Design of Learning Events – Ezine November 2004

What is a learning event?

A learning event is any planned and managed experience that is designed to help those involved learn new knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviour. A counselling or coaching session, an experiential training course, a workshop, a team ‘away day’ all constitute learning events.

The important part is that they are planned and managed. The rest of this describes some principles and practices that can help these events go well.

What are the conditions under which people learn best?

People learn best when they feel safe and supported. This happens when they are clear what is expected of them, when the risks they are asked to take are moderate and the plan of the event is clear. It also helps if people are helped rather than criticised when they make mistakes. These are inevitable when learning something new.

In general a collaborative climate will make it easier to share thoughts and feelings than a competitive one. Clearly people will be more motivated to learn if the event is seen to meet their needs.

Some design principles and ideas

Ø       Enjoy learning

Enjoyment aids learning. We learn best when we feel safe, valued and loved. We enjoy being stretched but not overwhelmed. There needs to be enough time to talk about and think about what you are learning. A bit of humour helps. Hard work does not have to be “heavy”. People in other cultures sing when they work. This makes the work more enjoyable and helps the work too.

Ø       Ideas about “Enjoy learning”

1.      Ask participants about their best learning experiences. Incorporate what you can into your design.

2.      Start the event with a light-hearted exercise.

3.      After an exercise or input, put people into pairs to talk about what they have learned.

Ø       Congruence

The presenter of an event should practice what he/she preaches. If teaching the value of listening and support it is particularly important to listen to and support the students. If teaching presentation skills make sure the presentation part of the event is professional. If we want people to express their feelings openly, our modelling of this will be more important than anything we say.

Ø       Ideas about “Congruence”

1.      Think about what you want people to do at your event.

2.      Take care of yourself so you are able to function well and be a model.

3.      Work constantly on your own development.

Ø       Trust building

A trusting, growthful learning atmosphere has to be built. Trust cannot be assumed nor will it happen immediately. People usually find it much easier to trust one person than a group. Trust is encouraged by clear rules about confidentiality and feedback so people know what will happen to the information they disclose. Participants often disclose less significant information first to test our reaction and test our trustworthiness.

Ø       Ideas about “Trust Building”

1.      If possible, meet people individually before the event and find out about their needs and concerns.

2.      Ask people about their needs and concerns at the event and listen carefully to everyone.

3.      Talk about what will help to create a learning climate in the event, like listening, confidentiality and sharing experiences.

Ø       Clear purpose

The purpose of the event and the individual activities and exercises must be clear to all those involved. If the purpose is unclear people will be confused, uncommitted and fear manipulation.

Ø       Ideas about “Clear purpose”

1.      Be clear yourself. I plan events using a simple two-column form. The first column lists what will happen and the second why. This builds clarity into every step of the event.

2.      Spell out the purpose using simple non-technical language.

3.      Keep the design as simple as possible. Simple designs are easier to explain and simpler to run too.

Ø       Emphasise the positive

It is more useful to discover how to do things right than how to do things wrong. The information is also more acceptable. Most people are deeply starved of positive feedback and respond very well when they get some. Development, and training, works best when there is no right answer.

Ø       Ideas about “Emphasise the positive”

1.      People love talking about good experiences. Ask people, “What did you best boss do that helped you develop?” to get excellent learning about developing people.

2.      Draw on people’s imagination. Ask, “What would this organisation, or team, or community be like if you were completely delighted to belong to it?”

3.      When you review exercises always start with discussing what has gone well. This is easy to hear and act upon next time.

Ø       Create ownership

Ideas are most likely to be acted on with commitment when they come from the person, then his /her peers and lastly the trainer or manager. Therefore it is best to avoid the role of content expert if at all possible and concentrate on facilitating and catalysing the process.

Ø       Ideas on “Create ownership”

1.      Have an open process for people to decide the issues they want to work on at the event.

2.      Create a shared vision together of where you want to be in the future.

3.      Ask each participant to commit publicly to what he or she will do as an individual at the end of the event.

Ø       Whole people

People are wholes, the pure work role does not exist, domestic concerns influence work and vice versa. It helps to make it safe enough for people to share their concerns about the whole of life. If one part does not work it will drain energy away from the others.

Ø       Ideas on “Whole people”

1.      This is much easier one to one and even here people will only disclose personal stuff when they feel both safe and cared for. Listening is key.

2.      Ask people, at the beginning of an event, to talk briefly about something good and new that has happened lately. Those that find this difficult may be suffering.

3.      Be informal and relaxed and take your time, this will help participants do the same. Don’t fill every minute with prescribed activity.

Ø       A complete process

Any training event should be considered as a whole. How people are told about the event and why they are going on it will influence their commitment to learning very substantially. It is hard to learn if you feel you have been sent on something to be ‘fixed’. The people need to be in the right frame of mind too. Someone who is fighting to control sadness or anger due to a personal loss may well have nothing left over to contribute on a workshop and will resist and resent being drawn out. Some selection or self-selection process is desirable for the success of the whole.

Similarly attention must be given to how people leave the event and to ensuring the organisation encourages them to put their learning into practice. If it is not put into practice then from the organisations point of view the work is a waste of effort.

Ø       Ideas on “A complete process”

1.      Spend as much time thinking about how to get the right people on the right event in the right mood as you do on the details of the design.

2.      Always ask people how they come to be on the event. If people are sent and they resent that, give them time to say how they feel and what they need. If you can, say they don’t have to stay if they don’t want to!

3.      If possible, set up support groups or coconsulting pairs so people can work together and encourage each other after the event.

Ø       Be client centred

People value ideas they discover for themselves. They like to learn in individual ways too and work on issues and subjects of importance to them. The task of the trainer is to respond to those needs flexibly and individually. This is easier in one to one settings and in very small groups.

Ø       Ideas on “Be client centred”

1.      Don’t over plan. Be prepared to respond to people’s needs as they arise.

2.      Find out what people want from the event and adapt you plans accordingly.

3.      I find this very difficult indeed, in group-events but I aspire to having “emptier” events where the participants co-create them as we go. This works one to one as I never plan these at all and they go best of all the things I do!

More information

I have an article with two sample designs that show how I use these principles on Learning Events.

The chapter in The Human Situation by Harvey Jackins about Learning that I referred to in last month’s ezine is very relevant to this discussion.

Next ezines

I plan to cover the subjects below in the next ezines. Which, if any, appeal to you?

I always welcome your feedback.

Developing your people

Improving working relationships

Personal Development

Stimulating creative thinking

Thinking tools and processes

Tuning up your mind

If you have any particular developmental interests, you would like me to cover, please let me know. I will try to respond if I can.  If you have come across these ezines recently, back numbers are available on Ezines


I am a facilitator of change and development in organisations. I recently reviewed the work I had enjoyed doing most and found that I enjoy helping people in organisations find creative ways to be more productive. I like working in a way that maximises my impact and that is usually with senior individuals or teams. The best people to work with are open-minded risk takers who care about people and want to change their organisations for the better.

If you want to contact me, call +44 1707 886553, or email If you want to read about my work, or ideas, or read back issues of the ezines you can also visit I always enjoy informal chats.


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