Key Ingredients for Teaching and Group Facilitation by Jen Stanchfield

Key Ingredients for Building a Positive Environment and Increasing Engagement

Key Ingredients for building a positive environment for learning

In past articles I have compared group facilitation and teaching to cooking in the sense that successful educators vary ingredients all the time to keep things interesting or to “spice up” their teaching/group facilitation. In doing so they always keep in mind the key components that make it happen. There is a lot of room for creativity, style and adaptation in cooking but there are key rules and fundamental ingredients needed in order for a cake to rise or a sauce to thicken.


Over the past few months I have been inspired by my experiences facilitating workshops with educators from all over the US and Canada who are committed to enriching the lives of the youth and adults they work with. As I reflect on the feedback from participants in these workshops there were common “ah ha” moments or key learnings that participants took away from these group experiences. These all had to do with the importance of taking time to build a strong foundation of understanding, empathy and trust within groups, empowering learners with choice and control, thoughtfully sequencing activities to maximize learning outcomes and the importance of reflective practice; all key ingredients in recipes for group success. In the next few posts I will share articles on these topics.


Here are some of the “key” ingredients or techniques educators should consider as they build a strong foundation for learning within groups and classrooms:


The experience starts the moment a group enters the room (or even before).

Create a “Hook” to engage participants as they walk in the door. The first few minutes of a class or group session can be a great opportunity to draw learners into a positive learning experience and increase engagement. This can be a way to welcome group members or students into the classroom or meeting space and focus their attention on the tasks at hand. It can help learners transition from the experiences at home, on the commute, or in the hallway that impact learning so that they can be fully present in the learning space. Research on the brain and learning is demonstrating that the first moments of a learning experience are a key opportunity to increase engagement and retention (for more on this subject check out the series on engagement in March and April’s Inspired Educator blog posts).


Start off with style!

Introductory activities set the tone for a program and future group interaction. Think carefully about using appropriate beginning activities that build rapport and trust in incremental ways. Take time for this process. When people are given an opportunity to interact and share with each other step by step they gain comfort with the group process and build the capacity to go more in depth later on.


Make thoughtful choices, beware of the “ice-breaker”.

When choosing “ice breakers” or introductory activities find those that build rapport, camaraderie, connections, shared understanding, commonalities and goals in an enjoyable and non-threatening way. Often icebreakers can do the opposite of what was intended when people are put “on the spot” too early in the group process. When people are asked to perform a task like memorizing names or speaking/standing in front of the whole group before they have built comfort and basic trust they actually might “check out”, become embarrassed, and/or form negative associations with the experience. Try beginning with partnered sharing activities. This gives participants an opportunity to warm up by interacting with just one or two others at a time before sharing with the larger group. Thoughtfully sequence activities to build the capacity of trust and sharing over time.


Choice and control are essential.

People learn best when they perceive a sense of control, they have choice and ownership over their learning experiences. Think about creating opportunities that build this sense of choice and control for participants or students from the very beginning of the program or school year. Empowering learners to set reasonable parameters around their participation creates an atmosphere of healthy trust and will actually increase involvement from reluctant participants. In experiential group work, facilitators often aim to create change by pushing comfort zones and challenging learners. People do learn from challenges, but there can be a fine line between a challenge that helps move learning forward and what the educational philosopher John Dewey (one of the earliest proponents of the philosophy of experiential education) would call a miseducative or potentially damaging experience.

Create opportunities for students/participants to make choices within an experience. Consider techniques such as:

  • adding rules to an icebreaker that allow the “it” person a way out or an option to participate at their own pace
  • inviting participants to volunteer rather than calling on them to share
  • allowing participants to pass during group discussion

This will help participants experience what John Dewey called “perceived internal freedom” and help them buy into the group process.


Creating situations that allow introverted group members some kind of out or aid gives them an opportunity to participate fully and warm up to the group process. They learn to trust that you won’t put them in a situation that is embarrassing or puts them on the spot before they are ready. This technique used during a warm-up game can pay off later in the group process.

By building trust in this way, group members start to share and engage at their own pace and become more willing to push their comfort zones later on when it really matters.


It is important for groups to learn and honor names.

Knowing and using each others names in a respectful way builds trust and positive communication establishing a supportive group environment. A person’s name is very important to them and should be honored with correct pronunciation and proper use. Presenting a series of activities that help participants use and practice names can be very helpful to establishing a strong foundation of trust and understanding. I like to weave name activities and practice into introductory activities in a “natural” way starting with simple partner greetings and sharing before engaging participants in a whole group name activity. I try to avoid contrived name activities that put people in the “on the spot” too early in group process or require them to feel under pressure to memorize. In upcoming posts I will share some of my favorite methods for introducing and reinforcing names in a palatable way.


Establish and reflect on healthy group norms.

Help group members create an environment where they feel responsible for themselves and each other and are willing to speak up when there is a breakdown in communication or an issue that affects the safety or potential experience of the group. It is ideal when the group takes that responsibility rather than the facilitator or teacher. Group norms are the behaviors that exist in every group, good or bad. It can be helpful for groups to formalize agreements about acceptable behaviors to improve their ability to work together. In my experience it helps to not do this on the first day or hour of class or group but rather after they have spent some time together so they get to know about their group dynamics and what they will be encountering together. Norms should be reflected upon and revisited throughout the year or program. (There can still be leader imposed ground rules or expectations put forward on day one, but participants should be increasingly involved in defining group norms as they move forward and encounter challenging situations together as a group).


Reflect and “check in”.

Intentionally making time for the group to reflect, and “check in” with each other is integral to group process, so that experiences can be built upon one another and related to real life and future learning.

Reflection brings learning to life. The educational philosopher John Dewey (1933) who is known as one of the forefathers of experiential education believed that in order to truly learn from experience there must be time for reflection. Reflection creates relevancy and meaning in an experience and helps learners make connections between their educational experiences and real life situations. The practice of reflection itself is one of the most useful human skills in that it develops insight, one of the hardest important tools to teach and learn.

Regular “check-ins” create a forum or opportunity for participants to share what is working, what they need from each other, and for celebrating successes along the way. Reflective practice is best when it is a dynamic ongoing part of your lessons, not just something facilitated at the end of an experience or as a follow up.


Take time up front to build your group.

It takes time to sequence and build healthy trust between participants and teacher/leaders. Time and experience together can build comfort enhancing meaningful group sharing of thoughts, ideas and feelings. This builds the foundation that will allow you to engage learners in more challenging activities, fosters more responsibility and control over their learning and increases their ability to move learning forward. You will find that time spent from the beginning of your program or school year building relationships, ownership and reflective skills pays off later in many ways!


Like any good good cook, remember to experiment and blend your own personality, creativity and style with the chemistry of the group into the recipes for positive group experiences. Mix it up and add a little spice here and there, just don’t forget those key ingredients that hold it all together and help make the full flavor of the group come experience through.

  • Mike cardus
    Posted at 15:42h, 17 August

    What a great list I enjoyed start off with style.
    This is a challenge and one to continually experiment with and find what works. I have found that with what works, does not work with all groups. If you can start the lesson off well it moves so smoothly.

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