The other day in a workshop I had a group of our 2013 uni graduate trainees.  I asked them to “please find yourselves standing together in a circle at the back of the room.”  They looked at me blankly for a couple of seconds in their post-lunch haze.  “What for?” one asked, innocently.  “Just do what you’re told”, I retorted with a smile. “You’ll find out when you get there.”


Giving instructions about how an activity will work is not sexy, but it is important.  What is mostly required is something clear and concise, with as few words as possible.  Residual confusion from a lacklustre activity instruction dilutes the effectiveness of the activity and causes frustration.  I try to listen in on groups from a safe distance (“sniper hearing”) to gauge how much of the first few minutes of the ‘doing’ part of the activity they are actually using to explain to each other what they have to do.  Quite often, it is several minutes.


A great staggered technique to get this right is as follows:

1)      Break people into teams first.  This helps them know their role.  Get them physically moving, and decide whether you want random teams (line up first in month-of-birth order is safe) or if you want to allocate them on basis of experience, point-of-view, etc.

2)      Let them know what to do.  Wait until everyone is comfortable within their group before doing this, and facing you.  The participants are still establishing a little bit of team identity, and this is OK.  That 30 seconds of silence while people are gathering their thoughts is also respectful to the reflector learners.

3)      Get someone from each group to restate back to everyone what their group will do.  This partially is based on the concept that whatever they will say will seem more credible than what you say as the facilitator, but also the very fact it is repeated is useful.  Think about if you want each group to have a different focus, with the awareness of that being made only in the activity debrief.  If you do, get them into different spaces, and out of earshot of each other.  Give it a go, it gives any activity an extra twist and added depth.


I’ve also observed a former facilitator colleague who fastidiously had pre-prepared flipcharts with technical instructions for every activity.  She would leave them up on the walls, and participants would look at them for clarification during the activity.  It worked with her facilitation style.  Whilst it wouldn’t work for my style, as I like to amend activity structure on the go, I must admit that as a learner or session participant, I would like it.  I’m terrible at processing directions that are verbal.


As a participant in the virtual classroom, you do have the constant benefit of the visual, but the added complexity of the need to use technology that may be unfamiliar to you.  A common instructional design technique used where I work is to have the facilitator introduce the ‘why’ of an activity first, then handover to the producer to explain the technical aspects.  This order is good for several reasons.  Firstly, there are different voices to anchor the different messages; secondly you can check on the participants’ understanding of the ‘why’ before the technical; thirdly it reinforces the role of the facilitator and producer.


No matter how you go about your activity set-ups, there is a built-in salve, which is this:  For anything that involves groups, as long as one person knows what they are doing, then everyone else can follow.  Maybe that is where the seeds of leadership are sown… the ability to taken on board instructions the best.

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