Tip #194: Clarifying What Participatory Means!

These days, when training conferences solicit proposals from trainers to conduct workshops, they almost always request that the workshops be participatory in nature. However, there must be a misunderstanding regarding what participatory really means in the context of a training session- either on the part of some of the trainers or on the part of the proposal reviewers.

The reason I say this is because I facilitate workshops at many conferences and I can’t tell you how often the participants come in to my conference room and collapse into their chairs with their eyes glazed over and their shoulders slumped. They are obviously the walking wounded who have just endured one or more hours of lecture and PowerPoint. Then they see the colorful kites on the walls, the candy, Koosh balls, pipe cleaners and small toys on the tables- start to laugh at the cartoons on the PowerPoint slides, and get actively involved in training activities that require them to move, talk, and write. The energy level in the room gets higher and higher, and after they leave the session, many of them come back to tell me that the workshop was the best one they attended at the conference!

I say this not because I really believe I’m the best trainer at the conference. The key difference between my workshop and the other ones the participants have attended is that they truly get to participate in activities that help them learn.

So I’d like to clarify what participatory means to me. Participatory does NOT mean that the participants get to watch a PowerPoint, raise their hands occasionally in response to rhetorical questions, and write notes on copies of the PowerPoint slides. Yes, they are participants and, yes, they are “participating” by sitting there in a semiconscious state, but only in the most minimal manner.

Participatory means that the participants are actively engaged in learning activities. These activities take them beyond the lowest level of learning, knowledge, to comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, or even evaluation. At the very least, they get to put into words their understanding or experience with the training content. This means that, rather than sitting idly and listening to a speaker, they are chatting with each other, sharing information and ideas, brainstorming, analyzing situations, problem solving, creating. They are actively participating rather than passively receiving information.

I realize that conference workshops are typically 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 75 minutes, or 90 minutes in length. That is not a lot of time. And often there is a large number of folks in the room. But these are NOT good excuses for filling the time with lecture. A simple solution is to convert the lecture points into statements on a questionnaire- then give the participants a chance to indicate whether they agree or disagree, and and opportunity to voice the rationale for their vote. If their rationale is incorrect, you can correct it. However, if their rationale is correct, you can move on to the next statement. You don’t waste time teaching them what they already know, which saves you time! It is also much more respectful of their expertise.

If you include Pop Ups, in which folks with answers pop up out of their chair and stand next to it to report their rationale, you’ve added in movement that will appeal to the kinesthetic learners.

My point is simple and my bias is very clear. Regardless of the amount of time or the number of participants, there are easy ways to incorporate learning activities that engage more senses and enable the participants to actively participate.

If you are a relatively new reader of Laurel Learning Tips and would like more specific examples of how to make training more participatory, please refer to previous Tips #39-64 that are archived on my website.

Thank you for allowing me to climb up on my soapbox. And if you share my bias, or want to counter it, please write in and we’ll print your comments in the next Tip.

I hope that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving- and that the next conference you attend is full of highly participatory workshops that engage you in every respect!

This week, we continue our discussion of useful training resources, focusing on how to affix materials to walls. Please be aware that I do not sell these products, nor do I receive any commission on their sale. They are simply items that make a trainer’s life easier!

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