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Colin James: What is Our Role as Facilitators of Learning?

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Colin James is recognised as one of Australia's leading corporate speakers and colin1facilitators. He is a highly engaging speaker, who challenges what we think and perceive to be the "norm". At the recent ILP (Institute of Learning Practitioners) conference he spoke about the future role of trainers and how to have a higher impact on learning outcomes. Here are some of the main takeaways from his keynote speech.

The role of trainer/facilitator

Participants expect the trainer to be the authority in the room and to articulate and define the process.  But with so much learning material freely available, people tend to know pretty much everything and are accustomed to a certain level of training methodology - so is this still a rich learning experience?  Colin James believes that it isn't. If people are in their comfort zone (in a state of equilibrium), they won't be challenged and will fail to get the most from the learning process. He suggests that there needs to be an element of provocation, and that each participant should be taken, at least to some degree, to a state of disequilibrium.  This is called the Harvard Case Methodology, where it isn't about content but more about the application in the moment.

Colin states that trainers and facilitators need to confront the roles that they play, in order to get a powerful outcome.  Instead of adopting the teacher persona, (which can have a negative effect because participants regress to a childlike state), interactions with participants must be adult-to-adult, with tonality and strength being vital to success.   It is important to remember that the role of a facilitator and trainer is not to be liked and create a happy feeling; it must remain about the application and transfer of learning.

Facilitators need to learn to identify with the room's comfort threshold and their line of tolerance.  Operating below that line of tolerance may have good intent, but ultimately results in a low rate of learning transfer. Above the line is where you will see a more significant impact, although it may feel uncomfortable at first. Knowing how long participants can function above the line before they need to return to the comfort zone is a skill which must be developed and practiced. He expertly demonstrated this as he started his presentation by simply asking the room over and over "so, how shall we start?" Responses were varied and exhibited a mix of confusion, humour, annoyance, frustration and intrigue - we were in a state of disequilibrium. After all, the keynote speaker is meant to speak and teach, aren't they?

In his opinion, the greatest challenge for trainers and facilitators is being able to sustain their above the line activity, as a dislike of feeling uncomfortable, or the fear that the participants won't like you, can cause you to revert to a state of equilibrium. Through practice, Colin believes that you can start to understand the signs, such as a decay in energy or resistance, and begin to know exactly when to drop back to get the best results.  Acknowledging "boy, that was tough right?" can be useful as it provides a clear signal to participants that things have reverted back to where they feel at ease.

Giving participants permission to go to the back of the room if they feel uncomfortable at any time and want a break is a good idea. This gives participants some control over what is happening, while allowing you to identify any trends regarding what pushes people too far.

A question was raised about how to manage client's expectations, as they may not want their staff to be challenged and confronted. He suggested that use of disequilibrium during the planning stages. For example, you could suggest to the decision maker that of course they can spend a great deal of money with little change and poor results doing it the easy way. This will challenge them to understand the process and see the benefits of being taken outside their default position.

In closing, Colin iterated that the future of learning is already here - he believes that it is the role of trainers, educators and facilitators to educate the broader context and market, and ultimately challenge and change what learning means.

For more information on Colin James, visit his website at www.colinjames.com.au or for the Institute of Learning Practitioners, go to www.ilpworldwide.org