The Small Group Activity Method
During most of our training, we will use the Small Group Activity Method. Before attending one of our training sessions, we would like for you to understand what we're doing, and why, and for you to consider using this method in your own community work.
Origins: The Small Group Activity Method is based on a training procedure developed by England's Trade Union Congress, that country's equivalent of the AFL-CIO. The Congress used this participatory non-lecture method to train over 250,000 shop stewards on health and safety issues in the 1970's and early 1980's. The method has since been adapted and further developed by many people in America, and is now employed by labor unions, community organizations, housing cooperatives, environmental organizations, training and adult education centers all across the country. I learned about the Small Group Activity Method from the Labor Institute in New York.
Why a non-lecture approach? Community trainers and leaders have learned the hard way that adults learn best in situations that maximize active participation and involvement. Trainer-centered, lecture-style teaching sometimes actually hurts the learning process, promotes passivity, de-values our own knowledge and skills, and makes us feel inadequate.
The Small Group Activity Method puts the learner at the center of the workshop. Participants are put to work solving real-life problems by calling upon their own skills and experiences. Instead of learning by listening, as we are expected to do in a lecture-style course, we learn by doing.
Participatory learning, using Small Group Activities, is particularly suited for leadership development and organizing training. By encouraging people to learn from their own experiences, the method takes into account the wide variety of cultural and education backgrounds people bring to training sessions. Here is the basic structure:
1. Small Group Task: People work in groups, preferably at tables. Each activity has one or more tasks for the group. People don't compete, but work together. Very often there are no right answers, rather the tasks require people to use their own experiences to tackle problems and make judgments on key issues. The task may include looking at fact-sheets and reading short handouts. In each case, it's important that the task be read out loud to the whole group so that everyone understands what is to be done.
2. The Report-back: For each task, the group selects a scribe who takes notes on the small group discussion and reports back to the workshop as a whole. In reporting back, the scribe informs the entire workshop on how his or her group tackled the particular problem. The trainer records each small group's report-back on large pads of paper in front of the workshop so all can refer to it. After the scribes report, the workshop is thrown open to general discussion about the problem at hand.
3. The Summary: Before the discussion drifts too far and wide, the trainer brings it all together in the Summary. Here, the trainer highlights the key points and brings up any problems and points that may have been overlooked in the Report-back.
THREE BASIC LEARNING EXCHANGES
The Small Group Activity Method is based on the idea that every workshop is a place where learning is shared. With this method, learning is not a one-way street running from trainer to leader. Nor is the Method a bull-session where people sit around and talk. Rather, the Small Group Method is a structured procedure that allows people to share information. It is based on three learning exchanges: leader-to-leader, leader-to- trainer, trainer-to-leader.
Leader to Leader: We learn best from one another. The workshops are set up in such a way as to make the leader to leader learning exchange a key element of all workshops. We do this by first allowing people to learn from each other by solving problems in small groups.
Leader to Trainer: Lecture style training assumes that the trainer knows all the answers. The Small Group Activity Method believes that trainers also have a lot to learn. Engaged in day to day struggles for community reform, the collective knowledge of any group of leaders may exceed that of any one trainer or expert. Small group activities, especially the report-back, allow us to learn from workshop participants. By listening to those we are training, we get to learn more and more about the realities people face. And because this training method shows genuine respect for people's knowledge, it builds confidence among those we are training. In any situation, confidence is the key to learning.
Trainer to Leader: This is the traditional learning procedure of school. It also has its place here. It comes at the end. This is our chance to clear up confusion and make points we think are key. By waiting until the summary section, we now know better what people need or what they may not have identified for themselves.