Tip #262: Helping SMEs Become Open to Using Participatory Activities

When we began this discussion about encouraging SMEs to use participatory learning activities, we said that we had to meet five challenges: to help them: (1) recognize the value of participatory learning activities; (2) become open to the idea of actually using participatory activities; (3) see that participatory activities are not necessarily difficult to design; (4) learn how to select appropriate activities; and (5) become comfortable with facilitating participatory activities.

Last week’s Tip focused on the first challenge: to help them recognize the value of participatory learning activities.
This week’s Tip will address the second challenge.

How can we help SMEs become open to the idea of actually using participatory activities?

Let’s say that we have met the first challenge and our SMEs now recognize the value of participatory learning activities.
It’s one thing to agree with something in principle. It is an entirely different thing to agree to do it ourselves!

First, we need to define participatory learning activities in the simplest possible terms- as opportunities for participants to say or do something with what they have learned during the class. This may alleviate any concerns the SMEs may have that we expect them to spend the time and/or money to purchase or design board games or computer simulations, or waste important limited instructional time using silly ice breakers or games that have no relation to the workshop content.

Second, working from that simple definition, we can help SMEs identify the participatory activities that they already include in their workshops. For example, many SMEs enhance their lectures with question and answer sessions. Some SMEs show PowerPoint slides and ask participants to review and comment on them in a large directed group discussion. Those SMEs who work with computer programs probably have a hands on component at some point in the class.

Third, we can ask them why they already use these participatory activities.  They must feel on some level that these activities are of value to their participants.

Even if the second and third steps are a wash, because the SMEs have no participatory activities incorporated into their programs, we can move from the first to the fourth step.

Fourth, we can ask the SMEs to articulate their reservations and concerns. Let’s face it- this will  involve a significant change on their part,  and a lot of people are uncomfortable with change!

At least seven categories of concern come quickly to mind:

(1)     Expertise. They may argue that: “It makes sense in theory to have participatory activities. However, I’m the expert and I know the material- they don’t. So how can they participate?”

(2)     Content.  How often have you heard SMEs say that their content is “too dry”? There is a misperception out there that the only way to teach rules, processes and procedures is through lecture. They may not believe that their content lends itself to a participatory approach.

(3)    Selection. Although they think participatory activities might be a good thing, they may have no idea about what activities are possible and what criteria to use to select the most appropriate activities.

(4)     Time. They may be concerned with the time to identify, collect or design, and integrate these activities into their lessons. They may also be concerned with the time these activities will take away from the didactic piece they think is more valuable.

(5)    Expectations.  They may feel that their participants or even their peers expect a lecture from an expert and would be uncomfortable or feel their time is wasted if the training is filled with activities.

(6)     Training Style.  They might say that using participatory activities is just fine for another type of trainer, just not for them. Just as some people with no sense of humor shouldn’t tell jokes, they may feel that using these activities doesn’t suit their personality.

(7)     Facilitation.  They may be all in favor of incorporating participatory activities- except for the fact that they have no idea how to facilitate them. They may worry about losing control of the group, or getting sidetracked from the key information, or looking silly.

You can probably anticipate the fifth step, which is: We can coach the SMES to address or minimize each of these concerns. This will also involve just-in-time training.

For example, regarding the expertise issue, we can first ask the SMEs if they ever have enough time to cover everything they think is important? No one has ever said they had enough time!

Then ask them if they are absolutely certain that no one in the audience knows anything about the topic- either directly or tangentially through something similar but not exactly the same. Most of the time, they’ll realize that someone might know something relevant. In that case, ask the SMEs how they feel when someone tells them what they already know. Hopefully, they’ll mention feeling that their knowledge was disrespected, they were personally underestimated, and their time was wasted.  Finally, we ask them if they want their participants to feel that way?

We can reassure them that if they pose a question to their audience and no one can answer it, it is perfectly fine for them to tell the group the answer. We just don’t want to waste valuable training time and insult the participants by teaching them what they already know.

Regarding the content issue, we can correct their misperception that lecture is the only approach. For example, if they are teaching new policies and procedures, don’t they want the participants to (a) learn the information and also (b) know where to find it in the future?  If so, they can create a simple worksheet that identifies the key information, put the participants into teams or pairs, and set them on a scavenger hunt to find the relevant information in annotated copies of the policies or procedures. This is just one example; there are many others.

Regarding the selection issue, we can give them a print out that identifies which learning activities can be used to accomplish specific learning levels. That will address both aspects of the issue of possibilities and criteria for selection.

Regarding the dual issues of time to create the activity and time to facilitate it, we can first work with them to demonstrate how easy and quickly they can create a questionnaire or a discussion question or even a case scenario. We can also give them a list of resources where they can find activities they can use copyright free.

We can then discuss the fact that the activity is intended to cover the content, not take the place of the content. Finally, we can help them estimate how long each of these sample activities will actually take.

We don’t want to mislead them by underestimating the time. However, we can point out that the same questionnaire can take 50 minutes (with five table groups reading and discussing the answers and then reporting them out to the larger group) or 10 minutes (with the instructor reading the questionnaire and the participants putting their thumbs up if they agree with the statement or their thumbs down if they disagree; the instructor then calls on representatives of each group to explain their rationale).

Regarding the issue of expectations, we can suggest that they manage participant expectations
by beginning their program with the statement that “We’re going to do something different today. Since we want you to build your confidence in your own skills, there will be a number of activities where you will get a chance to work with the information- either individually, in a small group, or in the larger group. Research shows that this is the best way to get you up to speed. In addition, I know you’ll enjoy the experience. So, let’s get started!”

Regarding the issue of training style, we can reassure them that they can start simply. For example, they can convert their lecture points into a questionnaire. We can also reassure them that there are excellent ways to check for comprehension that are participant-directed and provide great value. The instructor doesn’t have to do a thing but set up the activity.

I’m referring to Grab the Koosh, where participants each write down two different content-related questions on two different index cards.  They write the answer to the question on the back of the card. Then they assign a point value of 1 (easy) to 10 (very difficult) to each question. The participants at each table take turns reading their questions. Whoever at the table can grab the Koosh (or the pen or anything centrally located on the table) first gets to answer the question. If the answer is correct, the person gets the points. At the end of the activity, the participant with the greatest number of points wins and can be rewarded with a prize or a privilege.

Regarding the last issue of facilitation, we can discuss how we plan to give them an opportunity to learn how to facilitate the activities and to practice their facilitation. Depending on the time and situation, this might be a one-one-one coaching or a half day workshop with a pilot session run through later.

If we lay the groundwork correctly and adequately address their concerns, they should be open to actually using participatory activities in their own programs.

Next week, we will discuss how to meet the third challenge: helping SMEs see that participatory activities are not necessarily difficult to design.

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