Design of Learning Events

What is a learning event?

A learning event is any planned and managed experience that helps those involved learn new knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviour. Counselling or coaching sessions, an experiential training course, a workshop, a team ‘away day’ are all learning events.

This article describes some principles and practices that can help these events go well. It includes two worked examples.

What are the conditions under which people learn best?

People learn best when they feel safe and supported. This happens when they know what to expect that the risks are moderate and the plan of the event is clear. It also helps if people receive help rather than criticism when they make mistakes. These are inevitable when learning something new.

A collaborative climate makes it easier to share thoughts and feelings than a competitive one. Clearly people will be more motivated to learn if the event meets their needs.

Some design principles and practical implications

1            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.

2            Trust building

You have to build a trusting and growthful learning atmosphere. Clear rules about confidentiality and feedback build trust. Then people know what will happen to the information they reveal. People usually find it much easier to trust one person than a group.

3            Clear purposes

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.

4            Emphasize 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 do not get enough positive feedback and respond very well when they get some. The training and exercises work best when there is no right answer.

5            Create ownership

A person acts on ideas best when they come from him/her, then his/her peers and lastly from a trainer. Therefore it is best to avoid the role of content expert if possible and concentrate on facilitating and catalysing the process.

6            Whole people 

People are wholes and the pure work role does not exist. Domestic concerns influence work and vice versa. Make it safe 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.

7            A complete process

Any training event should be considered as a whole. How people learn about the event and why they are going on it will influence their commitment to learning. It is hard to learn if you feel you are going 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 will not readily contribute. He or she may resist and resent being drawn out. Some selection or self selection process is desirable for the success of the whole.

Similarly, think how people leave the event and how to ensure the organisation encourages them to put their learning into practice. If they do not put it into practice then, from the organisation’s point of view, the work is a waste of effort.

8            Client centred-ness

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

Practical examples of this approach

The activities that illustrate the above design ideas are in bold type. A discussion of the design follows.

Example 1-Counselling Skills Training


This was a conventional “Training Course” on “Counselling Skills for Managers”. The participants were volunteers who came from across the organisation. This was a County Council. There were five participants as one cancelled due to sickness. The course lasted one day. Volunteers are usually much more positive and eager to learn than people who are sent. See point 7.

0945 Welcome people. Describe the course objectives that are to develop their counselling skills and awareness. Check these are why they are on the course. Ask them “What experience have you had of counselling or counselling training?”. Seek agreement to behaviour that will create a learning climate. This includes mutual listening, support, learning from each other, sharing experiences, confidentiality with each other and the trainer and feedback.


This short session ensures people know the trainer will consult them and guide them during the course. The information on participants previous experience helps to ensure the course content and process meets their needs. Confidentiality builds trust. See points 2, 3,5 and 8.

0955 Ask everyone their name, what they do and something that is going well. Listen carefully and attentively.


People feel safer when they know something about each other and when they know the trainer will listen to them. “Something going well” encourages people to be positive and often lifts the spirits of the whole group. If being positive is hard for a participant, then the trainer has an early guide that this person may need some particular attention. See points 1,2,4 and 6.

1005 Go around the group and ask “What do you want from the course? What are your reservations?”


This gives the trainer the information required to shape the course to the needs of the group. It also helps to build trust because it makes expressing reservations acceptable and useful. It also helps participants clarify their personal objectives and become more committed to the course. See points1,2,3,5 and 8.

1015 List and display the wants, respond to the reservations. Show the participants that they will get their wants. Outline the programme.


Publicly displaying the wants helps the participants see that the course will meet their needs. It helps to check in the middle of a course that they feel things are “on track”. They will feel safer when you respond to their reservations. They like to know where the course is going. See points 2, 3, 5 and 8.

1025 Talk to the group about helping people learn and develop as an important part of a manager’s and other professional’s task. Counselling is a helping art and a science. You learn it by personal involvement and practice. There are some basic building blocks (listening, questioning, suspending judgement) which you need first. You come to understand and value counselling by receiving it. A trusting and confidential atmosphere helps you learn it.


People find learning difficult skills more easy if they understand why they are important and the best method of learning them. See points 2,3.

1030 Coffee

1045 Explain that listening is a crucial part of helping people help themselves (counselling). Set up an exercise. People work in pairs taking seven minutes each way. The talker chooses the subject. It can be a happy memory, a little worry or a person’s situation. The focus is on the listening. The listener should be there for the talker, get inside the talkers skin, imagine what he or she might feel, show empathy, pay attention, encourage and not distract. After each section the parties discuss briefly what the listener did that they found helpful. I took part in the pair work.


When learning any skill, it helps to start from the basics and from what people already know. You learn skills by doing. Most people can listen to some extent already. They were surprised and pleased to learn how useful and valuable this skill can be. The format enables people to control the risks they take. See points 2,4,5 and 8.

1115 Review the listening practice. List on a chart “What did your listener do that helped?”, “What was the effect?” Ask people “What is it like for someone to understand you?”. Point out how simple basic listening is.


This gives people confidence because it displays their successes. They discover they can help each other using basic processes. They become keen to learn more. See points 1, 2,4,5 and 8.

1125 Discuss with the group what counselling is. It is one form of helping, (helping people help themselves). Describe a counselling model and the importance of listening to everything and accepting and releasing feelings. Show how expressing thoughts and feelings clarifies your thinking. However, people need to feel safe. Discuss the usefulness and limits of counselling in your work place and the limits of counselling with finite skill and resources.


This gives people some intellectual appreciation of the counselling process. It also shows that it is a useful tool but not a panacea. It helps them get the best from the next two sessions. There is a new principle arising from this. “People learn things when they are ready to learn them. Try to match your pace to theirs”.

1145 Demonstration of counselling skills with a course member. I counsel a volunteer from the group on an issue of his/her choosing.


The live demonstration shows people what counselling is and connects much of their previous experience. It shows there is much to learn and that the benefits of learning it are great. It gives good clues that people can use in their practice sessions. See points 12,3,6,8.

1200 Review the demonstration, focus on what the counsellor did that helped and the clients’ experience of the session. Then I describe my thinking behind what I did.


This identifies skills that the students know are helpful and can check with the client. See points 4 and 8.

1215 The students set up practice sessions of twenty minutes each way in pairs. I join in. The client works on any real issue while the counsellor helps him/her get a deep understanding of it. I remind them about confidentiality. Afterwards we review the learning.


The students are ready to practise themselves. They get and give some help and learn to develop their skills. See points 2,3,5,6,8.

1300 Lunch


This should be light and alcohol free so people maintain their concentration in the afternoon.

1345 I gave further counselling theory on how people get stuck and unstuck. We discuss the importance of deciding to do something as a way of dealing with powerlessness.


People like to feel they are making progresses by building on what they already know.

1400 Further demonstration on an issue involving feelings of powerlessness.


This allows people to go a bit further if they wish. It builds on what they have already learned.

1415 Review of demonstration


This reinforces and extends the learning from the earlier demonstration.

1425 Counselling practice in small groups. In the counselling practice each person has equal time as client, counsellor and observer. Each person chooses their own subject. They have the option of talking about how to help or develop a member or group of their staff if they wish. If participants require additional theory or technique. I will offer it. After each session, there is a review of the process. See points 2,4,5,6 and 8.


People can learn a lot by observing each other in action. A supportive and confidential atmosphere helps greatly as it increases trust. The free choice people have about which issue to work on motivates them to learn. They are doing the work for themselves.

1600 Pairs. What have you learned so far and how can we apply it to work? Discuss how support, in pairs or in small groups, can be incorporated into your day to day work.


Taking time listening to each other can help you think more clearly about anything. This session enhances people’s thinking and shows how counselling skills can help in ordinary situations. Raising a subject for discussion encourages people to think about it. See points 4,5,and 8.

1620 Ask people for one thing they have learned and one thing they have enjoyed today.


This gives some inkling of the outcome of the course and helps everyone go away feeling good! See points 4 and 5.

1630 Close (Give people a handout).


The participants were very positive about the course. A few of the comments were:

The course tutor created an extremely safe, un-judgemental environment that was crucial for its success.

It should be required for all male managers!

It was a first class introduction to the nature and relevance of counselling.

It was not perfect. Although the people were volunteers the course was not what all of them expected. It may have been a mistake to skate over the managerial dimension because all but one of the participants were not managers. I am still hard on myself after an event. This is a bad habit!

Example 2 A participative session at a conference


The Department for Education (DFE) wished to encourage the development of good relationships between Head Teachers and Governors in the education system. These relationships are important for the effectiveness of Education. Governor Trainers also have a valuable role to play and need s do Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education (HMI).

The Department sponsored a conference of the parties to discuss policy and other issues. I ran a session specifically about “Fostering Good Relationships” on the last morning of the conference. There were about one hundred participants. The programme and design follow as before.

Rationale for the design

Building relationships is an active process. People learn it by doing it more than theoretical ideas. Just talking about it will not be effective. Involvement is essential.


0900 Introduce myself briefly. Introduce the event, explain the objectives, structure and guidelines. Explain it is an opportunity to listen, share ideas and feelings and think things through. There will be no evaluation, be as open as you can, make sure you listen to everyone.


As before, people will feel safer and more able to learn when they know the “rules”. See points 2, and 3

0910 In ‘like’ groups, for example, Head Teachers, Governors, Governor Trainers take equal time for each to talk about

What is good about being an X?

What is difficult about being an X? How does that feel?

What could you do to overcome the difficulties?

What could others, in particular those represented at the conference, do to help?

Make these requests small practical things. We build relationships on small actions. It will be frustrating to ask for things that the other party cannot deliver.


HMI led the groups and ensured that everyone had a turn and everyone listened. Positive questions and being with like-minded people ensured the whole experience was constructive and forward looking. The process builds trust and commitment. I floated around the groups and helped if things got stuck or the instructions were unclear. See points 2,3,4,5,6 and 8.

0955 We re-formed the original syndicate groups. These contained members of all the groups at the conference.

In Syndicates have the whole group listen to each subgroup, (Head Teachers, Governors etc.) talk about their learning from the previous session and, in particular, how the other groups could help them.

Try hard just to listen and accept what people say, this does not imply you have to act on it if you do not want to.

1030 Coffee in syndicate rooms but work straight through if you wish.

List the things that you could do in future that would help to improve the way your system works and foster good relationships. Pick out the best idea and one thing you have learned today.


People are ready to listen to others when they feel good about themselves. The experience, of being in the “like” groups, builds that confidence. The sessions were constructive and many surprising ideas arose. You could see people dropping their stereotypes of people from “different” groups. See points 2,3,4,5, 6 and 8

1050 In Plenary. Ask each group to share one thing they have learned so far and their best practical idea. Listen hard to the answers avoid criticising.


It helps people to know if others have the same ideas and to be stimulated by others new ideas. I listened to their ideas with interest. Some people also vented some frustrations that the earlier structure of the conference had not allowed them to express. See points 1,4,5, and 8

1110 Brief talk to the conference. We build relationships by listening and support that encourages the sharing of ideas, information and feelings. You will have experienced some of those conditions today. Tasks have been set up to make it hard to compete which have no right answer so you cannot fail.

If you have enjoyed this atmosphere there are a few techniques that are immediately available and you could try.

Go around the group and give everyone equal time.

Start by saying something positive.

Use ‘equal time in pairs’ whenever things require more thought.

Take lots of time thinking about and clarifying objectives.

Plan the process at meetings. Thinking about HOW things are done.

Review the process in meetings. What has been good about today? How can it be improved?.

I gave people a handout on the above


The purpose of this session was to encourage people to continue the relationship building process after the conference. See point 7

1130 Next part of programme


Quotes from participants

“Those were the best and most open discussions I have ever had in the profession”

“We had much more common ground than I suspected”

The session was very effective at bringing together people who often relate to each other formally. With hindsight, the session might have been more effective at the beginning of the conference. Then people could use and develop their strengthened relationships throughout the conference.


This article is one approach to designing learning events. This subject will develop rapidly over the years. The author and the journal would like to hear of your successes and the principles underpinning them.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick