What do you do when you are facilitating a group of people who you don’t know well?

One of the first things you need to is build rapport with the group, without this, you can’t start the process of building trust, without trust the learning space isn’t safe.

So how can facilitators go about this?

This blog will look at three things I do to establish rapport in the first session of a Lesson Study.
1) Establish the space
2) Promote initial discussion
3) Reflect the learning to the group

Establishing the space

When I talk about space in Lesson Study, I am not talking about a physical space. Yes, physical spaces are important, but realistically in schools they might be the only available space. I currently have one group that meets in a room next door to violin lessons, which can make for some very interesting sessions. So, there is only so much you can do to improve physical spaces. The space I am talking about is the collaborative space. This is the environment within which the collaborative work will exist.

For me, I initially create this collaborative space through discussing and establishing a way of working, or the protocols of the collaboration. Dudley (2014) writes in his handbook about how protocols are important (and gives some very useful examples) and I am finding them an increasingly good place to start when I work with a group. In fact, I often let the group read Dudley’s (2014) protocols as a starting point for creating their own version in their own words.

I set up and discuss protocols with all groups, even when I know that the group will be aware of the protocols (because they have done Lesson Study before). This is because this is the first opportunity to have the group negotiate with each other, to discuss and hold opinions. Collet (2019) disagrees with my approach because the protocols (norms) are already established and the group can be focused by the learning at hand. I suppose to some degree everyone’s norms are established and so I understand Collet’s perspective. I am also interested in her approach, and I wonder how she then understands the dynamics of her new group. As I find the protocol discussion is key for understanding my new group.

The discussion around protocols is key because I find them useful for exploring where the group membership stands on different aspects of the protocols. For example, how do they view this collaboration? What protocols do they as a group prioritise and what thinking is their thinking behind that?

As a facilitator this information is vital for my work, because if a group places the joint-ness of togetherness higher than disagreement, you might have a group who do not want to rock the boat – a group that might have a tendency towards affirmation and therefore avoidance of conflict. Equally a group that might place that we need to be able to say what we are thinking as a priority might need to reflect on ensuring that they are collaboratively invested so all praise and critique is shared – as to avoid dysfunctional working.

The protocols establish the space (the physical space is less important) and reference to the protocols as needed reminds people of the boundaries of that space. While the ordering of the protocols is unimportant in the end, as a facilitator, how things are ordered gives you a first insight into what is happening between the participants and therefore the wider group.

Promoting initial discussion

Once the space is created, I like to give something to discuss (an article, blog post or thinking point) as my next step in building rapport.

Ideally this will be an article or blog that links well to the groups intended enquiry topic, but also something that is likely to promote discussion. Tom Sherrington’s blog The #1 problem/weakness in teaching and how to address it (2019) suits this purpose well as it is both brilliantly written but strikes to the heart of practice. In essence, this promotes a discussion, and allows me as the facilitator to see how the discussion plays out. Again, it is safe as it is about a distant author, who they can agree or disagree with. With the group feeling safe, you see how they interact. You can start to hear how future discussions might play out and you can start to reflect, summarise the discussions and think about any structures that might help build their talk so that it is productive. This again tells you information about the group and establishes your rapport with the group.

The initial discussions are ones that are important to reflect on. Think about how each person interacted. Did they all speak? Did they share the space? How did they build on, agree with or oppose each other? Also, as the facilitator, what did you do? Did you interact, sit back, share, bounce ideas? Or did you need to promote talk. These are all important to how you might need to work as a facilitator and thinking about this will help you be more informed about what is happening in the collaboration and what you might need to bring to the collaborative space next time.

Reflecting the learning of the group

Finally, in session one, recapping, and identifying how the group will evolve is important. Recapping the discussion, capturing what the group have said and the questions they have raised are powerful for outlining the work of the next session. You are now building rapport with the group, reflecting their learning and helping them start to wrestle with it.

This recap might also create a starting point for session two. I think it is important that I leave the group feeling ready to depart. They are likely to think about the session in the time they have before the next session so it is important to be as clear on the reflections as possible.

As I said at the start of this blog, this is how I like to work when I start working as a facilitator. What is also important is that this process and experience is different with each new group.