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Visible Reflection Techniques


If you attend one of my reviewing skills workshops you will be spending most of your time as an active participant - actively learning about active learning and how to facilitate learning from experience. You might be walking through a model that I have drawn on the floor, or searching for a picture or object that focuses your thoughts, or drawing a graph showing the emotional profile of a learning experience, or climbing steps as you achieve higher levels of communication. You might be directing the group to re-enact a significant moment, then pausing the action to interview people about what was really happening at the time. You could be walking into the future to experience your vision and to learn from what you experience on your journey.

Why don't I just let people sit down and talk?

Well occasionally I do. All-talk reviews can work well, but often they don't. There are many alternative and complementary methods that are more engaging, more lively, more versatile and that produce better results. Most trainers I work with are already committed to 'learning by doing' or 'experiential learning', but when review time comes along they drift from active learning into a more traditional (and more passive) mode.

I have never understood why 'activity' and 'review' got separated in the first place. I see experiential learning as a living, dynamic and holistic approach to learning. This is emphasised by most writers on the subject of experiential learning - from John Dewey to John Heron.

From a practical point of view, active reviewing methods provide useful tools for sharpening the process of learning from experience.

Active reviewing methods can help to:

Active reviewing methods arise from the belief that experience of the review is as important as the experience of the activity. Participants need to be as 'switched on' in the review as they are in the activity. If review time becomes 'switching off' time, something has gone wrong.

Instead of thinking of interesting activities feeding energy into reviews, try thinking of interesting reviews feeding energy into activities. For the transfer of learning within and beyond a course, this is the critical gap that has to be crossed - from the review to the next activity. Having a review immediately before the next activity helps learners to bridge this gap - if, in the first place, you have a review that is dynamic enough to generate energy, interest, curiosity, commitment and a growing appetite for learning and development.

''What did you learn?'' is rarely a good way to start a review. Even though some learning may have happened already, further learning often depends on more information being available. All of the techniques described below make information available by making it more visible.

'Reflection' is an internal thinking process. Another meaning of 'reflection' is what you see in a mirror. Let's explore what can happen by re-combining these two ideas. Here are some 're-viewing' techniques that use visual reflection to stimulate thoughtful reflection.

Taken together, these 'visible' reviewing techniques will accelerate the development of a group and lay important building blocks for effective teamwork or further learning.

You will notice the words 'anything can happen' within each description. It is a gentle reminder that reviewing (especially active reviewing) is a dynamic process that turns out differently on every occasion. To make these techniques work well, explain the basic concept and purpose and get it going with minimal briefing. Be ready to adjust or abandon the technique depending on how it is working out. Anything can happen!

Q JUMPING: making contribution levels visible

Recommended use: for encouraging more balanced participation.

A frequent problem in reviewing (or in any group discussion) is that some people do all the talking while others say very little. 'Q Jumping' provides a simple rule that allows everyone to see a continually refreshed picture of the latest pattern of contribution in a group.

This is the rule: ''Anyone who speaks for more than 10 seconds or for more than one sentence, jumps to the head of the Q''.

So that everyone in the 'Q' can see each other easily, everyone sits in a circle as for a 'normal' group discussion. Mark a break in the Q by making a space in the circle. Place a rope (or similar object) across the space so that it looks like the squiggly bit of the capital letter Q. The rope signifies that the rule is in force. The person on the right of the rope is at the 'head' of the Q. That is all you need to know, but some examples might be helpful...

Anything can happen. In essence, it is just a simple wordless way of reflecting back the pattern of contribution in a group discussion. It automatically brings the pattern to everyone's attention. If the amount of movement is disrupting the discussion you can extend the time that people can speak without moving to (say) 20 seconds, or suspend the rule. You can join in as a facilitator at the head of the Q, and perhaps have a secret goal of trying to get to the other end of the Q (if, for example, you happen to be trying to develop a less dominant facilitation style).

Other methods for encouraging participation are described in a previous issue of Active Reviewing Tips Encouraging Participation in Reviews

MOVING MARKERS: makes the quality of the group process visible.

Recommended use: for monitoring group process while working on a task.

This is a simple visual method for all participants to provide continuous feedback about the quality of the group process. The perfect situation for this method is for the group to be seated around a large round table. The method exaggerates the typical body language through which participants show enthusiasm (leaning forwards) or lack of interest (leaning backwards).

Each participant has a playing card which they hold face down on the table in front of them. Each person can move their own card on an imaginary straight line between the edge of the table in front of them and the centre of the table. [Replace the cards with soft toy animals or other objects if you want to add a touch of pizzazz.] The group now need a task that they can achieve while seated round the table (e.g. a lateral thinking exercise, the planning stage of a longer project, a decision about how to spend the next hour of the programme, a discussion about how they will transfer their learning after the course). Throughout the task each person indicates any fluctuations in their support for the group process by the position of their marker.

Anything can happen. Some of the things I like about this method are:

A problem with this method is that people can use their markers to show their level of agreement with what someone is saying rather than to comment on the quality of the group process. If this should happen, this problem becomes an opportunity to clarify what group process is and is not.

Other ways of reviewing during activities are described in previous issues of Active Reviewing Tips: Reviewing in Action: Why? and Reviewing in Action: How?

CHANGING PLACES: seeing yourself as others see you.

Recommended use: for developing empathy and providing feedback.

One way of seeing yourself is simply watching a video. It may be true that a camera does not lie, but a camera does not tell the whole truth. You may not see yourself as others see you. Other participants may have very different interpretations of why you are behaving in certain ways.

'Changing Places' is a reviewing method that allows people to see how others see them. It is a combination of several techniques in one: a feedback exercise, a guessing game, an empathy exercise, fish bowl and a buddy system. The basic concept is quite simple but the method is only suitable for groups where trust is well established and where individuals are open to personal feedback.

First set up a buddy system in which pairs (A and B) take it in turns to be doers and observers. If there is an uneven number, the person left on their own can get useful experience as a co-facilitator. A task is set up. For the first few minutes A's are doers and B's observers. After 5 or 10 minutes, call a review break. Those who have just been observers (the B's) sit in a circle, facing inwards, with their buddy (A) sat behind them in an outer circle. The inner circle (of B's) can now talk while the outer circle (of A's) remains silent. B's pretend that they are the person they were observing. They participate in the review as if they are their buddy.

The facilitator encourages all of the inner circle to take part - if necessary by directing questions to particular individuals, or by conducting rounds, or by asking everyone to show their feelings at particular moments in the exercise being reviewed (e.g. by asking each person to use hand height as a feelings scale). The facilitator may also invite questions from participants.

What everyone now wants to know is how well the inner circle represented the feelings and views of those in the outer circle. Ask A's to assess how well B's did on a scale of 0-10, and ask B's to guess the mark that their buddy will give them. When everyone is ready, ask buddies to face each other and reveal their scores (using hand height or finger count).

Anything can happen. People are often surprised how well they have been represented, but some guesses can be wildly wrong. After a minute or two for buddies to talk things through, return to the two concentric circles and give all A's a chance to correct any misrepresentations that they would like to. These 'misrepresentations' may include important information (about how they are misperceived by their buddy) that would not available if watching a video replay.

'Changing Places' has many benefits. I use it mainly as an exercise for helping people to see how they are seen by others. Seeing someone else trying to be you provides an intuitive kind of feedback that can be valuable information however right or wrong it might be. For the inner circle it can be a very demanding empathy exercise.

Such exercises help people to see how they are perceived by others, while also helping people to appreciate something about what it is like to be in the shoes of others. It develops many useful skills and the increased interpersonal understanding accelerates group or team development.

Yes, it is more ambitious than simply asking ''What went well?'' and ''What didn't go well?'' and ''How can you improve?'' 'Changing Places' provides a very different perspective on what's going on. It helps to expose and correct false assumptions and to develop mutual understanding. A useful, but different, route for improving teamwork.

For other feedback methods see Feedback Exercises

REPLAY: noticing what was missed first time around

Recommended use: for easing conflict and for building trust and understanding.

I have introduced many people to 'no ball' games. A game of 'foot', 'volley' or 'base' can be a whole lot more fun without the 'ball'. When such a strange activity is followed by video playback without a camera, people are no longer surprised. Whatever next? Reviewing without a facilitator? Of course! (But that's another story.)

The 'video referee' will become increasingly common in sports. The referee does not see everything. Neither do all the players. Neither do the video cameras. But by replaying the action from different angles it is possible to get a more complete understanding of what really happened.

Using action replay is another way of making visible what was not noticed first time round. Critical moments during the activity are reconstructed and re-enacted (usually through mime rather than by doing the real activity again). People do not simply 'see' the activity again (or from a different angle), they also have the chance to stop the action and interview people to discover what was going on in their hearts or minds at the time. This brings out new information that was not apparent at the time. This new information can be critical, and really does result in a 're-view' of the incident, and leads to people revising what they had originally learned.

Here are some examples of video replay without a video:

1) In a replay of a trust exercise in which each team was tempted to cheat, both teams were asked to enact a replay showing their moments of temptation. The watching team was allowed to pause the replay at any point to ask questions about how people were thinking or feeling at the time. As it happened, one team did cheat and the other didn't, but both were knife-edge decisions. Without the benefit of action replay, all kinds of guilt and resentment would have continued simmering, ready to fuel further mistrust. Action replay revealed a more complete picture and brought out a level of honesty that helped both teams to overcome their differences - partly by realising there wasn't a lot of difference between them after all.

2) In a replay of an incident where a group had not confronted an individual for his selfish behaviour, the group discovered what had been going on inside his mind. This was not an instant solution, but the start of a healing process that brought the individual back into the group and which allowed the group to function as a team again.

3) In a replay of a 'group building' exercise in which the group split into three parts, each of the three parts showed their own side of the story through action replay. Again this was the start of a healing process.

4) A group succeeded in achieving an independent task that was not witnessed by the facilitator. The facilitator requested an action replay and was able to watch the recorded highlights. This allowed the facilitator an opportunity to come up with suitable questions and activities for continuing the review.

5) After completing a group exercise while blindfolded, the participants removed their blindfolds and were walked through what had happened by the team of observers. With this new information, the participants were able to take a more informed part in the review that followed.

These five examples illustrate just some of the possibilities. When re-constructing the past, anything can happen! It can bring out new information that will surprise you as well as the participants.

For more examples of action replay see: Action Replay and Variations

Human Sculpture
Happy Charts (with ropes)
Happy Charts (with paper)

When trainers talk or write about 'visual aids' they generally refer to aids that will help trainers to communicate information to learners. In this article I have described some of the reviewing methods that put 'visual aids' in the hands of learners. These visible reflection techniques help participants communicate more effectively with each other. Used wisely, and with imagination, they accelerate and enhance the process of learning from experience. I think this is a more empowering use of 'visual aids'. What do you think? If you are attracted to the idea, try creating a mind map that connects the ideas in this article visually.


The above article by Roger Greenaway first appeared in Active Reviewing Tips (April 2003)

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