Trainings and workshops often get criticised, not only when it comes to Eduk8. Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, but let’s be honest, some of these critiques have some truth to them. In this article, I will explore the main criticism we face when delivering workshops or trainings, and what can we do to avoid such feedback.
Hopefully we all have been to a workshop or training we thought was revelatory, life changing, or the sorts. But unfortunately, we all probably have also been to ones that felt like an utter waste of time with no useful input whatsoever. So how can you make sure your workshops and trainings belong to the first category?
To understand what you need to focus on, we need to understand the usual criticism that faces us:
- “The workshop had no content at all, I didn’t get any input.”
- “I didn’t learn anything new.”
- “The facilitator/trainer didn’t have any expertise on the topic.”
- “The facilitator/trainer was always in the background and never gave input or even his opinion. We could have done this without him/her.”
- “Non-formal education is all fluff, energisers, post-its and games, but there’s no substance, no real learning.”
- “We stayed on the surface, rushed through a bunch of topics but didn’t go in depth in anything.”
- “In NFE there are no good or bad answers, but I feel like that’s not true, I just left the workshop not knowing what is the right answer.”
- “I didn’t understand how topics were connected to one another, they were just all sorts of thrown in there.”
- “We learnt a new theory but never actually learnt what to do with it or how to apply it.”
Does any of it sound familiar? Have you ever received feedback on at least one of these? Then read on, you might get some tips and tricks on how to ensure you don’t get into the situation again!
Training and facilitating, when done well, can seem so effortless that everyone might think they could do it. All you need to do is copy this cool energiser, add your favorite training game you had so much fun playing last time you attended a workshop, add a debriefing session with the 4F questions (remember: facts, feelings, findings, future) and ask for their feedback at the end. Boom, this is how chocapic a workshop is invented. At the beginning of anyone’s training career, there is a lot of copy-pasting, a lot of following the rules we learnt (rigidly sticking to the 4Fs, to debrief everything, even how it felt to define the term “team”). We copy training methods and training styles we saw and experienced ourselves but we don’t really dive deep into what really will make our workshops the best they can be, and what really makes sense in that moment of time, to that very audience. So let me give you a few tips and tricks on how you can make your workshops more impactful for your participants, without receiving any of the harsh feedbacks mentioned above.
How to choose your topic?
What are you topics of expertise? What are topics you are passionate about? What are topics your organisation and your future participants are interested in? You can easily create a venn diagram of these three areas, and the intersection of all three should ideally be the topics you hold workshops in. Nonetheless, there are situations when we go out of our comfort zone and pick topics that we’re not experts in. We all like to experiment and try new things. We might have experienced a cool workshop on a given topic and want to recreate it, or we get asked to hold a workshop on a topic we don’t really have expertise on, but think we can pull it off anyways. Before committing to designing and delivering a workshop on a new topic, you should first evaluate if it’s a topic you can handle. Not all topics can be learnt overnight and we should not be careless in this regard. Before saying YES to a new topic, consider what makes you qualified to hold a workshop on that given topic. There’s several things to consider: Is it your knowledge, your experiences or your qualifications?
Do you have any hard knowledge on the topic? (Do you know theories, models, structures, from your studies, books you’ve read, TEDtalks you watched over and over again, etc.)
- YES: Great, you can probably start designing a workshop on the topic.
- NO: In this case you probably need to brush up on your knowledge before delivering a workshop on the topic. Read a book or watch a few documentaries or youtube videos, check out some manuals. Dig in to all material you can find and make sure you understand what you read, after all, you’ll need to transmit knowledge in your workshop.
Do you have any real experience with the topic? (Have you had experiences during volunteering, work, hobbies, personal life, etc. in which you could practice the competences required in connection to the topic?)
- YES: Great, you can probably start designing a workshop on the topic. Make sure you read up about the connecting theories and models that support your experiences.
- NO: If you don’t have personal experience, you can still design a workshop IF you have the background knowledge, however, you will be a lot more credible if you do have experiences to build on. You might want to talk to people around you with experience and gather some “case studies” which you can use in your workshop either as examples, good or bad practices, or as exercises.
Does the topic need special training or certification? (Some topics cannot be delivered by people who don’t have a certain qualification or certification. For example, topics like mental health or personal development need a psychology or coaching background, a certification is needed to become an agile or scrum trainer or to hold a LegoPlay workshop , or prior training certification or educational qualification is often necessary when delivering trainings on topics connected to human rights.
- YES: In this case, only design/deliver the workshop if you have the necessary background. Don’t risk it.
- NO: You can go ahead with your plans, it’s risk-free.
You can also decide to be a facilitator of a process of sharing and peer-to-peer learning, in which case you need less knowledge or experience on the given topic. While as a facilitator, you are not expected to be expert in the topic, it’s always better to have just enough background knowledge to be able to steer the process better and guide your participants better. In this case, however, your participants should know from the beginning what to expect from you and the process, in order not to have mismatch in expectations.
What can happen if you choose to deliver a workshop on a topic you don’t have experience/knowledge/qualifications on? In the best case, you nail it. Every now and then we all get lucky. In less good cases, you can end up with very bad feedback, participants losing faith in you as a trainer or facilitator (which can also affect the others in our trainer pool). But what’s worse, is that you can actually negatively impact someone’s life. Trainings create safe environments in which people are ready to leave their comfort zones in hopes for personal growth. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can easily push someone into their panic zone and have longer term consequences you might not even be aware of.
Once you picked a topic for your next workshop, you need to make sure you KNOW it! Being prepared is not only a good slogan for scouts, it’s certainly a necessity for trainers and facilitators! Dig into your resources and make sure you know at least the basics that are necessary. Check theories, models, structures, case studies, look at what competences (skills, knowledge and attitudes) can be developed in connection to this topic. Make sure you know what your doing, that you have enough understanding of the topic. Have a detailed TSO that you carefully thought through, and have a back-up plan. Make sure you know your audience and their needs, so you can address them. And if you don’t know it in advance, the back-up plan is even more necessary: have more basic and more advanced activities prepared, and adjust when necessary.
Be on the same page with your co-facilitator.
When have a co-facilitator, make sure you both are aware of ALL the things happening in your workshop. Never just divide part 1 and part 2 without understanding each other’s. Sometimes you will need to take over or help each other out. What’s worse than having one facilitator not being able to explain a theory? Having two facilitators being unable to do so.
Check your objectives!
Your objectives should always focus on a desired learning outcome: a change or improvement in skills, knowledge or attitudes. The objective of your session should never be “fun” or “NFE-like”. These are means to get to your goal. In non-formal education, we are much more flexible than in formal education: yes, we do energisers, we use colourful post-its, and we ask the participants what they think. These are not regular elements of formal education. But these are just a different path to the same goal: to educate! So make sure you have actual content that you want to deliver.
Don’t be afraid to educate, in fact, do!
Yes, you might be young. Yes, you might be new to the world of training. Nonetheless, if you’re delivering a workshop, it’s because you want to educate others in a given topic. So do it! Help them learn something, about the world, about a process, about themselves. Don’t be shy using theories or inputs - participants love to go home with something concrete in their pockets, which they can use. Don’t just use theory for the sake of it though - give them something that can be applied to their real environments and something they can practice during the workshop.
I’ve witnessed workshops in which the facilitators first asked the participants if they know an energiser, asked them to lead it, then asked participants about the definition of a certain term connotated with the workshop, then asked participants to move into small groups and share good examples and best practices about experiences they had connected to the topic and at the end the asked the participants to come up with dos and don’ts lists for the future. They led some discussions by questions mostly following the 4F structure (Fact, Feelings, Findings, Future), but never, not once, in the whole workshop they actually contributed with anything apart from giving the framework in which the participants could learn from one another.
This is called peer-to-peer learning, in which the facilitator simply facilitates the process, nothing more. I’ve done this in the past, mainly in political conferences where I was asked not to influence the participants in any way, therefore I was solely responsible to guide them through a process in which they can determine an outcome together. In ESN, this is not very much desired, however. ESNers want to learn and they want to learn from you too. So be present, don’t just lead the orchestra, show them you can play the instruments too. Give your opinion, it’s ok. Give your expertise. If you have a project management workshop, talk about your own experience in ESN. And if you really don’t have experience, then straight up from the very beginning explain to participants that your workshop will be a peer-to-peer learning opportunity, and nothing more: set the right expectations from the start, so it cannot hurt you (and Eduk8) later.
Give credit to yourself!
At the beginning of their training careers, it seems that people are struggling to kick-off workshops. And what they struggle most with, is introducing themselves: often it’s just a quick “Hi, I’m Liza, your trainer, fun fact: I love ponies, now let’s move on and start the workshop”. Sound familiar? (I actually am not a fan of horses by the way, except for the Icelandic ones, they’re super cute). When you’re about to start a workshop, take time and explain your experience on the topic, your experience in NFE and your approach to the workshop. For example: If you have a lot of experience from studies, work or volunteering, say it. If you don’t, it’s also ok to say it (for example: “I am not an expert on this topic, but we felt that it was important to address in ESN, therefore I decided to take on this challenge. I’ve done my research, read this book and that manual, nonetheless, my approach today will be to work with your experiences and ensure that you can learn from one another. I have experience leading workshops and such processes and I’m certain that if we all put what we have into the mix, we all will leave more knowledgeable than before). Tell participants how they can count on you during the workshop and which expertise you possess they can rely on.
Fake it till you become it! or Believe in Yourself!
None of it will matter if you don’t. How can you expect your participants to trust you and look up to you as their facilitator or trainer if you don’t believe you can do it? I was 22 when I delivered the first Training for Trainers in ESN. In fact, it was the very first Training for Trainers I ever delivered, and I only attended my first international TfT a few months later. Was I ready for it? Heck, no! But I faked it till I became IT. And it worked. Believe in yourself, or no one else will. How did I pull it off back then? By reading every material I found online about training for trainers, researching methods until I found the best match to what I needed and reading it time and time again until I fully understood it. I barely slept during the one week event, re-reading everything the night before, puzzling around with my TSO for the next day to ensure it reflects the needs of the participants at the given stage and making sure it’s the most logical flow I can offer. It was probably the training I prepared the most for, because of being so uncertain of myself. And when you prepare well enough, nothing should catch you off guard. Faking it and making it has to do only with preparing for it properly (and then selling it with confidence). The only way people will be able to look up to you is if you look up to yourself. Keep that in mind.
Ask yourself: is it REAL?
At last, here’s a quick checklist to help you with quality assurance of your workshops. We all like acronyms in ESN, and the letters R-E-A-L can help you ensure you take your workshops to the next level:
R - Is it relevant for the participants of your workshop? Did you address the reality of the target audience? Is it useful for them?
E - Is it exciting (creative, fun)?
A - Is it accessible? Think of language, disability, cultural differences, even differences of experience: is your workshop accessible for a complete newbie in ESN? Will they understand what's going on in your workshop? Are your methods diverse enough to cater for the different learning needs of your participants?
L - Is it learner-led, meaning do you put participants in the centre and have a participatory approach (instead of a top down approach which reminds us more of formal educational methodologies). Do you address the needs of participants, at all times?
Should you follow these tips, you might be able to avoid the feedback listed above. Nonetheless, you need to remember: every single human being is different, with different backgrounds, experiences, needs, preferences, etc. You will never be able to satisfy every single one of your participants. Nonetheless, by taking your workshops more seriously, you can assure that next time you’ll have a better success. And when you are more successful, Eduk8 is more more successful as a consequence. Because what you do, affects all of us at large. So make us proud!