Take a second, close your eyes and think back to your time at school. Who was your favorite teacher? You probably already know the answer to that question because, perhaps like myself, the impression they made on you is still quietly simmering in the cockles of your heart. Now think about why this person is your favorite teacher and hold on to those thoughts as you continue reading.
My favorite teacher is my grade 12 English teacher – Mrs. Fischer. I loved reading before I met her but my appreciation for the written word began with her and continues to get stronger with each day.
So how did she manage that, you ask?
She made me feel heard. Whenever she spoke to me or asked my opinion, for her, I was the only person in that classroom. She made time to listen to my opinions, to offer guidance on books she thought I’d like and she fostered a passion for stories and storytelling that has stayed with me and has become a vital part of who I am. I’ve been a writer for many years and a huge part of that is due to dear Mrs. Fischer.
So why am I telling you this story? Because, like me, every learner should be given the opportunity to be inspired by their learning experience, feel motivated to use their skills in a meaningful way and to transform their skills and knowledge into new, productive habits.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
– William Butler Yeats
The likelihood of this happening after attending a live session where the facilitator literally reads off the slide deck is pretty slim. How can you feel inspired through monotony? How do you feel motivated after boredom has set in? How can you find engagement through a one-sided conversation?
How can we turn these questions on their heads? The answer: invest in your facilitators! Give them the tools to inspire Mrs. Fischer-level behavioral change.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s take a second to map out how we got here.
Facilitating the New Normal
The year was 2020. It began like any other year, filled with hope and the promise of possibility. Then February came and the world as we knew it changed forever. Stay at home, they said. Wear a mask, they said. “You can work from home, this isn’t going to last long. Everything will be back to normal before you know it.”
Now, over 2 years later, our 20/20 vision of normal looks quite different. Our new normal includes an extended personal space bubble, dubbed social distancing. Our days are filled with Zoom meetings that allow us to rock the work attire at the top and pajamas at the bottom. The very essence of how we existed has changed in a very short period of time.
And just as we have had to acclimatize to these changes, Learning and Development (L&D) departments across different companies have had to adapt their approach to teaching and learning.
May the Force be With You
The Coronavirus pandemic forced L&D teams into 2 opposing camps. One thought the pandemic was only going to last 2 weeks so the obvious choice was to wait it out. The other made contingency plans and started rolling out a plan of action immediately, allowing them to sashay into the new normal with style and grace. For those who chose to wait out the pandemic, the realization that the Coronavirus was here to stay came too late.
Emergency remote teaching became the new way of working. There was a mad scramble to take existing face-to-face training and adapt it for virtual teaching. Companies quickly found out that there was more to virtual teaching than they originally thought. They did not, however, have the luxury to be picky about their training delivery methods or actually training their employees on how to teach in a virtual setting. All they knew was that they needed to train their people and they needed to find a new way to do it, fast.
So, how effective is a training program that is held together with duct tape? Is it training to prove to the higher-ups that training is being done? Or is it training that facilitates the behavioral change you’re looking for?
At the height of the pandemic, many turned a blind eye sacrificing quality for speed but 2 years down the line it’s a little harder to ignore.
Training internal employees in the art of facilitation should have been made a priority from the very beginning.
Now, let me ask you this. Would you put your kids’ education in the hands of a person who has never had any training? Of course not. So, why would you entrust the training of your employees to a person who does not possess the necessary skills?
Why is it that teachers need the skills to teach but facilitators only require the subject knowledge? How is it that when it comes to training employees, we’ve allowed the bar to fade into the background and become completely overshadowed by a mountain of paperwork, logistics and time constraints?
We need to bring the bar back into 4K level focus (that’s better than HD!). Here’s the important bit: You could create the most well-thought-out program in the world but it would not be nearly as effective without the right person to guide the live learning and to bring it to life.
Whitney Houston said it best, and I echo her sentiment, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
Instead of ‘children’, I’d say teachers and for the sake of this article – facilitators. Trained facilitators impart knowledge, offer support and guide learners to make connections on their own. They help shape the thoughts and behavior of the learners in their care.
Do I have to? Please Don’t Make Me…
Today, companies have a new-found appreciation of virtual learning and what it takes to create effective courses, but content still seems to be their top priority. They’re missing a huge part of the puzzle. Who will take on the task to facilitate the learning process?
Facilitators are usually the last component of a training program that’s taken into consideration. This is because employees are reluctant to put up their hand to facilitate a training program. In the past, L&D departments have struggled to persuade people to help train employees.
Alas, few companies use trained facilitators or invest in training people within their organization to become successful facilitators. In the absence of volunteers, there are two options.
- The people who create the training end up facilitating the live sessions.
- It’s very much a Pokémon “I choose you” situation. Usually someone who has been in the department for a while and who may have the capacity is chosen to lead the live sessions for a particular training.
Let’s dissect this second option a little.
You’re already working long hours. Your emails are backed up, your plate is full to bursting and now you also have to lead the live sessions for a course you have never heard about before.
Your first thought is probably going to be, “I don’t get paid enough for this”. Instead of excitement there is resentment.
Not a great starting point.
Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should…
Just because a person has worked in a particular department for a long time does not necessarily mean they can teach a course based on what they do. They may have the content knowledge but do they have what it takes to strategically guide learners along the path to behavioral change?
The question you have to ask yourself is, what’s more important? Is it the content or is it the actual learning and the learning experience?
The biggest problem L&D teams have to contend with is low training engagement scores. Employees sign up for a course (mostly because it’s mandatory). They skim the content (because it seemingly goes on forever), then they attend the live session (and leave during the first breakout session). As soon as they enter the virtual room, they’re already looking for the exit. This is what happens when companies don’t fully realize the importance of nurturing a learning culture within their organization.
Think about a live session as you would a party. If there’s nothing there to hold your attention, you’re going to get bored and leave early. But if you’re surrounded by interesting people and engaging conversation, you’re going to stay all night and enjoy yourself.
If you want to transform the perception of learning and training – focus on the learner experience. Don’t underestimate the power of gaining the all-important employee buy-in and creating a clear ‘what’s in it for me’. The learner experience is what takes a live session from being seen as a chore to an event that learners actually look forward to and want to participate in.
And who will provide this experience? The multitasking rockstar otherwise known as the facilitator.
The Teacher Becomes the Student
There is more to facilitation than simply reading off a slide deck. It’s all about presence and the often overlooked human aspect of the learning experience.
When I think of a facilitator, I think of a Mrs. Fischer-type figure.
They act as your guide. They know what the bigger picture looks like but they won’t give you all the answers. They allow you to experience the journey for yourself. You have to make your own mistakes but they are there to help you learn from them. They’re there to help you understand how your mistakes help you to grow.
So what’s the difference between a trained facilitator and one that’s not? On top of covering the content for the session and dealing with the technical logistics, a trained facilitator has a hoard of duties to consider and manage during the session.
“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
– Albert Einstein
1. This is a Safe Space
Great facilitators ensure they create a safe and inclusive space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their experiences, opinions, thoughts and feelings. That’s a big ask. Think about it, you’re asking a group of strangers to speak honestly and freely in front of and to each other without fear of judgment or ridicule. When it’s laid out like that, dynamic discussions look out of reach. Don’t worry, it’s possible.
Creating a safe space means:
- Never underestimating the power of a friendly smile and using a conversational tone.
- Fostering a feeling of connectedness among and between facilitators and learners.
- Simply introducing yourself and sharing a little information about who you are (now you’re not a stranger).
- Encouraging learners to introduce themselves and share a little information too (now they’re not strangers either).
- Using icebreakers to get the conversation going so people ease into the session and get to know one another.
- Setting expectations and physically calling out that it’s a safe space. Take the time to go over session agreements and outline acceptable behaviors that will make for a successful and enjoyable session.
Live sessions for virtual learning need to be discussion- and activity-based. Make time sacred. This is not the time for a lecture. Learners will have gone through the content before attending the live session. This is their opportunity to discuss the learning and put it into practice.
2. The Art of Dialogue
Facilitators use dialogue to encourage collaboration and opportunities for sharing or self-disclosure. They always have the end-goal in sight, which is to build a community for learning and that can only happen when everyone feels comfortable. Dialogue can be a bit of a wildcard. You never know if learners are going to engage in the conversation.
A seasoned facilitator knows how to:
- Guide the conversation by probing for more information.
- Allow room for learners to make connections on their own.
- Keep the dialogue on track to avoid time-wasting tangents.
- Knows when to listen, when to speak and when to encourage others to share.
- Create a space for ‘a-ha’ moments to occur organically.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice!
The facilitator takes the learner on a journey that allows them to practice their skills and learn from other members in the group. Cohort-based learning is the often-ignored middle child when it comes to learning methodologies. It has been underappreciated for far too long. A wealth of knowledge and experience resides within a cohort group. It’s up to the facilitator to help each learner tap into this knowledge while making time to impart their own.
In order to get the most out of the time they have together, facilitators:
- Use the breakout functionality to allow small groups to complete activities (role-plays, self-reflection, pair activities, scenarios, case studies) that let them practice vital skills. It’s through these groups that learners are exposed to different ways of thinking as well as the opportunity to draw and learn from the experiences of their peers.
- Conduct a debrief after each activity is completed. Here, key learnings as well as model answers for each activity are discussed.
- Encourage learners to reflect on the responses offered by each group.
- Use subtle probing questions to guide learners to make connections on their own.
- Act as the voice of reason. They gather the information from each group and distill their takeaways into the key learning points for the activity. They keep the learning front and center.
Like I said, rockstars! Being able to do all these things – guide, support, nurture, cultivate, encourage (the list goes on) – it’s a skill. One that can only be mastered through training and practice. That’s right, trainers need to be trained too.
The behavioral change that companies are hoping for can only be achieved when learners feel inspired, engaged and are motivated to implement what they’ve learned into their daily work life.
So after all of that, what have we learned?
- Training facilitators, supporting them and valuing them is the best investment a company can make.
- Content should not be the only priority. The human element is equally as important. Finding the balance between the two will make the learning journey a more successful one.
- Providing inspiration, creating opportunities for learners to connect the dots on their own, and allowing them to make and learn from their mistakes is where vital learning happens.
The amount of work that goes into creating a training program is immense. You’re investing time, money and what feels like a metric ton of effort. So make the right choice. Invest in your facilitators. Allow them the opportunity to become someone’s Mrs Fischer.
“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.”
– Galileo Galilei