Monday, 29 March 2010

Facilitation overkill: Give me my classroom back!

I’m back from another workshop and I have enough. I’m through with it. Seriously. When did we reach this point where our fancy facilitation techniques turned adult learning into kindergarten settings and our obsession with participation, combined with a wild proliferation of Web 2.0 tools, made workshops the most stressful things ever? When did we lose sight of the simple, yet wonderful purpose of learning: Learning something useful that I didn’t know before?

Instead, I’m finding myself again sitting with scissors and pens around the table with people I don’t know, cutting shapes out of colorful sheets of paper and pinning them onto flipcharts. A facilitator is soaring around with a Tibetan singing bowl in his hand encouraging people to be creative and have fun. But it’s not fun. It’s a noisy room full of strangers with whom I have to share thoughts and ideas and interact as if they were long-year colleagues, even though I just met them 30 min ago. I am told to work on some artificial make-do exercise around an artificial generic question which of course touches my field of interest, but which has no direct relation to the very real and specific questions I have in my head about my everyday work.

After that the room turns into a Tunisian cloth market where we look at each others’ humble pieces of colorful art, trying to figure out what important message the many bubbles and arrows and pins and tree leaves and stars are supposed to deliver. Luckily there is always someone standing next to the chart who reveals him or herself responsible, and you try to chip in and listen to what he is right now explaining to another colleague. But because you were coming by the stand two minutes too late you have trouble following the conversation, you soon get bored and go on to the next chart just to face the same dilemma again. At the end the Tibetan singing bowl is activated by an enthused facilitator who shines like a happy child in awe of all the vibrant creativity and knowledge exchange in the room.

If the workshop is really ambitious, we also have participants who were following us online. There are laptops with people connected via Skype or WebX and people are holding them like babies (a delivery which cost us about 1/4 of the workshop’s time when we tried to establish all the audio and video connections) to show them what’s going on in the room and make them feel included. For further interaction we also prepared ourselves with a PBwiki set up, a Yammer and/or Twitter account, a Flickr tag, a YouTube channel and a workshop blog, tools we are supposed to use to document our outputs of this morning. This results in me not having a single break during the entire morning as I find myself busy either running around with a video camera or uploading pictures or writing a blog post or updating an online colleague via Twitter on what’s going on in the room. Considering that the photos are always showing people in conversation around flipcharts which were hard to understand in the first place, and the videos are mostly featuring fragments of conversation out of any context, I’m wondering who the heck gets any value out of these in, let’s say, one month from now? Or at all? At least the facilitator is happy that our knowledge gets documented so well and we all look so engaged.

But I’m just standing there realizing that I spent the last 4 hours not learning a single thing of lasting value, yet am more exhausted than after 4 days of straight work in my regular job.

And a sweet thought comes to my mind. I picture myself, in a classroom, with a bunch of students. And there, in front, is someone who knows something, because he is working in that field on a daily basis, and he prepared himself for a few hours for this lesson. And he is just talking to us. Maybe with scribbling something on a chalkboard, or – oh my God, what heretic thought – even clicking through a few well-dosed PowerPoint slides. And he is explaining something to me which I didn’t know or didn’t understand before. And I am listening, focused and concentrated. And after 90 min a bell rings and I go home, satisfied because I learned something new today. And I am not exhausted.

But that is a distant past. Today we all know that learning without peer-to-peer interaction and participative engagement is evil. So I will never see my old classroom again, but will instead prepare many colorful collaborative flipcharts in the future. Sigh. Can somebody hand me the scissors?