Small Groups in Classrooms & Conferences

This is a special shout out to Amma and Sue because the I’s really do have it.

I recently returned for my second and final semester in the CUNY School of Professional Studies where I am finishing a Graduate Certificate in Adult Learning with focuses on Program Design and Facilitation.It has been a very eye opening experience that leaves me to believe that even without a graduate degree in higher education specifically, much of this material and research isn’t discussed in college-aged adult discussions. This coming of course from the one course I took junior year that was on student development theory (Hi Chickering!).

In any case, in my capstone course that is requiring us to do 12.5 hours of in class facilitation (love it!) we had an interesting discussion about how educators work a room and engage a crowd. The professor posed a question that immediately led me to think of Sue and Amma, as well as my other self-proclaimed introverted friends.

The professor said, “Okay. How many have been in a classroom or a conference where the presenter suddenly says, “Now turn to your left or your right and discuss this with the person next to you” ?

Side bar: I hate when presenters do this. It makes me feel as though the presenters couldn’t fill the allotted time slot so let’s fill some time with the audience talking amongst themselves. I get it. I know there is value in it. If I come to your session, I want to here from you first. I’ll follow up with the person sitting next to me afterwards!

We all groaned and sighed as a response to her question. She then gave me something that I will forever take on to any conference or presentation I give should I ever see the need for small group discussions.

“What if instead we said, “Okay, now turn to the person to your left or right and discuss this with them or if you prefer to, take a few moments to your self and write out what you think about this,” what would happen then? 

Mind blown. Why hadn’t someone thought of that before? I’ve never heard of such a concept. I’ve heard of free writes sure but never offered as an alternative to forced group discussions.

I’m an extrovert 80% of the time but I think when I’m prompted to speak to my neighbor in a session, I’m going to opt for the pen and paper and spar with my thoughts.

The self-awareness, capability, and talent to make powerful use of time to reflect whether it is in writing, doodles, or drawings on the paper is something that we all could use from time to time. And that, my friends, is what the I’s have.

3 thoughts on “Small Groups in Classrooms & Conferences

  1. I prefer an approach that combines both of these: Take a minute or two to write down your response and then talk to the person next to you. That gives those who need time to process and those who are better able to communicate using prompts some time to prepare themselves. I also strongly advocate making the directions and questions explicit i.e., don’t just ask people to “turn to your neighbors and talk to them about the issue” but “with one of your neighbors, [do this specific thing].” You can also make the discussion more structured by only allowing one person to talk at a time while the other person has to listen without talking and interrupting. That can help quiet people have an equal chance to speak which can be particularly problematic in some groups.

    • Hey Kevin,

      Thanks for the comment and idea.

      If we are going to break people out – let’s do it with intentional goals in mind.

      Hope you are well!


  2. I am with you on this, Joe. Turning to talk to my neighbor is one of the things I really dislike about conference presentations. I choose to go to a session because I want to hear from the presenter. I don’t mind audience participation with the presenter, i.e., asking questions that spur discussion, but not with my neighbor. I’d much prefer the large group Q&A because then, if someone says something of interest to me, I can connect with them afterwards. Wrestling with your own thoughts is a good alternative.

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