Everything Speaks!

In any given learning program, everything speaks. There is an underlying message intentionally or intentionally sent and received other than through the content or the “teaching”. As facilitators, we often focus on our facilitation, on the content, and yet there is so much more happening. And “what is happening” either supports or hinders learning.

Some of the things that “speak” are:

  • The physical environment and set-up
  • What we say with our bodies – our non-verbal messages
  • The words we choose to use
  • The methods we choose and the role/s we choose to play

Think of various ways to set up a classroom – rows of chairs in a tiered auditorium, a conference table, participants seated at round tables, a U-form with tables or without them, or chairs in a circle or semi-circle. Are the participants packed into a small room, or is there space to move around? Are there posters and color in the classroom or is the environment one with sterile walls? What do we put in the center or line of sight of participants – the screen and projector? A podium? Or one another? What is possible and what is probable in those environments? How are we defining the roles and the actions of both learners and ourselves when we set up the environment?

The physical environment is a powerful suggestive factor in learning. It either says, the focus is you, the community of people, our shared learning, and the quality of interaction, or it communicates a hierarchy of the all knowing “instructor” who covers content while the learner passively listens and takes notes. When participants find themselves in a typical classroom environment, they adapt to its messages quickly, becoming students again with all the resultant behaviors and patterns.

Our bodies, gestures and facial expression also communicate more than we sometimes realize.

Whether we stand or sit makes a difference. Where we look or don’t look speaks volumes. How we react to what happens and what is said tells learners what is accepted and what isn’t. It also begins to define the role that we have given them and ourselves in the learning process.

Language is very powerful – it shines a light on something and relegates other things to the shadows. Do we use a lot of “I” statements – “I want you to…” “I invite you to…” or do we begin more sentences with “You” as in “You now have an opportunity to….” Is our language goal or problem oriented? Do we use negation with all its unintended consequences? Saying “You don’t have to worry; this won’t be difficult” is like saying “Don’t think of a plaid elephant!” Hmmm, just how many of you reading this managed that?

Even the methods we choose say a lot about our mental models, our paradigm of learning. Is most of what we do “lecture based” with or without PowerPoint? Do we provide most of the answers or judge the responses that learners make with a “good”, “right”, or “that’s what I was looking for” – either implied or explicitly stated? What is our toleration for exploration and discovery – something that naturally leads to initial faulty assumptions, mistakes and a certain” messiness”? To what extent can we manage what happens in ways that are meaningful and respectful? How can we nurture the process without taking it over?

If we don’t spend the time reflecting on our role/s, on our mental model of learning, and on the messages in everything we do, we will continue to act on our often unconscious paradigms, ones we learned early in our lives. We have a choice – we can do the internal work needed to become the facilitators of learning we want to be, and we can be more aware and intentional in the messages we send.

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