Sharpening Our Tools - Facilitating Group Learning

Image provided by Dr. Kelly Hannum

Image provided by Dr. Kelly Hannum

I was attracted to evaluation because of the focus on 1) process 2) the enormous potential to learn about a wide variety of things and 3) combining evidence and values to create positive change. An essential ingredient is in purposeful conversation; individual learning and reflection can only get us so far. Much of formal evaluation training was about study design, data collection, data analysis and information reporting. There wasn’t a class on facilitating group learning, which is a shame, because it is important at every evaluation stage because it brings in new perspectives and can move a group forward. I will confess I’m not great at facilitating group learning. However, it’s an area in which I seek to improve.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop facilitated by Hallie Preskill of FSG related to the newly released guide about facilitating group learning (which you can download here and for which Jara was one one of the content reviewers). The guide provides an overview of group learning as well as brief descriptions of 21 activities - including the time needed, the number of people it can be used with, whether it can be conducted virtually, the type of goal best served by it and the type of data needed (if any).

The format of the workshop echoed the recommendations in the guide. We tried out a few of the activities in the guide and there were markers, sticky notes, stickers, different objects on the table and posters around the room. It takes a fair amount of preparation to set up and facilitate group learning, but the payoff is worth it. Facilitating group learning requires shifting how you think about and prepare for meetings, sessions, events, etc. - focusing on not only on the information you provide, but also the information that resides in others and how to best bring that out in engaging, informative and purposeful ways.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

When it comes to evaluations, weaving in group learning along the way creates a rhythm and tone of learning exchanges. It can also be very helpful to have at least one person who focuses on the quality of group learning. If there are resources, hiring a facilitator and or coach to help can pay off.

One aspect of group learning that wasn’t strongly addressed in the guide is the role of power and privilege. At Luminare Group we believe that the lack of attention to this perpetuates practices and influences learning, decisions and actions in ways that may unintentionally do harm or at least be at odds with stated values that are adhered to in other ways.

Most groups have differences in power and privilege. They show up among individuals and groups of individuals - it may be slight, it may be massive and the level of difference (and its impact) within the same group of people will vary based on who you ask as well as when you ask and how you ask. Acknowledged or not, differences in power and privilege are always there and should be considered when effectively facilitating group learning. In terms of evaluation, some questions to consider (and perhaps to discuss with groups as part of learning) are:

  • Who determines where to focus and how to focus evaluation efforts? What counts as evidence and what evidence counts most? What perspectives are missing or ignored? What are the consequences of that approach?  

  • Who is regularly included or excluded from communications? Who decides what success or failure “looks like”? And for all these, the implications should be explore and the consequences made explicit.

Some Tips for Facilitating Group Learning:

  • As with most things, being clear about PURPOSE and PEOPLE is essential to creating an effective experience. What needs to be accomplished? What strategies are going to work with and be inclusive of the people present? In order to get a more accurate sense of these things, you may want to talk with different members of the group (see the above questions for things to ask or to consider).

  • Think about power and privilege for those that are in the room. Is there a pattern of who does or does not have voice in the process? Is the group aware of the pattern? What are ways to bring more voices into the discussion?

  • Once you know about the purpose and the people, provide a clear focus for the group to engage around.

  • Break the mold. Using different sized paper, incorporating novel pictures, playing music or providing toys can help break the pattern of exchange and get people to relate in new ways. Be aware of images, concepts and themes that both translate and appropriate other cultures.

  • Leave space for discussion and create multiple venues for communication and engagement. In the workshop I attended, we used emoji stickers and post-it notes to react to data that was posted on the wall.

  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Some people need quiet and time to process and engage.

  • Start small. You don’t need a daylong meeting to begin incorporating group learning. You can (and should) begin weaving it into your practice in smaller ways. For instance take time during a regular meeting to ask people what is one thing they learned from their work that others should be aware of and consider.