After spending much of the last month traveling to conferences, and finally finding the time to recover from the energy drain that created, I knew that I badly needed to write last week’s blog post. 

What I was less aware of, however, was how much others needed to read it. I was, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the response that it received, largely of people (introverted and extroverted alike, by the way) who find that conference schedules demand far more energy of them than they can reasonably give. Some of these concerns were related to schedules, some to time period, but most centered around the sessions themselves.

A bit of background for those who have never gone through the proposal process: often, in addition to stating what the session will cover and what learning outcomes it will seek to fulfill, questions are posed about the nature of interaction the session will provide. Common ways to fulfill that requirement include many of our “usual suspect” methods: pair and share (or “turn to your neighbor”), case studies, or group discussion prior to questions at the end. Do these strategies, in the strictest sense, engage the audience? Yes. But the question that has come up often in my conversations since last week remains: at what cost?

LoyaltyCraft Consulting acknowledges the challenge that these forced demonstrations of engagement present to introverts in a space where they, more often than not, are already steadily being drained in the context of a busy conference schedule while also being surrounded by people they don’t know.

And lest you believe that this is a solely introverted problem, the sessions we propose and present can also present challenges for shy, ESL, learning different, or physically different conference attendees as well. In a field where we equate engagement with the ability to dive into deep discussion quickly, move around rooms effortlessly, and tie up discussion neatly within a fifty minute period, many types of learners are being disadvantaged. So what’s the alternative?

NYMag recently profiled the launch of Susan Cain’s Quiet School Network, a consortium of schools slated to work with Cain’s Quiet Revolution organization to restructure and rethink the idea of “classroom participation,” instead seeking to foster classroom engagement. This subtle shift in thinking allows for activities such as reflection, contemplation, and deep thinking to “count” as significantly as raised-hand and eloquently spoken contributions have for so many years. The “long runway” they reference as essential for allowing introverts to contribute meaningfully (a principle I strongly believe in) isn’t just one that kids need; adults could benefit from that runway as well. So how can we create such space in our sessions for those who don’t operate well in our current default structures?

Incorporate “reset” time.  I often start many of the workshops I run with students on temperament with 2-3 minutes of quiet time. I put on music, and encourage participants (students and staff alike!) to sit quietly. Heads can go on the table, or they can even get out of their chairs and lie down on the floor if they’re so inclined. This has been beneficial in a few ways. First, those that need a hard reset after their previous session or other goings-on from the day have designated time to refocus. Even for extroverts, this can be helpful space to refocus their energy to the space they’re in. Many presenters fear they don’t have time to do this; it’s 2-3 minutes in the course of 50, and I have rarely run over as a direct result of it. On the contrary, some students have moved conversation and participation along more quickly so they could have a second round of this resettling time at the end 🙂

This time could be focused around a central question to the session, allowing those who need the runway to start jogging along it, gathering their thoughts for contribution. I find that regardless of temperament or style, this extra space makes for richer discussion than when we just dive in.

Style points not required. IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr

Start a snowstorm.  If you have a discussion question where you’ll be soliciting multiple answers from your audience, consider allowing them to be “snowballed,” rather than called out. This strategy requires slips of paper upon which participants can write their answers or thoughts, then throw them to the center of the room to be read by the facilitator or more forthcoming volunteers. Not only does this method allow those who are more eloquent in writing temper their responses, but it also levels the playing field- the fastest hand up isn’t the one that gets called on, and all responses have a (theoretically) equal chance of being heard in the room. Additionally, responses that benefit from anonymity are somewhat protected; perspectives that some may not have wanted attached to their name or face can still be heard.

Group mind-mapping. I love any time sessions allow individuals to write their contributions, and then provides time for individuals to see what others wrote. Too often, we’re left to discuss only the ideas that we bring to the table on a topic; I much prefer being able to inform a conversation with a thought someone else shared. However, being able to do so based on a (legibly) written contribution is easier than trying to pick things out of an ongoing verbal conversation.

IMAGE CREDIT: Remarkable Coating

Consider posting guiding questions around the room, providing participants with markers (for chart paper) or Post-Its (for walls) to share their answers with the group. It provides similar relative anonymity to the snowball strategy, but is another way to allow participants to move around the room if you are so inclined and the collective group is able to do so.

THINK/Pair/Share: Lest you believe that I find no value in the “pair and share” principle, I’ll dispel that here. I think it can be done well. A few tips on reforming this time-tested practice:

  • Incorporate time for participants to sit with the question at hand. Immediately turning to a neighbor and saying “what do you think?” disadvantages those whose neural pathways run longer or more slowly, as their answer to the question simply hasn’t arrived yet. Instead, allow a few minutes for attendees to sit with their thoughts, taking notes or doodling as needed, to decide what they have to share on the matter.
  • Don’t outlaw talking to people you know! Yes, it’s the goal of some to meet new people and share new perspectives on events and ideas. But not everyone comes to conferences with those goals. Further, to prevent those who know one another from discussing ideas shortchanges those individuals; diversity of thought can exist in friendships or colleague-ships, and those differences may need to come out in an unfamiliar place (e.g. a conference breakout session, rather than their office or campus). If you’re genuinely concerned with cliques forming, consider multiple rounds where pairs then have to team up with other pairs and share their thoughts.
  • Follow up this occasionally strenuous activity with another “come-down” activity. Introverts aren’t opposed to expending energy in service of things they really enjoy, but there is a cost associated with doing so: trouble operating on less energy than they started. As a facilitator, providing a “recharge” moment in the form of more quiet time or individual reflection – perhaps toward action steps or takeaways – can help them reclaim some of the energy lost in the prior frenzy. This former Girl Scout wants to you to seek to leave your participants better than you found them: more learned, but also not completely depleted!

Activities aren’t afterthoughts. Last, but certainly not least, I want to leave you with this: create participatory experiences for sessions that make sense for the outcomes you’re seeking to impart. Don’t just throw a group discussion in because something needs to happen to check the box. As an example, I’ll highlight an outstanding use of case studies I saw recently at a conference. A session on removing barriers and assumptions about autistic students incorporated review of case studies to highlight some of the challenges students with autism have on campus. That was instructive for me because some of the scenarios shared were ones I hadn’t realized were happening to students; additionally, the case studies were informed by actual students, and so they showed me many ways in which autism could present itself in individuals.

This session was truly enriched for its use of this engagement technique. But a presentation about homecoming staffing or impostor syndrome may not have benefitted similarly from this type of engagement. Just as a punishment must fit a crime, a strategy must fit the topic at hand. Be thoughtful as you craft the presentation: what can we do that will best drive home our point? And who does this strategy need to be able to reach?

What other recommendations do you have for changing up the face of session participation? Let me know, I’d love to hear/read them!

Shameless Plug: if you want help crafting a conference schedule for your students or staff that thoughtfully incorporates these strategies and more, please get in touch! And if you’d like a speaker at said conference- on this topic, or several others, I can do that too.

2 thoughts on “Pushing Past “Pair & Share”

  1. Yes, yes, yes. I love this. Activities during conferences are often vilified, but they don’t have to be. There are so many types of active learning possibilities that are simply dismissed. Others I like that are more inclusive include “passing the brainstorm” where participants write down a question or statement and pass it around a group or room and others respond in writing if they like. It’s also easy to alter Classroom Assessment Techniques to be useful – I like to take a blank or partially completed matrix and have others complete those areas with their responses. Responses can be tracked individually or shared on big post-its around the room or a whiteboard.

    The other benefit of changing up a think-pair-share is that most do the same things at conference sessions, so something new can be particularly engaging. Great post Amma!

  2. Thank you so much, Michelle! I love your additional examples- as you said, it’s not about outlawing active participation, but modifying what “active” looks like. How can we create experiences where everyone who wants to speak up, can do so meaningfully?

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