A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend the best part of ten days holed up in a room at Friends House in London with 20 other grassroots trainers and facilitators. For once, we were participants on a training course – not the ones running it!
If the trainer-cum-participant role sounds like a relative walk in the park, let me remind you of Rhizome’s modus operandi: as facilitators committed to meaningful social change through empowerment and participation, we view participants not as empty vessels engaging obediently with course content as a means of soaking up knowledge offered by a trainer. Rather, we recognise that every group of participants already possesses, between them, the knowledge needed to advance their learning on any given topic. With this in mind, we seek to welcome every part of every participant and support each person in the training room to bring their unique skills, experiences and aptitudes to the room.
This participatory approach to adult learning is not new and Rhizome is amongst a growing number of training organisations using it to advance the learning of those we work with. Many of those organisations (Campaign Bootcamp, the New Economy Organisers Network, Seeds for Change, Tripod and Turning the Tide) were with me on the 10 day training – all of us recognising that no matter how experienced we are, there is always room for furthering our learning, benefits to engaging as participants and value to be found in networking with others on a similar path.
The training in question was run by renowned US-based training organisation Training for Change (TfC), and the two-part course comprised a Training for Social Action Trainers (TSAT) followed by an Advanced TSAT. TfC uses the phrase “Direct Education” to describe the participatory approach I outlined above and it is essentially a way of drawing learning directly from the participants themselves. Over the course of several years of training trainers and social change agents, TfC has identified some core frameworks, theories and tools which support facilitators to use the “Direct Education” model. It was these frameworks, theories and tools that I, and my fellow participants, spent 10 days getting to grips with.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the fact that we were on a training course to learn more about Direct Education, for which we were using the Direct Education model, made the whole thing very ‘meta’: a Direct Education training course on Direct Education! And whilst the self-referential way of engaging was somewhat tiring, it was also, as one would hope, extremely revelatory. Over the course of ten days, we got to experience engaging tools and activities (most of which I’d encountered before, but some of which added to my repertoire), we used reflection and generalisation to explore approaches and we applied our learning by trying things out for ourselves. This explicit use of the experiential cycle – Experience, Reflect, Generalise, Apply (See David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model) – was both central to the way we learnt and a key framework for us supporting others’ learning.
We were challenged throughout by constant engagement with the group dynamics in the room, working directly on race and gender and exploring other ways in which structural oppression plays out in groups. We practiced what TfC calls ’emergent design’ (basically how to change your plans ‘on the hoof’ in response to what is happening in the training room) and elicitive questioning – an essential tool in the facilitator toolbox. Whilst the TfC trainers had outlined their stated goals at the start of the workshops, the focus of what we learned was most definitely directed by the group. Particularly in the Advanced TSAT, back-to-back practice facilitation by groups of two co-facilitating participants ensured that it was always the participants who were ‘reading the group’, diagnosing its needs and designing and delivering the sessions according to what they deduced was needed to move things forward.
Of course that’s not to say that the Training for Change facilitators didn’t have a key role to play. Far from it. The skilful facilitation of our trainers Erica and Nico represented both inspirational modelling and an essential part of the thoughtful holding of space and building of trust required for such deep transformational work. The degree to which they were able to ‘build the container’ of group trust in the room was evident from the risks we as participants were willing to take to further our learning.
I think I can say with some certainty that every one of us made ourselves vulnerable and open to the extraordinarily personal challenges we were invited to encounter. And I think it’s also true to say that we each came away feeling empowered, energised and more confident trainers and facilitators as a result. I know I certainly did.