? And more importantly, how might we look differently at our food and drink at our next meal?

(Bonus question: Will people be happy to come back to my house for book club again?)

Friday, June 05, 2009

Is Progress Made By Making Mistakes?

Tonight I spoke at the Geneva Forum for Social Change on a panel called, "The Power of One: Individual Choices Affecting Environmental Change." It followed and riffed off of a film which was shown just prior to the panel discussion called, Garbage Warrior, about Mike Reynolds decades long fight to give architecture and building a space to innovate towards more sustainable living. I started my introduction with one of Mike's quotes from early on in his film...

"Mike Reynolds said that 'progress is made by making mistakes'. I would say rather that progress is not made by making mistakes, but progress is made by learning from our mistakes (and our successes for that matter.) Learning is not necessarily implicit in making mistakes. People make the same mistakes over and over again. So does society, we see it all around us.

Just two days ago, I filled up my diesel car's tank with unleaded petrol, from empty, right to the top. And that is not the first time that has happened. How did this happen? I was simply not thinking about my actions or the results, I was not fully present, I was thinking about what I was going to be doing in the future and not what I was doing at that moment.

For the last 19 years I have been working as a learning practitioner within the sustainability community, most recently as the Head of Learning and Leadership with IUCN. From this experience I know that learning takes work; it actually rarely just happens. They say you "Learn Something New Every Day", and you probably do, but don't notice it, its passive rather than active learning, and therefore don't necessarily deeply learn. To deeply learn you need to deliberately close your learning loop, particularly through building reflective practice.

Over the years, I have seen a shifting paradigm in adult learning from more centralised teaching, to facilitated learning which includes an important component on reflection: noticing, naming, capturing, sharing your learning, in order to embed it and make it more accessible for future use (for yourself and others) -so that you can really learn from your mistakes, and successes, and help others learn from yours and their own too. Can we be more present around our choices as consumers, voters, (petrol buyers)? Can we start to more deliberately learn our way towards more sustainable development?