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A new calendar year often makes us think of beginning something – developing a new routine or habit, taking up a new interest or learning a new skill.


For the first RSVP Design posting of 2015, we explore an area that still generates lots of requests for advice and suggestions from our clients. This is also about beginning: beginning a workshop or training programme with an introductory activity.


In discussion groups and in general training enquiries these activities are often referred to as ‘icebreakers’ or ‘energisers’. These terms are frequently challenged because, in many people’s eyes, they diminish the importance of the first stage of a learning process because they have no connection to the main theme, or core material, to be addressed in the session.


Many of us have also experienced ill-thought out, embarrassing ice-breakers that have had a negative effect on our motivation and trust in the trainer. So, how do we ensure that we get the beginning of our training right?


Why use a practical, interactive introductory activity?

There are many reasons why using an early activity makes sense but there are three particularly important ones.


1. It is good practice to undertake a process of ‘contracting’ with a group at the start of any training session. A contract is the formal or informal agreement that is made between the trainer/facilitator and the learners about the expected way of working, the ‘operating guidelines’, the different roles that may be adopted and agreements about how to deal with concerns or questions. In many circumstances this is done as a discussion, with flip-chart recording of the points that are agreed. However, as many trainees have repeated this process so often, it often becomes formulaic and without meaning as learners list non-specific thoughts such as ‘open communication’ or ‘co-operation’. A well designed introductory activity encourages the trainer and learner to model the type of behaviours that are desirable within the training programme and sets the tone of the event without the need for formal agreements.

2. Adult learners benefit from cooperative and generative learning. This means working with others and using their own experience in the learning process. To support this, early introductions and an opportunity to establish working relationships are important. An experiential, introductory activity allows learners to share experiences, explore current interests and concerns and benchmark their own level of knowledge and understanding against that of other group members. This is the first step in enabling them to work together effectively during the training. It also encourages active participation from all learners, rather than from a confident and vocal minority.

3. Introductory activities can be used to ‘tune-in’ learners to the subject matter for the training, sensitising them to the key issues and also requiring them to use the type of thinking that will be helpful during the session. Therefore, an introductory activity that raises questions, illustrates points or demonstrates problems directly related to the training accelerates learning and engagement.

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