Privilege active learning

Doing so almost always produces better results in meetings and workshops.

Note: how to design and facilitate more engaging meetings, workshops, and other learning experiences will be a recurring topic throughout 2021’s posts. Today, I share one overarching principle that you can initially use to inform your efforts: privilege active learning.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds.

Unlike a cellphone plan’s unlimited minutes and texts, workshop presenters and meeting facilitators do not really get unlimited airtime.  Attempting to act as if they do can come at a great cost: a likely decline in participant interest, attention, and contributions.

To avoid those negative consequences, we should follow the advice of Robert Talbert, a Grand Valley State University professor of mathematics:

“When building a course or class session, I give active learning a privileged position. Lecture if it’s appropriate, but realize that sense-making only happens through active work, in a social setting involving other learners.  Put as much of this in every class as possible.”

“Playing School,” Chronicle Higher of Education's Teaching newsletter

True for academic classes. 

True for conference keynotes and general sessions.

True for workshops and webinars. 

True for virtual meetings and even audio conferences.

I’ll add one minor caveat:  we must remember that engagement, participation, sense-making, and active learning mean different things to introverted and extroverted learners and participants. 

Behind the scenes: designing for more active learning

Here is a skeleton approach to use when designing for active learning in a meeting or workshop:

A. Determine the session’s outcomes.

B. Specify the relevant content and conversations likely required to achieve the intended outcomes.

C. Identify what content you are best or uniquely positioned to present and what content participants could or are best positioned to contribute.

D. Select one of the following two approaches for each content segment:

  • Approach #1: Present content (the What?) and then facilitate a process in which participants make sense of it, exploring the So What? and Now What?

  • Approach #2: Design and facilitate a process in which participants contribute or create content that is then shared with each other. Subsequent processes or facilitated large group discussion makes additional sense of it and helps individuals apply it to their own efforts.

Note that reflection and application is a core element of both approaches.  Too often, meetings or workshops offer way too much What? and not nearly enough So What? and Now What? Content often won’t make sense if you don’t build in enough time for sense-making.

My cone/funnel model is loosely based on the work of Trevor Bentley in his excellent book, Facilitation: Providing Opportunities for Learning.

A third approach: The presenter or facilitator as content curator

I often draw on a variation of Approach #1, curating content from relevant sources that I then engage participants in making sense of for their own efforts.  Here’s a tangible example.

Let’s say I am designing and facilitating a session in which participants will redesign their organization’s annual convention. To stimulate their thinking, it would not be unusual to begin with a presentation on some current event trends.

A short lecture followed by discussion is perfectly fine.  But just because I could present that content, doesn’t mean that I should or need to do so, particularly if I want to privilege active learning. Here are two options to the lecture format.

The article option

Distribute an article on event trends and have individuals read it silently on their own and identify relevant implications (honors introversion).

Have participants form small groups, discuss their reactions with each other, and select the top three trends they think their new convention design should reflect (honors extroversion). 

Small groups would report out and I would then facilitate some sort of decision-making process in which participants select the trends to use for the subsequent design conversations.

A minor variation particularly useful with a large number of participants is breaking into small groups and assigning each group a different article.

The virtual field trip option

Curate a small number of conference websites that offer compelling examples of how other organizations are designing for relevant trends. 

Assign participants to individually visit one or more of the sites and take note of things they believe have relevance for their own convention (honors introversion). 

Convene individuals in small groups to share insights from their field trips and to select the top three trends they think their new convention design should reflect (honors extroversion).

Bottom line?

In any session a continuum exists between content presented to the community and the community contributing content. When presenting or facilitating, we want to use our minutes of session “air time” for the content we are uniquely qualified or best positioned to present. Invest the remaining time in engaging participants in more active learning: making sense of the content we present, exploring content we’ve curated for them, and generating relevant content of their own.


© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2020. All rights reserved.

To license this content for your site or electronic or print communications, email