BIG IS SMALL
'Working in large groups' seems to describe situations in which people
are working in small groups with lots of people nearby who are also
working in small groups. Why is it that the larger the reviewing group,
the greater the chances that people will end up in the smallest of
groups - reviewing in pairs, or even on their own?
The presence of others can support individual learning in many ways,
but it is also good to provide individuals with some personal time and
space to reflect - away from the distractions of others. However, being
alone is no guarantee of high quality reflection: when alone, attention
can wander or people get stuck in a rut as they keep going through the
same patterns of thought or visiting the same dead ends. But find the
right setting or technique for individual reflection and you can help
people see with fresh eyes, or lead them to 'aha' moments, or help them
break out of 'same-old' thinking. Here are just some options for
'reviewing for one':
Some of the above individual reviewing techniques can work surprisingly
well, but often the best way to make a breakthrough is reviewing with
- UNSTRUCTURED REFLECTIVE WRITING: using log books,
- STRUCTURED REFLECTIVE WRITING: responding to a
to a standard template of questions or headings following a particular
- GRAPHIC REFLECTION TECHNIQUES: creating diagrams,
maps, patterns, drawings, collages or photos to capture reflections.
- SCAVENGER HUNT: searching for symbolic objects that
- SOLO: time alone without distractions and space to
read feedback notes from other group members, or as a challenge in
itself - to live alone and close to nature with time to reflect.
- GUIDED REFLECTION: listening to a monologue that
- SILENCE: context is all important, but well timed
suitable settings can result in deep reflection.
- REFLECTION TIME following a stimulating story,
- THINKING TIME before making a reflective statement
- PREPARATION TIME before making a presentation about
learning to the group.
Talking things through with another person can be more dynamic and
productive than being left with your own thoughts. Sometimes the other
person is just a listener, but there are many other useful roles the
other person can adopt - such as a sounding board, a summariser, a
buddy, a coach, or even a devil's advocate. There is no guarantee that
the other person will be good at assisting the process of reflection.
The other person may be too intrusive or challenging, or may stumble
into 'no go' areas, or offer insensitive advice. There is always the
risk that the other person (even a skilled facilitator) will spoil,
distort or disrupt the process of reflection. The risk of ending up
with an 'unhelpful' listener can be reduced by providing clear
briefings and by providing an easy way for the 'speaker' to change the
rules or opt out if they find the process is not working well.
Here are a few helpful roles that the 'other person' can play when
reviewing in pairs:
- LISTENER: just listens - giving the 'reflector' the
to think aloud
- SOUNDING BOARD: listens and responds to any questions
reflector may ask
- SUMMARISER: repeats key phrases, summarises, asks for
- BUDDY: notices, empathises, supports, and possibly
- COACH: agrees objectives, provides feedback, and asks
that assist reflection
- INTERVIEWER (with a script): asks set questions or
certain review sequence
- CHILD: just keeps asking 'why?'. The reflector can
process at any point.
- DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: tests and challenges what the
This needs careful briefing to ensure that the challenges are provided
and perceived as being part of a helpful process.
REVIEWING FOR TWO: WALKING AND TALKING
Something that goes particularly well with paired reviews is 'walking
and talking' - especially if you have a suitable outdoor location.
'Walking and Talking' can be combined with any of the above roles. A
classic problem in paired reviews is that one person dominates and the
time is not well shared. One solution is to divide the total time into
two halves by having a clear 'swap over point' at half way (see 'Out
and Back'). Another solution is to have a turn-taking system in which
there is frequent swapping of roles (see 'Chat Cards'). These and other
variations of 'walking and talking' are described next:
- OUT AND BACK: 'Out and back' helps to ensure that the
divided equally between each person. Pairs walk out to an agreed point,
swap roles and walk back in their new roles. (See previous section for
ideas about 'roles'.) Ideally, each pair heads for a different point to
avoid distractions from other pairs.
- CHAT CARDS: Each card has a reflective question. Each
takes it in turns to answer as they walk. One question per card helps
people to focus on one question at a time. Just one good question may
be enough for some pairs, but other pairs may need a plentiful supply
of questions to keep a reflective conversation going. It is better to
have too many questions than too few.
- SCAVENGER HUNT: Pairs work together to collect
that answer reflective questions.
- WALKING ROUND THE ACTIVE REVIEWING CYCLE: As pairs
each stage the cycle, they focus their reflective conversation on the
stage they are walking through. In practice this takes two or three
minutes in each stage, so you either need a huge cycle or people simply
stop and talk until they are ready to move on to the next stage.
REVIEWING FOR TWO: CHANGING PARTNERS
Another style of paired review is where people have a series of brief
meetings with different partners. The speed of this process means that
people do not get stuck in partnerships that are not working. There may
not be very deep reflection during brief meetings, but a quick
succession of paired reflective conversations can quickly add up to a
lot of reflection from various angles in a short space of time. Your
choice of methods will partly depend on how important it is that
everyone meets everyone else.
Not all pairings work well - one person can dominate, trust may be low,
pairs may decide to take easy options, or just go through the motions
or may even opt out. Group facilitators may try to avoid the risks of
paired reviews not working well by keeping everyone together under
their own watchful eye for whole group reflection. But whole group
reflection has its own risks and disadvantages (such as lack of
personal space, less personal attention and less airtime for each
individual). The challenge is to find the right mix (and sequence) of
different group sizes (including reflective time alone) so that there
is a good balance between these different 'social settings' for
- MILLING ABOUT (for one to one feedback): Find a
each other one positive statement about their contribution to the team
exercise, find a new partner and repeat, etc.
- BRIEF ENCOUNTERS (questions and partners keep
person starts with a unique question on a card and finds a partner.
Each person answers their partner's question. They swap cards and each
finds a new partner.
- SURVEYS (small groups specialise in one question):
scatter throughout the whole group conducting brief one to one
interviews on the topic in which they are specialising. Subgroups meet
together again to collate the answers and report back their findings to
the whole group.
- MAD HATTER'S TEA PARTY: Two lines face each other.
with the person standing opposite. At a given signal, everyone moves
one to the left and starts talking with their new partner. The
facilitator announces a fresh question at each move. If the group is
too big to complete a full cycle, set up a suitable number of smaller
- CONCENTRIC CIRCLES: This is much the same idea as the
Hatter's Tea Party, but is a little easier to set up and manage. This
structure does not allow participants to have conversations with people
in their own circle, but it does provide an effective way of meeting
and learning one-to-one with everyone in another group
- MATRIX MEETINGS: Each individual has a list of
They place a mark beside the name of anyone they work with on a paired
reviewing exercise of (say) five minutes or more. From time to time
they also enter this information on a single group matrix that builds
up a picture of who has worked with whom. A number or letter code can
be used to give basic information about who took which role during the
exercise (e.g. L=learner, F=facilitator, S= shared). If the target is
to complete the matrix, remember to provide enough opportunities for
paired reviewing for this to be achievable.
'Threes' allows a third person to listen and observe a two person
review. This adds an extra level of reflection and helps to ensure the
quality of paired work - overcoming some of the problems described in
the 'pairs' section above.
Roles are switched so that all have a turn at the three different
roles. It is the observer who has the key role, because after observing
the paired discussion, they will facilitate a brief review (of the
paired review) before everyone changes roles.
An example of rotating threes.
Reviewing in threes is scalable for groups of 6, 9, 12 ... 99 or more.
Any group size that is divisible by 3 can use this structure. In very
large groups, there will be limited opportunities for useful sharing
when they get back together. If sharing beyond threes is important,
this can be achieved by meeting up with another three rather than
meeting up as a huge plenary group. Reviewing in threes (in which there
are three roles to rotate) takes around 30 minutes plus any sharing
time needed at the end. This is true for a group of 9 or 99.
A group of 9 people have just carried out a group activity together.
They are divided into three groups of three. Within each three, there
is a person A, a person B and a person C. On the first round, A is the
reflector, B is the facilitator and C is the observer.
First 5 minutes: B asks A to describe their role and to explain how and
why it changed (if at all) during the activity. B may ask supplementary
questions about how satisfied A was with their role and performance,
and to consider whether there are any questions they would like to ask
the whole group of 9 when they are back together.
Second 5 minutes: C reports back on what they observed. If C comments
mainly on B's role as a facilitator, this helps to counterbalance the
focus of the previous 5 minutes on A's role in the group. Both A and B
should have an opportunity to respond to C's observations before moving
For A, B and C to take on each role (reflector, facilitator and
observer) the whole process will take (5 + 5) x 3 = 30 minutes. When
the whole group of 9 meet back together, at least another 10 minutes
will be needed for the asking of any questions arising from this first
Quiet individuals are more likely to sit back and not get much involved
when groups reach five or six. Groups of around six can operate well
informally but some facilitation is probably necessary. There may be no
obvious need for a group of six to divide up into smaller units, but
even groups of six can benefit from some reviewing alone, in pairs or
in threes. Some rotation of roles can help to ensure that the group
does not settle into one way of operating in which the same one or two
people take the lead all of the time.
Task-based reviewing is particularly suited to groups of five or six
and upwards. The review can be set up as an independent task to be
achieved within a given time scale - just like any other group task.
The task can have a businesslike feel to it or it may involved creative
or dramatic aspects that challenge people to extend their normal ways
of reviewing and reflecting and presenting their findings.
Some suitable tasks for a group of six:
There is plenty of scope in any of these task-based methods for a more
dynamic form of plenary feedback to a larger group. If the main working
group is a facilitated group of around 8 or 12 people, you can divide
the group in two and conduct the review by setting independent
reviewing tasks for each half of the group. If each half has an
identical task it is interesting to compare similarities and
differences. If each half group is given a different task, this creates
a different kind of interest and can provide some useful time-savings
because it allows you to split the reviewing agenda with (say) one
subgroup focusing on leadership while the other focuses on team
- STONES: Make a sequence of five arrangements of
how the group dynamics have developed since the beginning of the
programme. Create a sixth arrangement that shows how you would like the
group dynamics to be over the next few hours.
- SKETCH MAP: Create a sketch map showing the journey
metaphorical) that the group has taken since the start of the day.
- GIFTS: In two subgroups create gifts for each
other subgroup. These gifts should reflect the talents of that
individual and should include features or items that will be of value
to them in the future.
- REPLAY: Prepare to re-enact five significant events
development of your team.
- REPLAY PLUS: Prepare to re-enact three events that
demonstrate how your team is progressing, and three events following
which you have felt wiser after the event. Act out the real and
'improved' versions of these events.
- PERFORMANCE: Write and perform a news report about
using interviews, flashbacks, 'reading the news' or any other TV
inspired method to tell the story in an engaging way that reveals how
and what you are learning.
- NEW RECRUIT: Create an advert and person
recruit to join your team.
This is reaching the upper limits for many group reviewing processes.
If staying as a whole group for a review discussion, people in a group
of ten will on average be speaking for 10% of the time and listening
for 90%. High quality facilitation is needed to maintain high levels of
involvement throughout the group and to ensure that reviewing is an
efficient and productive process. Around half the time may well be
spent in smaller units (alone, in pairs, in threes or in half groups).
Giving individuals or pairs some thinking time will help them to
express their thoughts more clearly to the larger group.
How you choose the best balance between reviewing as a whole group and
reviewing in smaller units depends on the nature of the particular
group. Even where whole group reviewing works well, there are still
significant benefits to be gained from doing some reviewing in smaller
If reviewing with a group of ten or more it is important to work out
what really must be done as a whole group and what can be done in
smaller groups. If there is only one facilitator available, what has to
be done as a whole group falls into two categories: (1) What the whole
group needs to be present for, and (2) What the facilitator needs to be
1) What the whole group needs to be present for:
- BRIEFINGS FOR REVIEWING TASKS. But these can also be
representatives, or by written instructions, or by the facilitator
visiting each group one at a time.
- NEGOTIATIONS AND DECISIONS. These are usually best
whole group, but the option of using a representative democratic
structure is also a possibility.
- GROUP FACILITATION. Where the facilitator wants to
trusting learning culture within the group as a whole and/or needs to
tackle whole group issues. But see next ...
- GROUP BUILDING. It is usual to build groups as a
groups are also a collection of one-to-one relationships. So lots of
useful group building can be achieved by building one-to- one
relationships and by getting people working together in smaller units -
ideally with ever- changing subgroups so that everyone ends up working
with everyone else. If group building is always attempted in the whole
group some individuals may remain relative strangers to each other. On
the other hand, rarely meeting as a whole group does reduce the chances
of community building at the whole group level.
- PLENARY REPORT BACK. Following independent subgroup
often useful to meet as a whole group to share something of what
happened in each group. This sharing may take the form of a display or
presentation and is not necessarily in the form of a report. An
alternative structure for reporting back is '4x4' in which all
subgroups are re-mixed into new groups that each have at least one
representative from each original subgroup. This effectively means that
everyone is reporting back within their small representative groups.
There may be a lesser sense of occasion, but there will be a greater
sense of involvement and responsibility.
2) What the facilitator needs to be present for:
- FISHBOWL and other large group processes that require
management and facilitation.
- FEEDBACK sessions such as WARM SEAT which need
- DIFFICULT ISSUES: Where there are difficult issues to
with or where the group is not yet strong enough or skilled enough to
work well on their own, the facilitator may prefer to work with the
group as a whole. The presence of the facilitator reduces the risks
inherent in difficult issues being reviewed in unfacilitated subgroups.
On the other hand, bringing together a weak group that faces
challenging issues is also a risk. The decision to meet as a whole
group should not be an automatic one - especially if you can create a
subgroup structure in which people behave more responsibly and
sensitively than in the whole group arena. This may be turning things
upside down, but if the problem really only exists when the whole group
is together, there is certainly some logic in working at a smaller
group size if people are more responsible, sensitive and productive
when working in smaller units.
For a group of 16 people, much of the time can be spent in smaller
units - probably twos or fours. The larger group would mainly be for
headlines. 16 people may be quite a small group for classroom teaching,
but only having airtime or individual attention for 1/16th of a review
session (and listening for 15/16ths of it) would be a severe limitation
and distortion of the principles of participatory experiential
learning. And this simple calculation does not take account of the
facilitator's airtime, nor of the fact that patterns of participation
become increasingly uneven as the group size grows.
For a group of 24 people, the main review groups can be subgroups of
six or eight people with the large group of 24 used for briefing and
sharing rather than for the main reviewing process. Of course,
reviewing in groups of six or eight people can include some reviewing
time in even smaller subgroups. But it is difficult to manage this well
without having a facilitator working at this intermediate level and
alive to the needs and interests of their particular group.
As the size of the main group increases, the chances are that the
facilitator will split the large group into twos or threes because this
instantly allows everyone to have a say and need only be a brief
interlude from reviewing in the main group of 30+
With very large groups you will need different communication systems
for announcements - either a public address system (microphone, music,
projector etc.) or a well organised system of communicating via
representatives. You will also need to allow more time for changes from
one group size to another. Working at a large scale almost certainly
means a loss of quality unless you have a team of facilitators working
with smaller groups. There is no getting away from the basic
calculation that the larger the group, the more trained facilitators
REVIEWING WITH ODD NUMBERS
What about prime numbers that are indivisible? What if you have a group
of 7, 11, 13 or 17 people and you want to use (say) a small group
exercise for 'rotating threes' (described above)?
If the odd group is a smaller group
If it is a group of 11, you have three threes and a pair. One option is
that you or your co-worker join in to make the pair a three. Another
option is that the pair review their 5 minute discussion without the
help of an observer. If the odd group is a smaller group, your solution
for the smaller group is unlikely to inconvenience the other groups.
If the odd group is a larger group
If the odd group is a larger group (e.g. when a group of 17 is divided
into three fours and a five) the chances are that the larger group will
need extra time if everyone is to have a turn. To prevent this
happening, find a volunteer from the group of five to lead the next
whole group session. You then spend time with this individual helping
them to prepare. Another option is to find a volunteer from within the
group of five to be a facilitator for the group rather than a
LINKING THE FLOW AND ENERGY OF REVIEWING
Running reviews in any size of event means that the facilitator will
need a varied tool kit of reviewing tasks and activities that small
groups of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 people can carry out independently.
The outcomes from these small group reviewing sessions will often be
shared in the larger facilitated group, but sometimes the process will
end in the smaller group. For example when the whole group experience
leads stage by stage to individuals setting personal goals, it is not
always necessary or appropriate for these individual goals to be shared
in the whole group.
On the other hand, when the final part of the reviewing process takes
place in the whole group it tends to be more honest, insightful and
significant if it is the result of high quality small group reflection
rather than being the spontaneous ramblings of dominant individuals in
the large group. Almost by definition, the first to talk are not likely
to be reflecting much before they speak and are therefore unlikely to
be setting the right tone for a reflective discussion. This is why
preparatory work (alone or in smaller groups) can add so much to the
overall quality of reviewing.
Wise facilitators appreciate the value of working in a variety of
different group sizes, so they will often split a facilitated group
into smaller unfacilitated units. The challenge is to link these
processes together in ways that produce a bubbling flow of energy and
questions and discoveries as learners move to and fro between the
central arena of facilitated group reviewing and the intensive
involvement of reviewing in smaller groups.
Many of the reviewing techniques outlined in this article are described
in more detail in the author's Active Reviewing Guide at
Reviewing with Large Groups
Reviewing to Scale
The Art of Reviewing
I welcome feedback on this article - however critical, appreciative or
full of new ideas.
I also welcome recommendations of links to similar articles (paper or
electronic media) by other authors.
Meanwhile, see the 'further reading' section of Reviewing with Large Groups