Think on the fly; be the duck – a facilitation story

Over a decade ago, I was invited to lead an all-day interactive workshop about the use of Problem-based Learning (PBL) and Cases as examples of Collaborative Learning. It was a short flight to this post-secondary institution that I had never been to before. Though I had led many all-day workshops before, I had not yet done so for such a large group (about 60), on this topic, and as an invited facilitator. I spent a lot of time preparing. This included emailing registrants a needs assessment so I could hone the session to their stated experiences and needs. And I invited participants to share brief examples of how they helped students learn using these techniques, corresponding with those who agreed, and building their examples into the day to make it truly collaborative.

I was all set, looking forward to working with this group for the whole day. I had planned to kick things off with a highly interactive activity with two volunteer groups working on a problem – to plan then build a free-standing structure using newspaper and masking tape – while a few other volunteers observed and took notes. I had led this activity before; it is very dynamic and fun. The idea was to then discuss how groups can work well in different ways, and to identify the steps to success in collaborative work. I had explained the activity and was just about to call for the volunteers. But first, of course, I asked, “Are there any questions about what we are about to do?” We were in the first 10 minutes of the day, when a participant put their hand up and stated, “I don’t see the point of using PBL; I think it is a waste of time.”

Okay, here we go! You know that analogy of a duck? Looks calm on the surface of the water, but is paddling furiously under the surface? I was the duck. I had a lot of facilitation experience, but I am not sure one is ever ready for such a statement, especially when people came of their own free will. What did I do? I hope it was seamless, though it didn’t feel like it at the time… I went over to the whiteboard, picked up a coloured pen and said, “Okay, fair comment. Let’s collectively make a list of all the reasons – let’s cap it at 10 – why these techniques are no good.” Silence, for a few seconds. “Wait, wait…”, I told myself. Then the first contribution came. Then another and another. I wrote each one down, working to be as neutral as I could. We never got to ten. Some people started chuckling. Some people countered the contributions with reasons why the techniques in fact were good, in their experience, and/or worth trying (well I never said it was brainstorming, so it was okay for the listing activity to merge into a pros and cons discussion!)

When I asked the group if anyone had another addition to the list, someone suggested, “Hey, let’s do that activity.” I asked for a show of hands – who agreed? All 60 hands went up. The rest of the day went as planned. I hope to think the result was changing culture about trying or using a teaching technique. Maybe it was partly simply survival as a facilitator. Think on the fly. Be the duck.


About cassidyinview

I am an educator, facilitator, writer, editor, photographer and biologist. I design and lead customized workshops, courses, and programming in the areas of teaching and learning, professional development, science education and natural history, especially ornithology.
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