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Reviewing with Ropes

'Reviewing (Debriefing) with Ropes' by Roger Greenaway

Old climbing ropes, washing lines or brightly coloured nylon line make excellent reviewing aids. For some of the methods described below you can draw lines with pen and paper. But in most situations where you have enough space (indoors or outdoors) you and your learners will soon discover that ropes were made for reviewing!

Review Method  Recommended use 
OBJECTIVE LINE for reviewing progress against a goal  
SPOKES for reviewing progress against group-related goals
HORSESHOE for exposing and discussing different views
GOLDFISH BOWL for focusing attention on the reviewing process itself
STORYLINE (individual) for discovering the diversity of experiences and for enabling the telling of experience-rich stories
STORYLINE (group)  to discover the degree of individual variation and to increase empathy within a group
SKETCH MAP for reliving a journey and discovering issues that deserve more detailed review
FORCEFIELD for helping groups or individuals to get unstuck
ACTIVITY MAP to find out what makes people tick (or not)
ACTIVE REVIEWING CYCLE for enabling well-paced and well-sequenced reviewing and for developing learning skills
MISSING PERSON for helping a group to assess its needs and priorities
TALKING KNOTS for encouraging more equal participation in reviews
OCTOPUS PIE for increasing awareness of how time was spent
ARTICLE HISTORY about 'Reviewing with Ropes'


Recommended use: for reviewing progress against a goal

Each individual lays their rope on the ground. The near end represents their starting point (now) and the far end represents their goal (e.g. for the next activity, for the programme or for the transfer of learning). Ask each person to walk slowly along their line into the future towards their goal, pausing for thought in a few places along the way. Ask them to think about what would be happening at each point and how they would be feeling. Once everyone has completed their journey to their goal on their own, ask them to find a partner and talk through their anticipated journey as they walk along the line. Partners then swap roles so that each can do their own ''walk'n'talk'' into the future.

So far this exercise has been an 'active preview'. But once there has been an opportunity for participants to make progress towards their goal, they return to their objective lines (with or without partners) and 'measure' their progress by choosing where to stand on their line. In just one move (to a point on a line) each person is making a self-assessment, and is doing so in a way that is instantly visible to others. Once everyone is in place you can ask questions to help people reflect on their own position, or to encourage them to notice the positions of others. In these scattered positions it may be difficult to facilitate a group discussion, but talking to a partner can work well.

Tip: Draw attention to ''distance travelled'' as well as to ''distance to go''. For example: ask ''What factors have helped you on your journey so far?'' and ''Will any of these helping forces also be useful later on in your journey?''

Variation: Encourage people to shape their lines to represent the journey being taken (e.g. direct or U-turn or meandering) and to add objects along the way to represent points in their journey.

Variation: Tie a knot a few paces before the end of the rope to represent the goal. This makes a bit of extra rope available just in case anyone exceeds their goal and wants to show this.

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Recommended use: for reviewing progress against group-related goals

This is a variation of 'Objective Line'. Each rope is laid on the ground to make the spokes of a wheel. The outer end of each spoke is the starting point and the centre is the goal. This can be used for individually different goals, but is particularly suitable when looking at goals which have a group dimension or goals that are shared by everyone in the group. For example, the spokes can all be 'listening' spokes. Each person assesses the quality of their own listening during the event being reviewed and then looks around at where others are standing. You could do the same for 'talking', 'supporting others', 'providing leadership', 'speaking up', 'clear thinking' etc.

Tip: Ask people to decide their position for themselves and not to be influenced by others. Once everyone is in position, you can ask if anyone feels that anyone else's self-assessment is inaccurate. Participants usually invite each other nearer to the centre - which (depending on the topic) is likely to be a form of positive feedback . (You must decide whether to allow the moving of others away from the centre - as this may be a form of criticism.) Encourage people to give specific reasons about why they would like to move others.

Alternative: The spokes can be imaginary. Start off with everyone standing in a circle facing the centre. Ask them to imagine they are each standing half way along a spoke that leads into the centre of the circle.

Issue and solution: It can be difficult for everyone to have eye contact with each other once they are in position. This often results in the people nearest the centre paying attention to each other rather than to those further out. This tends to exaggerate the dynamics of the group. Much better for all-round eye contact and group discussion is to have people place an object on their spoke to represent their position. This frees up everyone to stand or sit in a circle around the spokes - making it easier to see each other and the objects representing their positions.

Variation: For the end of the course or the end of a group, reverse the polarity of the spokes, so that the inner end now represents the starting point and the outer end represents future goals. Each person walks into the future (simultaneously or one at a time). Whenever someone turns round to look at their starting point they are also looking back at the group - which may be slowly dispersing as others leave.

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Recommended use: for exposing and discussing different views

This reviewing method is a variation of a technique that goes under many names including: 'spectrum', 'line-up', 'positions', 'diagonals' and 'silent statements'. The main difference is that these other methods use straight lines, whereas the 'horseshoe' is a curved line. In this method, you simply define the two ends of the spectrum and ask everyone to stand at a point on the line that represents their point of view. The benefit of the horseshoe shape is that everyone is more likely to be in eye contact with each other - which makes facilitating whole group discussion much easier.

For example: One end represents ''We were a pretty good team during that exercise'', the other end represents ''We were a hopeless team during that exercise''. Everyone chooses their point on the line and then talks to one or two neighbours to check whether they need to adjust their own position on the line. Once everyone is in position, encourage questions from participants to each other. Everyone should have a chance to explain their position, after which everyone should have a chance to move to show whether or not their views on the issue have changed.

Variation: It may be helpful to choose different points during the activity. E.g. ''How would you each have rated this team before the exercise started?'' ''What was the quality of teamwork like up to the end of the initial planning?'' ... ''What is your personal prediction for the quality of teamwork in the next exercise?''

Variation: Arrange chairs in a horseshoe with the facilitator sat in the gap. Have about twice as many chairs as there are people to make movement easier and to allow for different patterns of clusters and spaces to develop.

Variation: This is a useful tool for discussing any issues that can be represented on a spectrum - so it can be used for exploring moral issues or company values as well as for reviewing group exercises.

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Recommended use: for focusing attention on the reviewing process itself

Make a rope circle on the ground. Divide the group in two. One half sits inside the circle and may talk. One half sits outside the circle and may only observe and listen. People in the inner circle review the previous exercise. After a few minutes the half groups change places and the new inner group continue with the review or comment on the review process they have just been observing.

Variation: Anyone in the inner circle can leave at any time, but the discussion does not continue until they have been replaced by someone from the outer circle.

Variation: Everyone starts in the inner circle and sits out when they have nothing they want to say. Anyone can move back into the inner circle at any time they want to speak. The review finishes when no-one is sitting inside the circle.

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Recommended uses: for discovering the diversity of experiences and for enabling the telling of experience-rich stories

Each person makes a line graph on the ground showing their ups and downs (emotional highs and lows) during the experience being reviewed. (It may resemble a temperature chart or a sales forecast.) Ensure that there is no misunderstanding about which way is up and which way is down. This is most easily achieved if you happen to be on the side of a hill! Each person now tells their story to a partner or to the whole group. 'Happy Chart' is a useful communication aid that helps people to express themselves emotionally and that brings out the richness of an experience. It is much harder to learn from experiences when they are not expressed and shared.

Variation: Encourage participants to add (symbolic) objects to their chart to help them tell the story.

Variation: Each person draws their Happy Chart on an index card (for one-to-one sharing) or on a flipchart (for sharing with the group).

Applications: Happy Charts are useful for bringing out individual differences during a group activity as well as for helping individuals talk about an experience outside the group (e.g. an incident at school or at work). For applications in the school curriculum (eg English and History) see 'Fortune Lines' in James Nottingham's Blog on Thinking Skills.

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Recommended use: to discover the degree of individual variation and to increase empathy within a group

The group stand in a horseshoe all holding the same rope. One end represents the start of the group event being reviewed. The other end represents - the end! Each person in the group now represents a stage in the event (e.g. planning, preparation, first attempt, second attempt, disaster, conflict, re-planning, bright idea, time up). Ensure that everyone is now standing in the order in which things happened. The group now turn the rope into a Happy Chart. This is the interesting bit. There will probably be some disputes as people learn that there was individual variation in feelings at some points during the event. Allow some conflict to develop if you feel it will be productive, but be ready to offer a second rope. A second rope allows the group to draw two lines - showing the highest highs and lowest lows at each point. (Picture a temperature chart with two lines showing maximum and minimum temperatures.)

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Recommended use: for reliving a journey and discovering issues that deserve more detailed review

After any event that has involved a journey, ask participants to illustrate their journey with the help of a rope (or ropes) to trace the route taken. Add labels with words (e.g. tie-on luggage labels) or symbolic objects to mark out different parts of the journey. This is best set up as a creative project in an area (indoors or outdoors) where suitable symbolic objects can readily be found. Much informal reviewing takes place during the making of the map. Once the map is complete it can be used as a means of re-telling the story and/or identifying key moments on the journey for more detailed review.

Variation: Create a sketch map using more conventional materials e.g. paper, pens, paints, and materials for collage.

[More about Sketch Map]

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Recommended use: for helping groups or individuals to get unstuck

Symbolic Tug of War. Safety Note: discourage any real pulling because of the risk of friction burns. Ask the group (or an individual) to set up two tug of war teams. One team represents forces for change and the other team represents forces resisting change. Each individual represents a force named by the group or individual setting up the teams. This is simply an active way of reviewing forces that are in tension. The key question to ask (if change is wanted) is how the forces can be changed to generate forwards momentum - towards change. The advantage of having individuals representing each force is that they can each think about solutions from the perspective that they represent. Dialogue between forces is also possible.

Issue and Solution: Having your whole group standing in a straight line is not good for eye contact between group members nor for generating discussion. So have each person tie one rope onto a central rubber tyre or small rope circle. This allows people to pull at different angles. It may be appropriate for some people to pull sideways if they are representing distracting or unknown forces rather than being forces that are clearly for or against change.

Variation: Start and finish with written diagrams. Use the tug of war to bring the diagrams alive and to encourage empathy (seeing, feeling and being the forces) and creative thinking.

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Recommended use: to find out what makes people tick (or not)

This is an active and game-like way of sharing likes and dislikes and getting to know each other's values. At the beginning of a course it can also be a useful way of finding out participants' experiences of (and attitudes towards) activities or processes that you are expecting to use in your course.

Use two long ropes. Mark the ends of one rope 'Past' and 'Future'. Mark the ends of the other rope 'Happy' and 'Sad'. This creates a quadrant in which the zones represent:

Call out the name of an activity and ask everyone to go to the zone where that activity would belong on their own personal map. Keep calling out activities, pausing now and again for comments and questions. To make it more of a game (and more risky) let participants call out names of activities. Define 'activities' as narrowly or broadly as you like.

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Recommended uses: for enabling well-paced and well-sequenced reviewing and for developing learning skills

A full explanation of the active reviewing cycle is at but you can adapt the exercise described below to your own preferred reviewing/debriefing sequence.

Create a huge circle with the longest rope that you can find or create four circles representing the four stages of the learning cycle (facts, feelings, findings, futures). If space allows create another circle at the centre for the joker or wild card - as a reminder that no model is perfect and that there are always exceptions.

Explain the sequence that learners will be following. If participants need more guidance, then arm them with a handout containing questions such as those listed in last month's Active Reviewing Tips. (Missed it? Lost it? See )

Participants now find a partner and walk round the sequence. One person acts as a facilitator while the other responds. After each circuit partners swap roles and/or swap partners. More ideas about what you can do in each zone are described in the tutorial at

Variation: Demonstrate the sequence by taking the whole group around the cycle while facilitating a well sequenced review of an activity they have just completed.

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Recommended use: for helping a group to assess its needs and priorities

Create a rope outline of a body in the centre of the group circle. Explain that this represents a person who can join the group. Ask participants to think creatively about the kind of person they would like this to be. The person will probably share some of the characteristics already in the group (e.g. sense of humour, good looks, friendly, enthusiastic) and may also represent some characteristics that are missing (e.g. time-keeping, leadership, telling decent jokes). Try to bring the person alive by asking for a name, their interests, their strengths and weaknesses. Some groups so like the idea that you will find that the rope body reappears on the ground or that they regularly call out the name of the missing person when they need help. Some take it even further ... Take care with how the image of the missing person is treated. As in all creative work, it is better if the creators 'undo' their own work in a suitable way. An earlier version of this article suggested that the facilitator pulls the rope away 'with a flourish'. Not recommended. An abrupt and insensitive ending could do more to punish creativity than reward it.

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Recommended use: a temporary gimmick for encouraging more equal participation in reviews.

VERSION 1: This is a variation on 'rounds' or 'go-rounds' or 'conch' or 'talking stick'. It is a way of controlling participation when people are talking over each other. It is also a way of encouraging participation when it is low or uneven.

Tie a knot in a rope to make a rope circle. Everyone holds on to the rope while standing or sitting in a circle. The circle should be a suitable size for group discussion. There is just one knot in the rope. The person with the knot in front of them may speak. When that person has finished speaking they start moving the rope in a clockwise direction. The knot keeps moving round until someone with the knot in front of them wants to talk. That person calls 'stop' and holds the rope either side of the knot. Make it clear whether you, as facilitator, follow the same rule.

Variation: Tie a second knot in the rope to form a small loop representing the letter Q. Anyone with the Q loop in front of them may stop the rope to ask a question. The original knot works the same as before and is not simply for answering questions - unless you want to make it so. (Thanks to Jim Cain for the original idea.)

VERSION 2: This looks a bit like 'Spokes' above, but is based on 'Matchsticks'. It is a method for encouraging equal participation. Each person ties (say) 5 simple knots in their rope. The ropes are arranged as spokes and everyone sits in a circle. Each time a person speaks, they pull their own rope towards them until their hand is on the next knot. When a person runs out of knots they should continue to listen but may not speak. Interruptions are not allowed, unless you choose to establish and enforce a time limit on how long participants may speak.

Variation: This method can also be used for voting or scoring or scaling. You ask a question that can be answered with a number. Each person pulls back their rope 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 knots to show their response. If the pulling is done simultaneously with eyes closed, responses are less likely to be influenced by others - and the effect is more dramatic.

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Recommended use: for increasing awareness of how time was spent

To create an adjustable pie chart with four 'slices', tie four short ropes together at one end to make a four-legged 'octopus'. Spread out the ropes in the form of a cross with the knot in the middle. You now have a pie chart with four pieces of pie. Place a label (or symbol) in each sector. The group task is to adjust the ropes (like the hands of a clock) until they are satisfied that the relative sizes of each sector represents how time was spent.

For example, the labels can be 'Facts', 'Feelings', 'Findings' and 'Futures'. Ask the group to adjust the sizes of the slices of pie to illustrate the relative amount of attention given to these items in a recent review. As people move the ropes around they are likely to explain the reasons why they want to make the adjustment. If they offer no explanation, someone is bound to ask for one. This use of the adjustable pie chart helps to develop facilitators' awareness of how review time is balanced between these four elements.

This method can be applied any models in which it is important for participants to increase their awareness of the balance between the different elements of the model. For example, Jon Adair's Action Centred Leadership model is about the balance that leaders pay to three elements: the task, the team and the individual. In this case, you need just three ropes tied together. The group can give feedback to their leader by arranging the ropes to represent the balance of attention they saw the leader giving to each of these three elements. The leader draws a pie chart before this process begins. This is compared to the group version.

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This article first appeared in Active Reviewing Tips (May 2002) It has also been published in the Institute for Outdoor Learning's Horizons 18 Summer 2002 to complement Jim Cain's 'Racoon Circles' article about activities with ropes in the previous issue.

Your comments, questions, news, ideas and feedback are always welcome: write to

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Copyright Roger Greenaway, Reviewing Skills Training, who promotes ACTIVE LEARNING via