Sunday 14 January 2018

Unrepentant About Ice Breakers

 On Twitter this morning, I saw a stream of comments from teachers about their hostility to ice breakers.  Many referred to their discomfort, and their frustration at these pointless activities; they felt patronised by being 'required to have fun' and by being given childish activities to do when they all have degrees; and so on...

This touched a raw nerve, as I often use ice breakers at the start of programmes, including some aspects of the things derided in this thread (getting people to move, for example...). Indeed, on Friday, I had run a morning session that had been largely a 'getting to know people' session; with an introduction by the sponsoring senior leader, an icebreaker, and two other introductory-type exercises. And I am unrepentant.

So how do I square my approach with the evident, and indeed virulent, hostility of (some) professional teachers (at least on Twitter)? 'Ice breakers are pointless. I don’t start teaching by getting them to share some pointless factoid or get to (sic) close for comfort. Get attention, get going.' And likewise 'must be some research that actively refutes ice breakers as a useful activity.'

I think there are various things to consider. One crucial aspect is context. Various comments from the teachers indicated that icebreakers were being used when they were pretty pointless: eg at the start of meetings of staff, where they all work together and know each other really well. I am not sure why one would do that. Likewise, at the start of a conference session, when there is no requirement or benefit in them getting to know each other well.  Again, I am not sure why one would do that, either.

The context for my icebreaker yesterday was the first day of a year-long programme, in which academics who did not previously know each other will be working closely together on a one-day-a-month basis.  The programme directors had asked me to run a morning to get them to know each other, to discuss their goals for the year, and so on.

In that context, investing 20 minutes in a light-hearted but reasonably challenging activity in small groups seemed a useful way to start.

I made sure to follow it up with a more didactive session (in fact, a brief presentation of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment components), and we then used that model as a framework for the more formal participant introductions: each was given five minutes to think out loud about their role and why they were on the programme, with all others listening with exquisite attention. As there were thirteen participants, that took over an hour,

Again, that exercise might fall foul of the twitter teachers, as being made to talk in front of others is uncomfortable (especially for introverts) , and also, as one put it:
'Today’s about learning from each other..’ so what are we paying you for??!
Both are fair comments; but I am still unrepentant.  Some participants did find it uncomfortable to talk about themselves for five minutes: but that discomfort itself became a useful source of reflection and learning. One of the participants, for example, said that hearing others talk about the discomfort made her realise that it was not just her, and that had increased her confidence in talking in that group. A number said they feared that they would be boring, but all acknowledged that they had not found anyone else's introduction boring, and so that helped lay that particular worry to rest.

It is also worth saying (as indeed I said to the participants) that I don't mind people being uncomfortable: it is not my job to keep them happy all the time, as long as they are learning.

This is not one of mine:
no balloons were involved!

And what were they paying me for, if they were largely learning from each other?  Again, this might infuriate some teachers, but my role really was that of a facilitator; I was being paid to design, structure, and deliver a process that would enable the objectives of the morning to be met; that included some learning from me, but the majority was learning from (and about) each other.

But I come back to context: the reason that this was a worthwhile use of these intelligent peoples' time is that they did not previously know each other, and the rest of the programme relies on them being comfortable to work together, taking risks in their thinking and supporting each other in doing so.

Incidentally, the feedback from the Programme Directors was that it seemed to them that the group was much more cohesive as a group after the morning, and had got to a stage it had taken a number of sessions to reach with last year's cohort (which is why they had asked me to work with them on the first morning). Likewise, the programme participants were very positive about the morning, talking in particular about the value of looking once again at the fundamental skills of good listening, and immediately having a couple of chances to practice that (we did a paired exercise after the big group one).

I may be deluding myself in taking this feedback at face value - maybe they are just being polite. But I don't think so; not least because previous people whom I have subjected to such cruel and unnatural practices have not only sought me out later to tell me how they have valued my approach, but also engaged me to do further work with them and their people; and longer term evaluation (by other people) of programmes I have been involved with has also supplied very positive feedback.

And so I remain unrepentant...

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