Extreme meta-training: the importance of size

A good training session doesn’t just lump participants into groups willy-nilly, driven by nothing more than the group size and the facilitator’s ability to divide numbers in their head. Splitting participants into groups is a well-thought-through process of considering the objective of the activity and the dynamics needed to make it tick.

Here is an imagined example, a training session using different group sizes to discuss using different group sizes in training sessions: extreme meta-training!

Imagined Example

The facilitator says: Split into fours and discuss on a flip-chart the advantage of being in a group of four

Why is this better than a three or a pair?

Why is it usually better than a five or a six?

Rather than bore the crap out of each other by reading out your flip-charts to people who aren’t really listening, a more bearable alternative is:

Just tell us one thing – the thing you thought was most useful or interesting and let’s discuss it a bit … what do the other groups think?

Now let’s look at a PowerPoint slide that gives you some thoughts I had on this: a group of four has more energy than a three, it’s good for discussion in that you get three other points of view, and is small enough that everyone can speak and no-one can hide.

It’s just one slide, it’s visual, it gives the group the moving parts they need to think about for the next cluster of questions.

… so when might a five or six be better? (I ask in plenary)

When the need to generate creative ideas or complete tasks is greater than the need to discuss …

Now let’s mix up and split into threes and discuss why we might use threes as the perfect number when we’ve introduced a new skill, like giving feedback in a performance management discussion, and we want to practise it?

… because two can role-play and one can observe, policing the process …

Exactly! Why is this better than a pair for skills practise (in plenary again)?

The answer is because if you don’t have the process police then pairs are liable to revert to habit or forget what to do or just chitchat because that’s usually more pleasant – so if it doesn’t divide into three, it’s better to have a group of four than two pairs.

Why did I just ask that last question in plenary?

I wanted to make sure everyone got the point, and it broke the formulaic monotony of the “split into groups” treadmill, and sometimes plenary is best because the point I want to make is contentious and I don’t want people to get too wedded to a different point of view.

People can generate their own ideas on a flip-chart when they basically know, or can puzzle out, the answer for themselves, and especially when there’s no wrong answer, such as asking people about their own experience – but making people generate answers and then commit it to paper in front of others is a surefire way of making them feel attached to that point of view. This is not a good approach if you want to challenge them with a counter-intuitive or novel argument.

For that kind of thinking you need to open minds first, not close them around a nailed-on opinion they’ve just invested in. This usually means stepping gently through a logical process, bringing the room with you as you go along, step by step.

(Of course this depends, and there may be several activities that work toward a challenging idea, but even then, if you need people on the same page at the conclusion, it’s usually best to conclude together)

What other group sizes might we use and why?

Pairs are good for more personal conversations, but lack energy and you might get landed with a dud who doesn’t cooperate and then you’re stuffed … individual reflection is useful for planning how learning might be implemented, or reflecting on highly personal things that people might be reluctant to share, even within the safe embrace of a pair.

There are other reasons for groups of one (I know it’s not a group if there is only one, but I like the expression, it makes me smile).

A lot of learning is created through discussion. The act of having to articulate our thoughts is like opening the box and discovering what we actually think, we might think we know our own opinion, but until we have to say it out loud (or write it down) it remains, Schrödinger’s Cat-like, in an ambiguous state, neither one thing nor the other (I call this Schrödinger’s Opinion) … but that doesn’t mean everything has to be a discussion, sometimes (and some people) will need time to reflect and think in order for them to fully understand the learning, and so time for this is useful too, especially for the deeper and more personal concepts.

This can be done by scheduling in time for reflection and having regular breaks where people can choose how to spend the time. Another idea is to create and schedule self-paced activities where the participants can control how they engage. These might be a series of activities placed around the room covering different parts of the topic, so participants can explore whichever part they find most interesting.

So … if we were to design a short session for introducing the theory around managers giving feedback and then practising the skill … what sized groups would work best for us to do this activity?

OK, in threes or fours, because we don’t need much discussion, too many people would get in the way, and we just need to apply the learning in a fairly straightforward way …

… and now, let’s design an infographic that pulls together how facilitators might use different-sized groups during a session …

At the top of this post is the “infographic” I “designed” for this post (I am not a very good designer)

(I am a big fan of Sharon Bowman when it comes to designing learning sessions, and would always consider her ideas when designing training sessions – her website has useful resources for this including the Six Trumps and Learning Design Checklist)

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