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April 2018
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TD Magazine

Four Corners

The situation

In a full-day (or longer) classroom training, breakout groups enable participants to apply what they've learned immediately, creating a learner-centered classroom and allowing space for discovery. Getting them into those groups can sometimes cause a hiccup to the flow of your learning program.

The trick

Although it may seem easy to sort people into breakout groups based on trivial factors, such as seat assignment or counting off, this leaves the question of whether you form groups that work well together entirely up to chance—and you'll miss out on a vital opportunity to learn more about your participants.

For a more creative approach, try the Four Corners sorting technique:

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  1. Prepare your learners to separate into groups by establishing the four corners of your classroom. Even if you're working in an open area, you can still do this by pointing out specific landmarks, such as a whiteboard or water cooler.
  2. Ask your audience a question with four possible answers that help inform your facilitation style throughout the remainder of the course. For example, you might ask at what time of day your learners peak (morning, midday, afternoon, evening). You also can use this sorting technique to group by the industries in which participants work or which of your learning objectives they find most interesting.
  3. Request that participants move into a specific corner based on their response, then use those groups for your breakout activities.

    Try to remember the patterns you observe when using this technique because they may help you later. For example, if you sort learners based on how their energy fluctuates throughout the day, you may call on morning people in the afternoon or evening people in the morning to keep them focused. Likewise, if you ask your class which learning objectives they're most interested in and everyone moves into just one or two corners, you may spend any extra time on that content.

    You can spice up Four Corners with fun variations. No matter how you set up the exercise, you still get people on their feet and talking.

    Pro tip

    You can spice up Four Corners with fun variations. No matter how you set up the exercise, you still get people on their feet and talking.

About the Author

Carrie Addington is an internal ATD facilitator. She is a down-to-earth educator and people development coach with a passion for delivering effective communication solutions with a spirited energy. As a business consultant and educator for the past 10 years, Carrie has worked with a wide variety of business segments, including retail, beauty, education, and nonprofits, and has worked with C-level executives, directors, managers, and high potentials.

She has experience designing and delivering customized management and self-development programs, including personal coaching on strategy and communication. She has delivered training on key business management principles for small business owners through Bumble and Bumble University in New York, deemed the “Harvard of Hair” by the Harvard Business Review, to classrooms ranging from 20 to 150 attendees.

Carrie has delivered on topics ranging from energetic accountability, leadership, and great feedback to cross-generational communication, resolving conflict, and presentation skills. She is a part of the coaching network with the prominent, global executive leadership and management company, The Mind Gym; and is a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach. As a certified ATD Master Trainer, Carrie is knowledgeable about both the development and delivery of outcome-based learning programs.

She has a master's degree in poetry from George Mason University and serves on the board of the American Poetry Museum in Washington, D.C. Carrie is passionate about using her love of language and the arts to work with individuals on establishing deeper connections with their daily work.

3 Comments
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I've seen this down in many variations - and they all work well, so long as they are developed thoughtfully and intentionally with a specific purpose in mind.
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Thank you - I really like this concept. It's a great way to create movement, energy, learn about each other, and it serves a constructive purpose for us - the facilitator, too! Part "ice breaker" - depending on how creative the questions are with some humor and part group organization. Very Cool.
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Love this!!! Thank you for the idea :)
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