Delivering Activity-based Learning
In part 1 of this series, we addressed the nuances of connecting and communicating with learners. Master facilitator Dr. Rajshri Jobanputra is back with another round of reflections on what makes facilitation flawless. Part 2 of the Flawless Facilitation series focuses on Activity Based Learning.
As seasoned facilitators, we all know that at the core of Activity Based Learning is the belief that learning is best possible by ‘doing’. As a firm believer of this philosophy, I pay close attention to every bit of planning and preparation that goes into delivering any activity, big or small. After all, activity-based learning is not just aimed at increasing the learner’s engagement levels but also enhancing the retention of the concept/framework delivered through that activity.
Therefore, this blog will highlight some of the best practices of delivering activity-based learning that has stood me in good stead over the years that I have facilitated an activity based learning pedagogy.
For any activity to impact a learner, I believe that the facilitator should take cognizance of 3 key aspects:
- What facilitators should do BEFORE their learners complete the activity
- What facilitators should do DURING the activity, and
- What facilitators should do AFTER their learners complete the activity.
The structure that follows below is to first identify 2-3 key tasks vital to each of the three phases i.e., before, during and after of an activity. Then for each of these phases, I will share 1 pitfall that you may want to save yourselves from. Finally, I will share 1 best practice.
a) ‘BEFORE’ the Activity:
Key task #1. Stating the objectives clearly: This is the ‘what’ part of the activity. Here we explain the activity and what learners are expected to do. For instance, build the tallest tower in 30 mins, or complete the number of paper shirts that you will bid for, etc. Please note that we are not telling them the reason behind the activity – doing so will reveal the plot meant to be uncovered during the debrief.
Key task #2. Offering all Instructions / Rules succinctly: This is the ‘how’ part of the activity. Here we need to be clear on the do’s and don’ts of the activity i.e., give your participants all the constraints and conditions under which they will be executing the activity:
- Duration of the activity
- Criteria of assessment
- Resources at the learners’ disposal, etc.
Key task #3. Ensuring and allocating Resources: Ensure that all the material required for your activity is available before you begin the activity If you must conduct an activity that wasn’t part of the day’s plan, then thinking on your feet and pulling out a trick from your ‘experience bag’ could be the best bet. If we ever meet in person, I have a story to tell you about how I managed to do an activity using 5 plastic balls when I had none available with me, nor the time and currency to go out and buy them!
Pitfall to avoid at this stage:
Getting your learners to start the activity without giving them enough clarity at the onset or getting them too excited to start and then struggling to give instructions when your participants are already overflowing with adrenaline… it becomes almost impossible to contain their energy at that point.
Best strategy: Run the whole activity mentally step-by-step once before your live run. This will surely help identify things that are likely to go wrong.
b) ‘DURING’ the Activity:
Key task #1: Managing your time: Once you have given the task, the instructions and the resources, and the activity has commenced, make sure you have a mechanism in place that allows participants to be constantly aware of the time. Good time management is one of the major elements that makes any activity successful. Earlier, I would announce the time loudly but soon realized that the amount of energy required to get everybody’s attention to the ‘time remaining’ amidst the noise in the room is draining. Soon I started using an online stopwatch. Participants are made aware of the timer on the screen during the instruction phase itself. This is a perfect win-win for both the facilitator and the participants! All that I then need to do is remind them of the time remaining – I usually do this in the last 5 mins.
Key task #2: Moving around and recording your observations: Observations include actions, words, interactions. Often keen observation will reveal some very interesting details and interpersonal dynamics which can be used to make your activity debriefs interesting. Given each one of our styles, it is important to be mindful that we use our observations in a way that does not offend anyone in the class. Also, ensure that our observations are woven to create an impact and infer learning and not used for entertainment. For instance, if you are conducting the Build the Tallest Tower activity as part of a teambuilding exercise, imagine that one team ends up building a sturdy but a dwarfed sized tower – something opposite of what you had asked of them. In such a situation, though it would be very uncontrollable for members of other groups to contain their laughter, as facilitators, this is exactly the kind of fertile ground you need to leverage to bring out a core aspect of being formidable teams – could they have communicated / collaborated differently / better with each other and avoided this outcome?
Key task #3: Knowing your boundaries: Since we know the activity inside out, we are aware of the possible outcomes. Therefore, we may be tempted to elicit specific outcomes and influence participants to either do or avoid doing something in a certain way. Sometimes, our curiosity gets the better of us and we end up asking certain questions or drive their thinking in a certain way. It is important to ensure that if someone struggles to decipher what is expected of them through this activity despite you have given them enough briefing, you try your best to keep your explanation succinct and to the point. Lengthy explanations can have a snowball effect – it takes away the group’s or the individual’s work time on the given activity which in turn can impact your closure time for that activity.
Pitfall to avoid during this phase: Typically, during this phase, facilitators get distracted or preoccupied with the next phase of the workshop, since learners are engaged in an activity. In getting distracted, facilitators miss out on critical observations and dynamics which they could have captured from the learners’ interaction with each other.
Best Strategy: Pick up interesting and relevant cues from your participants and weave them into your narrative to make your debrief rich and insightful.
c) ‘AFTER’ the activity:
Key task #1: Gathering participant experiences: After an activity, many participants are euphoric to share their experience – but these can go in all possible directions if the facilitator does not handle it carefully. It is important for facilitators to set the expectations – “Give me one feeling word that best describes your experience right now” or “tell me one thing that worked for your group” or “Summarize the strategy your group took to achieve the objective of this game”. A simple open-ended question like “So tell me how it was?” will probably not help you derive the intended key learnings from the activity.
Key task #2: Connecting the dots: This is where the big plan and plot is revealed, answering the question “why we did what we did”. This is my favorite part of the entire set up – Being able to connect the various activities undertaken with the aim to fulfill the objective may help participants to comprehend the story (sequentially). However, the facilitator’s ability to weave what we see participants do, what they achieved, and what they experienced to arrive at “therefore what it means is…” kind of conclusion is what finally reveals the worth of the activity. Without this final act of tying all loose ends, an activity may just end being a fun game rather than a pedagogy executed with intent of delivering a learning outcome.
Key task #3: Identifying key learnings: Typically, this is done at the end of the day when participants are (in my understanding) mentally disconnected after a daylong session. Keeping in mind the learner’s ‘mental context’ is essential here as towards the end of the day the learner’s engagement and involvement levels, as a comparison to what he/she would have started off with, would not be the same. Hence, it is a good idea to take a few minutes post each activity to arrive at key learnings. Doing this allows you to have a consolidated list of learning as a summary at the end of the day, and facilitators ensure that the learning sticks. After all, learners learn best in small chunks.
Pitfalls to avoid during this phase:
- Managing enthusiasm and time are crucial during this phase of the activity. Some participants may feel overwhelmed by the many experiences that they have and would want to share them all at once. If not adequately moderated, nothing much from the ensuing chaos would be worth noting or reflecting.
- Some participants may share a point of view about the activity that may rival our own mental disposition. Acknowledge it and be clinical about it – after all it’s a perspective and everyone is entitled to have it.
Encourage as many people to talk as possible during the ‘experience gathering’ exercise post the completion of the activity as this not only helps build a repertoire of perspective, which can become an additional source of learning, but it also means you are ensuring that everyone gets an opportunity to contribute. Often it is the more vocal/articulate set of participants who end up contributing the most. Ensure that you give the more reserved learners a nudge to share their thoughts and opinions as well. Some of the reserved learners share profound thoughts.
While these are best practices to facilitate an ABL pedagogy in my view, there is no dearth of possible ways in which to deliver activity-based learning with impact. Through this article, I hope I have helped you to consider an alternative way by which your learners can participate, reflect, and synthesize all that they experience in your session.
Do let me know about your experiences as well and share some new tricks to ensuring flawless facilitation. You can drop me a line at email@example.com.