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Engaging Learners: Stepping Through the Looking Glass

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

As a student, I was taught in a traditional setting where the facilitator lectured and students took notes. We were asked questions, but many times they were closed-ended and required one-word answers that didn’t result in group discussions. When I first stumbled upon the opportunity to facilitate, I must confess, I mirrored the teaching style of those before me.

Today, I have more than 13 years of facilitation and instructional design experience. When I reflect on the earlier classes I facilitated, I feel a sense of embarrassment. I thought I was doing everything right.

Finding my passion

One day, I had what I call my, “Alice in Wonderland Experience.” It was as if I stepped through a mirror and entered a world where facilitation and instructional design was the opposite of what was normal to me. This experience caused me to re-evaluate my facilitation style and transform my approach from teacher-centered to learner-centered.

I changed because engaging learners suddenly became a passion. I began reading articles and books, observing learners in classroom settings where I was also the student, and taking notes from the best facilitators. I noticed one common theme: the most engaging classes required the learners to do more work than the facilitator. I also noticed this approach worked with small and large classes.

Although I was nervous at first, I began practicing this concept. I wasn’t comfortable with releasing control of the learning environment to my students, but I knew from my observations that learners required more than reading and listening to truly understand the content.

They needed to know the content was relevant to them. They needed to connect their knowledge and experiences to the content. They needed hands on participation and ongoing discussion. Most of all, they needed to know the minute they arrived in the classroom that the facilitator required their engagement.

So, my delivery of the content changed, and my learning events were a success!


Sharing with other facilitators

This evolution proved easy for me, but was not always for others that I worked with. Many facilitators were uneasy with the nontraditional teaching techniques, and they would revise one of my interactive activities (that was energizing and required critical thinking) into a lecture style experience where the facilitator did most of the talking.

I found that many times the facilitator did not have the confidence in themselves to try something different. Worse, they didn’t fully trust the learners’ interest and ability to contribute to the subject matter. They had forgotten that adult learners enter the classroom with experiences and possibly some knowledge. Indeed, they hadn’t grasped the idea that adults are human beings who could learn more when being engaged.

At first I became frustrated, but soon realized the error of my ways. I had spent a lot of time learning and practicing the concept of engaging learners, and I expected other facilitators to embrace this new concept without going through the looking glass too. I soon realized they needed that experience that would cause them to re-evaluate their facilitation style and uncover a desire for engaging learners.

So, I tested my theory. Fortunately, many facilitators recognized that they had opportunities for improvement and discovered their own passion for engaging learners. They embraced the challenge of practicing new learner-centered concepts—and were thankful afterwards. They became more excited to facilitate, and their learners were more engaged than ever.

Those facilitators that were perfectly content with their facilitation style and set on controlling the learning environment, refused to accept the need for change. They did not realize that although they could control the environment, they could not control actual learning—especially in adult learners.

Moving forward

The learner-centered approach is not a new concept, but many facilitators are still not ready to truly commit. If you have a passion for engaging your learners and are ready to take your facilitation skills to the next level, you need to re-evaluate your current skills and accept there are ALWAYS opportunities for improvement.

Make yourself more aware of the learner-centered approach and practice this concept in your learning events. Then, you too, will have that “Alice in Wonderland Experience” that will take you out of the looking glass and transform you into a facilitator that truly knows how to engage your learners.

About the Author

Catina Barnett is the organization development process manager at Indiana University Health in human resources’ learning institute department. She holds a BA in psychology, an MBA, and a PHR certification. She has 15 years combined facilitation, instructional design, and human resources experience, and won the Distinguished Young Alumni Award from the University of Indianapolis in 2007. 
She is also co-founder and executive director of Youth Hope & Inspiration, a not-for-profit organization based on Christian principles that encourages the community to work together to provide youth from disadvantaged or low-income families with enriching experiences for healthy development (

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