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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Facilitating Group Learning

Facilitating Group Learning

George Lakey

After nearly fifteen years in the same job, it’s easy to get lazy.  Easy to just pass the time, do things the way they’ve always been done, collect the paycheck.  When I teach training classes, the temptation to hand-wave is vast — the course modules are mostly on rails, and I can just show up, deliver the material, and call it a day.  In most cases, the expectations of the trainees are fairly low — they’re used to low standards when it comes to training, and if you show up with a decent grasp of the English language, they’re usually happy.  It doesn’t take much to do a perfectly adequate job.

Facilitating Group Learning was a good shake-up for me to get me out of my mediocre routine.  The first important principle of Lakey’s is treating the group as a group, rather than as a collection of individuals.  Lakey calls this group cohesion the “container”.  By minding the container, the facilitator makes sure not to lose the people on the margins, and instead make sure to use the people on the margins to enhance the group learning experience.

Another useful take-away is that container-building is not conflict-averse.  In fact, a certain degree of conflict is necessary as we acknowledge and confront the differences between the mainstream of the group and its margins.  Lakey contends that learning can only happen when we’re outside our comfort zone — that there can be no such thing as comfortable transformation, because the act of transforming presupposes discomfort.  The principle applies more readily to the kinds of trainings that Lakey does — things like diversity trainings and direct action training — but I think it applies even to mundane things like computer software training.  Someone who is completely comfortable isn’t pushed to acquire new skills.  The trick is to allow them to be safe — safe to ask questions, safe to step outside of their comfort zone.  Minding the group container increases safety while also elevating discomfort.

While Lakey’s direct education model is really aimed at activist educators, the principles and methods should inform anyone working in group learning settings, whether doing Earth First trainings or teaching Sunday school classes.