In my last post I described how to facilitate the Back to Back Listening activity virtually. What I didn’t know then was that I would soon receive negative feedback about that activity from a participant. And it prompted me to think more intentionally about my design of virtual learning – and probably all learning in general.

First, let me tell you what happened.

I facilitated a virtual workshop called “Beyond the Ordinary” for a particular group. The session is all about how to use annotation, chat, video and audio in Zoom in creative and non-traditional ways. I included Back to Back Listening (from Liberating Structures) for one of the audio demonstrations because it’s an activity I’ve facilitated both in person and virtually many times before and it’s always garnered excellent feedback. (Just quickly: in Back to Back Listening the participants listen to a music piece as a whole group, go into breakout rooms in pairs to discuss their experience of it, listen to the music piece again in whole group as if through their partner’s ears, and then go back into the breakout room with the same partner to discuss the experience again. It’s an exercise in communication, empathy and so much more.)

However, when I read the collated feedback from the client after the session, this stood out from one participant:

I was unhappy with the music piece for specific reasons. It was a two minute slow and somewhat sombre piece of music that brought a lot of intense emotions for myself and, as it turned out, for my break out partner as well. When I found out that the last session would be similarly emotionally charged (Beth set us up for this), I left the session early. And I really didn’t want to have to do that. I don’t understand why the session needs to use emotionally charged training pieces. I don’t see the need. Thank you for listening!


Reading this feedback gave me mixed emotions. At first I was confused because I thought the person’s comment was about the activity I facilitated after Back to Back Listening; an activity I had intentionally invited people not to participate in if they wanted because I wondered if some people might feel uncomfortable about it. (I did not anticipate this with Back to Back Listening.) Next, I felt surprised because everyone loves Back to Back Listening and I had never received negative feedback about it before. I also felt a bit defensive because, of course, no one likes receiving negative comments on feedback forms! I also felt concern, because I hoped that the activity hadn’t caused the person and their breakout room partner trauma. And lastly, I felt guilt, because the person had actually left the session because of this experience.

I felt all these things (and probably more), but I didn’t agree entirely with what they said.

Should we never use emotions to help people learn? Absolutely not. Many times I’ve intentionally planned to and done the exact opposite, because I know that engaging emotions – in a good way – helps people learn. Julie Dirksen, in her book Design For How People Learn, talks about the rider and the elephant. They are metaphors for two different parts of our brain: the rider is the conscious, verbal, thinking brain and the elephant is the automatic, emotional, visceral brain. She says:

The important point is, if the elephant isn’t engaged, the learner is going to have a hell of a time paying attention. But the rider can force the elephant to pay attention. We do it all the time … there’s a cost to this, though. Dragging an elephant where it doesn’t want to go is exhausting, cognitively speaking … But if you can attract and engage the elephant, it means there’s not nearly as much of a burden on the rider. Think about really great learning experiences you’ve had. They are probably ones that have engaged your interests and curiosity on a visceral or emotional level.

Even though the participant in my session didn’t see the need for bringing emotion into a learning experience, I definitely do. But the question is…what type of emotion? I said to the organizers of the workshop after I saw the feedback that if this person felt triggered and unsafe, then that was absolutely not my intention and I regretted that. I’m glad they took care of their own needs and left the session. But, if the person felt slightly uncomfortable, maybe just at their learning edge, then I wasn’t as worried about it. This kind of discomfort can sometimes be a good emotion that helps us learn.

I’ll never know exactly what happened with that particular person; if only I could learn more about why they felt the things they did. It could have just been their state of mind that particular day or it could have been something more. But, their comment sure got my wheels turning. Will I facilitate Back to Back Listening – and other activities like it – in future sessions? Yes. But, with some modifications…

I talked with two colleagues after receiving this feedback, and these conversations helped me think through the participant’s comments more deeply and figure out what to do about them. One colleague shared with me that someone they know who is on the autism spectrum would be very uncomfortable with being placed in a virtual breakout room to discuss something with only one other person. The next person – my colleague Val Cortes – and I talked about the whole occurrence as we were preparing to co-facilitate a virtual session on whole body learning. Val and I know what happens in face-to-face workshops when people don’t want to participate in an activity…they conveniently decide it’s time to go to the washroom! But in virtual workshops they are sort of stuck. They get whisked away automatically into a pair, trio or group in a breakout room, and it may be uncomfortable for them to say, “Well I never really wanted to do this activity anyway.”

So what do we do about that? How do we give people more control over their learning experience in a virtual setting?

For the Whole Body Learning session, Val and I decided to create a “Quiet Room” breakout room as an optional space to go if people chose not to do any one of the activities. We planned the exact Zoom technical settings that would allow people to move themselves to the Quiet Room, or stay or return to the Main Room if they chose. We included statements at the top of the workshop and before activities for participants about using the Quiet Room, telling them that they did not need to explain to anyone in the session that they were going to the room or why. We hoped this would give people the choice to participate or not participate as was going to be comfortable for them.

Let’s think more about giving people choice in learning events. “Optimizing individual choice and autonomy” is the the first checkpoint (7.1) of the Universal Design for Learning Guideline on Engagement. The UDL guidelines in general give us guidance on how to design and facilitate learning events “so that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.” While this checkpoint talks about providing choices to learners that all lead towards achieving learning objectives, in non-credit/non-graded settings and circumstances we also have the ability – and obligation? – to offer participants the choice not to participate in something – and to normalize that choice.

However, I’m still thinking of ways I can do better. Giving people the choice to not participate is a start but it still means they aren’t participating. It’s even more beneficial to participants to design multiple options into activities so that they can participate but in different ways. For example, what if I had changed the steps of Back to Back Listening to invite all participants to quietly free write – in a collaborative virtual whiteboard – about their first experience of listening to the song, directly after listening to it? Then I could have invited them to choose to go:

  • into a breakout room with one other person to verbally debrief (the original option),
  • into the Quiet Room to read other people’s experiences of listening to the song written on the whiteboard (and if other people were there, the expectation would be that the room was silent), or
  • into a noisier Lounge (also a breakout room), perhaps with 5-6 other people, where there would be time for some people to share verbally and others to just listen to other’s experiences and not have to talk.

This would also mean that after the first breakout room experience, I would need to give all participants time to read some more written passages on the collaborative whiteboard, so that they could see some of the thoughts of people who chose not to verbally share. The invitation would be to “choose one of the other experiences you’ve learned about” and listen to the song again through that person’s experience. (Similar to the original instructions, but broadening it to invite them to choose to think about the experience of either a verbal or written account.)

In Round 2, I think time would need to be inserted again for free writing, before giving people the same pairs room, Quiet Room and Lounge options as we had in the first round. The writing prompt would be to “Write about what it was like for you to listen to the song through the other person’s experience”, similar to how it’s written in the original Back to Back Listening activity description.

Phew! Even just writing these paragraphs has taken a long time as I redesigned the Back to Back Listening activity in my mind over and over again, writing and deleting ideas above of how I could include people in multiple ways and offer choice. I was originally stuck on how people who didn’t share verbally with others could not only gift other participants their thoughts, but have the experience of listening to someone else share what it felt like to listen to the song through their experience. It was only through thinking this through that I decided that all participants need to be given the opportunity to free write their experiences, before sharing with another person verbally or not. I’m not sure I’m there yet to total inclusivity and choice, but I’m closer. (Let me know if you have any ideas!)

I share all this experience with you to help you see that even though in some ways it doesn’t feel good to receive negative feedback on workshop evaluation forms, when people share these kinds of things with us it can spur great and positive change. If we take the time to intentionally think about what people have said and keep thinking about and working on how we might be able to do better. I hope this also begins to demonstrate how much time we need to spend on learning design – thinking it through from multiple angles – to be inclusive. And that the rewards of spending all this time and thought for all of us – ourselves and participants both – will be so very worth it.

Thank you to the brave participant who wrote the feedback that spurred all this thinking. I’m sorry that you felt you had to leave the session and I hope you’re OK. Just know that I’m continuing to think deeply about inclusivity, choice, and options when designing learning, and the feedback you gave me will remain a positive influence on my thinking about facilitation for some time to come.

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