Common Traps when Reviewing with Groups
Roger Greenaway, Reviewing
In this article I describe some of the many the traps awaiting those
who facilitate learning in groups - and I provide some ideas about how
you can avoid these traps in the first place.
kind of trap?
A 'trap' is an attractive looking option that, once taken, has
consequences that cause you to regret your choice (while you are busy
working out how to escape from it!). Sometimes you do not choose the
trap at all: the trap chooses you if you do not realise that
other options exist.
you recognise these traps?
1. Apologising for holding a review
2. Asking 'What did you learn?' at the
start of a review
3. Speeding: expecting instant
4. Trivialising: expecting brief
answers to big questions
5. Controlling the whole review
process, or trying hard to do so
6. Keeping the whole
group together for every review process
7. Filling up
8. Strongly favouring
one learning style
9. Assuming that
everyone had much the same experience
11. Talking too much
as a facilitator
of these traps also conveys unintentional messages that block
learning. If you know enough about these traps you can avoid them.
Trap 1 Apologising for holding a review
(and promising that it won't take very long)
not that important. I am sure you would rather be
doing something else. I'll not inconvenience you for too long."
Avoid trap 1
Raise Expectations and Commitment
Trap 2 Asking 'What did you learn?' at
the start of a review
- Declare or negotiate a purpose for the review
- Explain that however pleased or disappointed
happened, there is extra value to be gained by reflecting on the
- Explain that a good review can easily double or
triple the value of
the learning that can be gained from an experience.
- Give an example to support your extravagant
could be a reminder of what participants have already learned through
reviewing their experiences.)
already happened - so don't expect to learn anything
new in this review."
Just four words ("What did you learn?") transform
an opportunity for new learning into a memory test.
trap 2 Follow a sequence that is designed to
from experience during the review. For example:
If you also want the group to recap what they have already learned, try
to do so in a way that does not interfere with their expectations of
new learning arising during the review process.
- Start by asking for descriptions of what
of what people
were doing. (Consider how selective you want these accounts to be, and
whether you want participants to focus on particular themes or
- Ask yourself (or the group) whether visual aids
reflection and communication (eg pictures, diagrams, photos, video or
re-enactments of key moments).
- Encourage participants to look out for
versions of events
and experiences. Such curiosity helps to bring out new learning.
- Notice how much description is 'external'
footage) and how much reveals 'internal' worlds of feelings, reasons,
intentions etc. Recognise that a lot of learning will arise from
bringing out new information - both external and internal.
Trap 3 Speeding: expecting instant
involves saying the first thing that comes into your head -
so we don't give you much time for reflecting, thinking or preparing
what you might want to say."
The chances of getting a worthwhile response are even less if you
direct your question to an individual, and are less again if the
surprised individual rarely speaks up or tends to go along with what
has already been said.
Trap 3 Slow down! Provide the time and the tools
participants to prepare their answers or to choose the question they
wish to answer.
Trap 4 Trivialising: expecting brief
answers to big questions
- Give more thinking time: just before
break, announce the
questions you will be asking after the break.
- Wait until everyone has indicated they are
everyone to walk around (alone or with a partner) and not sit down
again until they have something to say.
- Give more choice. Write down some of the
you want to ask,
each on separate card. Ask everyone to pick a question they wish to
answer. If you want the questions to follow a particular sequence you
can number or code the questions in advance.
- Ask participants to first talk in twos or
- Ask participants to find a picture or object
helps them to
answer the question.
- Ask participants to find their own personal
space or 'magic
spot' - indoors or outdoors.
- Give participants notebooks and well-timed
opportunities for using
(such as when asking for one picture, one word or one phrase
that sums up the group view)
superficial or cliched responses are OK - just be
sure you do not exceed 3 words / 10 seconds / one symbol."
The one word, phrase or item that the group chooses is unlikely to
communicate the range and depth of their experiences. Their
exceptionally brief answer is unlikely to capture what was special
about the experience. (A process that encourages 'groupthink' is even
more out of place in a programme about personal growth and development.)
Trap 4 Find the level of detail that generates
significance without pruning things right down to a single
These richer forms of expression are more inclusive than the 'one item'
approach - they are more inclusive of people and their ideas.
Participants choose the level of detail and richness that is most
satisfying and significant for themselves.
- Ask for 5 or more pictures (not just one) to be
presented in a
sequence or other pattern.
- Provide pictures that are rich with
interpretations (rather than simple pictures that have just one
instantly recognisable meaning).
- Ask the group to make a composite picture, or
chart or map of their experiences and ideas.
- Ask for several words (not just one).
- Ask for several phrases (not just one)
For more ways of avoiding triviality see 'Getting Beyond Cliches'
Active Reviewing Tips 13.3.
Trap 5 Controlling the whole reviewing
(or trying hard to do so)
little responsibility for your own learning. I will
guide you through the whole process. You must trust me even if my
controlling ways betray a lack of trust in you."
Trap 5 Be selective. Decide which aspects to
control (such as
the time frame or the overall purpose). You can monitor or delegate
other aspects rather than controlling them directly.
the whole group together for every review process
- For each review method you have different
For example, in
some methods you provide all the questions, but in other review methods
you control the framework within which questions are generated.
- If sharing control with participants keep these
mind: Is everyone involved? Is everyone having a say? Are
differences being resolved in productive ways? Is anyone so stuck that
they need help to get unstuck?
- The role of the facilitator in learning groups
explored in depth
by David Jaques in 'Learning
in Groups' and by John Heron in 'The Complete Facilitator's
Handbook' where he provides advice about when to
control, when to share control and when to hand over control. I have
summarised John Heron's advice here.
do not trust you (to review without me)."
is closely related to the previous trap: keeping everyone together
helps the facilitator keep control. Staying in the group for every
review process risks slipping into a suffocating sameness: once a group
pecking order is established it is difficult for those lowest in the
pecking order to find their voice. When the same few people dominate
the conversation, the least heard voices lose interest and
confidence in their ability to change the pattern. And even the more
frequent speakers may feel uncomfortable with such unequal
Trap 6 Make it a higher priority to facilitate inclusion
in time for individual reflection, learning buddy conversations and for
small group reflection so that participants are ready to make a higher
quality contribution to the whole group process.
- If you are
concerned that subgroups may not use their time well, ensure that you
give them suitable review tasks - ideally with a process that is
visible and with an output that demonstrates the quality of their
- For the design of such processes see my
series of articles about design indexed here
(or asking groups to do so)
on those rare occasions when you feel the need to collect lots of
information 'filling up flipcharts' is unlikely to be the most
inclusive, efficient or dynamic way of doing so.
things down is the main learning process
number of flipcharts produced in a review is not an indication of its
quality! The subtle and cumulative influences of the flipchart conspire
to shape a review into a process that no-one wants. If a participant's
words are recorded by the facilitator they feel acknowledged. The
corollary is that participants whose words are not recorded are likely
to feel less valued. The facilitator senses this (or is told so by the
person whose words are not recorded) and starts writing down a much
higher proportion of what is said. When the participants sense what you
are trying to do, everything slows down so that you have time to do all
Trap 7 If you are trying to kick the habit
of filling up flipcharts then plan to carry out some of your reviews in
a place where there are no flipcharts, whiteboards, blackboards etc.
favouring one learning style
- 95% of the reviewing methods described in
the 'Active Reviewing Guide' do not need a flipchart.
- If you need to collect lots of
information then use a survey method in
which small groups construct the questions, carry out the survey and
report on results (without a flipchart!).
all your senses,
intelligences, resources and learning styles during the activity, but
you can switch all but one of these off during the review."
Yes - an invitation to switch off! For example: if everyone
sits in the same place doing nothing but listening for most of the
review, this favours participants who prefer to learn by
sitting and listening for long periods (and occasionally
speaking up). But even such
people will probably learn more effectively if you encourage a broader
variety of learning opportunities during the review.
(Exceptions do happen: a
group can get so engaged in a good review discussion that it could be
intrusive to introduce a different method simply because you want them
to be more 'active' or 'creative'.)
Trap 8 Make reviewing a holistic process that
variety of different senses, intelligences and learning styles. For
rationale is described in more detail in a foreword I wrote on 'Why
Active and Creative Reviewing' (pdf) and draws on the
metaphor of 'broadband' representing enriched multichannel thinking and
- For talking about group dynamics,
participants choose, move and arrange
objects into patterns that show how the dynamics are changing.
- For sharing an emotional experience,
participants create a rope graph
showing their ups and downs. Their 'story-line' serves as an
aid for deeper
reflection and communication.
- For examining a critical moment
participants re-experience the event by re-enacting it. This
typically brings out greater honesty and understanding.
that everyone had much the same experience
(and will all come out of the review with much the same learning)
is inconvenient. It would be so much
if individual views or minority views make way for the emerging
mainstream version of events."
Some useful learning can happen
at a general level. For example, a group might say: "We all experienced
the disappointment of running out of time to complete the task, and we
all learned that we must manage our time better in future." But
underneath this headline could be a whole range of different
experiences that point to other factors that are far more significant
and critical for
group learning, for individual learning, and for better task
Trap 9: Use methods that bring out the range of
experiences and that acknowledge diversity and difference.
- Discourage generalisations rather than
asking for them! Look for exceptions.
- Use reviewing methods that give everyone
- Discourage statements beginning "We think
...". Until everyone has spoken, speaking for others is guesswork.
- Check that statements made on behalf of
others are based on facts, not assumptions.
- Check that statements about learning are
based on evidence.
- When the evidence for learning is
experience-based, check the connections (Are the findings
over-generalised? Are people jumping to conclusions?).
- When 'checking' it is better to prompt
others to check ("How confident
are you in your conclusion that ...?") rather than making your own
direct assessment as the 'checker'.
is about creating certainty and
agreement. It is not
about casting doubt, or looking for holes in arguments, or introducing
evidence that does not fit, or creating alternative explanations."
job is to generate learning. So whenever learning makes an appearance
your instinct is to welcome it. But learning also comes in the form of
'unlearning' (finding flaws in previous learning). And 'unlearning' can
be more difficult and more profound and more valuable than 'new
learning'. 'Unlearning' is often accompanied by uncertainty. So we
should perhaps have an even bigger welcome for uncertainty!
Trap 10: Unless you are doing fire drill training (or any
other kind of training drill),
appreciate the value
of uncertainty and ambiguity and appreciate the value of mixed endings
to a review: there may be greater certainty in some areas and greater
in others. To ensure the quality of learning:
writing this article I learned of the death of Sir Patrick Moore the
British astronomer who once gave a lecture entitled "What we don't
know". This suggests an interesting strategy for avoiding the certainty
trap. I think that 'What don't we know?' could become one of my
favourite review questions.
- Interrupt assumptions
- Bring out alternative interpretations
- Challenge confidence in conclusions
- Explore ambiguities and other
- Ask 'What else?'
- Consider re-examining the conclusions of
previous review if they now seem unsound and/or too tidy.
too much as a facilitator
don't value what you have to say."
facilitator who talks too much may actually prefer that participants
speak up more. But this is a situation in which setting a good example
as a role model (of someone who speaks a lot) is counterproductive.
Trap 11 Make it easier for participants to speak
questions that you cannot possibly answer yourself.
- Sit out silences if it seems that
participants are still thinking about your question.
- Ask an easier version of the question for
which no response is forthcoming.
- Avoid Trap 6 (always keeping everyone
together) and have pairs or small groups prepare their responses
(written or verbal or active or creative in any combination)
- Ask pairs or small groups to discuss what
would make it easier for them to speak up.
up review tasks that enable participants to generate the main stimulus
for review discussions - allowing the facilitator to take a more
you have gained some fresh insights into some of the traps awaiting
facilitators of learning. I hope you have also picked up some useful
ideas about how to avoid these traps, and how to avoid giving out
messages that are counterproductive. I welcome ideas for additions,
changes and improvements. Your comments are welcome by email
you prefer to reflect in private, go to the
list of 11 traps and jot
down the numbers in a rank order that applies to the frequency with
which you (or your colleagues) stumble into these traps.
published in Roger
Reviewing Tips ~ ISSN 1465-8046
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