Organizing a Learning Festival

A few months ago, I met Gabriela and Alex for a coffee. While chatting, they brought up something that got my attention. They were organizing a Learning Festival in L&D Shakers. But it wasn’t the typical workshop sessions — networking — inspirational talks festival.

The purpose of this festival was to inspire learning autonomy by deconstructing the learning process in a fun and immersive way.

As I love the topic, it didn’t take much for me to ask if I could join the team (which, btw, was awesome as well).

In this article we (myself & Traian — another team member) will cover the following:

  1. Why is learning autonomy so critical, especially for learning professionals?
  2. How did we decide on the agenda and what did it look like?
  3. What happened during the festival?
  4. What was the framework we disseminated throughout the festival?
  5. My conclusion

Let’s jump right in!

Why is this subject so critical, especially for learning professionals?

Let me start with this — learning autonomy is critical for everyone! But as Learning & Development professionals we are not only concerned with acquiring habits that turn us into better self-directed learners. We are also concerned with creating a space where others become more autonomous in their development journey. Even if this is not a top priority on your agenda yet, I can bet my money that it will be in the future. Out of all my conversations with dozens of L&D professionals each month, this turns out to be the most common one — how can I create a learning culture, a culture where people are more self-directed in their learning process?

There are two reasons why I believe this is not just another trend we’ll drop:

  1. Information overload is not going anywhere. Compared to two decades ago, right now content is everywhere, in all forms — thousands of articles, podcasts, videos, and books just to name a few. Just as a fun fact, 300 hours of video are uploaded on Youtube each minute! That’s just crazy. Of course, not all the content is educational, but you get my point. We’re overwhelmed! So we need to become better at picking what information we let in, how we let it in, and also know when to apply it and when to drop it;
  2. Constant change. This has been said before, so I won’t dwell on it. The world is changing fast so our knowledge and skills are not future-proof. We need to be able to learn efficiently and that requires a set of skills, behaviors, and mindsets that some (I dare to say most) of us never got in our formal education.

There are probably multiple ways to help people deal with the two challenges above. But being learning professionals we focus on equipping people with inner resources —  skills, behaviors,  mindsets, etc. A complete set that will help them navigate through information overload, constant change, learn, and grow by becoming more efficient and authentic in their learning process.

So given we’re at the forefront of this trend and also have a passion for learning, behavior & mindset change, who better to bring together in a festival dedicated to deconstructing the learning process than L&Ds?

How did we decide on the agenda and what did it look like?

The Practice Sessions

We knew that creating spaces for practice was one of the most important parts of the festival. So we first focused on arranging those. We needed people that had secret superpowers they also wanted to share with others and Gabi launched a call to action in L&D Shakers to gather around volunteers.

In the end, a few brave people from the community jumped in as facilitators (whom we have to thank for their energy and input).

  • Amir facilitated a juggling session;
  • Gavin’s session was all about creating comic books;
  • Slapstick comedy was Grazyna’s gem.

We also had crocheting, embroidery, and even cooking fresh pasta on the agenda, to accommodate a larger audience.

The brief for the facilitators was simple:

  • deconstruct the learning process of your particular skill;
  • jump between doing, giving feedback, coaching, and facilitating sharing between learners;
  • and have lots of fun!

Remember! It was less about what people would learn and more about learning something new so they get a chance to deconstruct their learning process.

Other Spaces

Once the practice sessions were set, the next step was to make sure we have facilitators for other spaces we wanted to create: goal-setting, making plans, and reflection. More about them later on!

Given the festival was organized on a Saturday, we didn’t want to take much out of people’s time, so we decided to keep it at no longer than 4 hours. The final agenda looked something like this:

Meanwhile, we put on our marketing hats. We advertised the event in the community as playful as possible, talking about the sessions we’ll have, and the purpose of the festival, while also keeping some mystery around how the heck everything is linked to our roles as L&Ds.

What happened during the event?

We didn’t even blink and the day of the event arrived! We first invited everyone to a beautiful Miro Board Anamaria designed and welcomed them properly. Although emotions were high for all of us, we started by introducing the team & the agenda, while still keeping some mystery around the final goal.

Without further ado, we sent people to the first round of practice sessions, where facilitators were expecting participants to guide them in learning something new. In each practice session, the facilitator would start by explaining and showing the skill everyone would acquire by the end of the day. The demonstrations were followed by attempts from participants to go through their first learning steps, combined with feedback, knowledge sharing between learners, and guided progress.

Just to give you an example, I still remember trying to learn how to juggle. We started by understanding the rotation of one ball, followed by practice with two balls until we were comfortable moving forward with three balls. Meanwhile, Amir paid attention to our movements, provided feedback, deconstructed his way of doing things, and whenever we had a small win or got frustrated he encouraged us to share with the group our lessons learned or our blockers.

The first practice sessions didn’t take long and we were pulled back to the group for a debrief (actually, a reflection session) and a guided meditation session to regain some of our energy.

The second session went just as before, only that some of us picked up something from 0, while others chose to practice the same skill and become more proficient.

The end of the event was when we put everything together and revealed the model we explored not even knowing we were doing it.

What was the framework we disseminated throughout the festival?

The purpose of using this model is to uncover and dive into how we naturally learn and by doing that, to become better at creating learning experiences and supporting learners in their own journeys.

Traian, the founder of the Alternative University in Bucharest, created this model, for which he defined 4 areas that are involved in how we learn:

  • The Arena is where the action happens - where we face something new or challenging that drives our learning.
  • The Fireplace is where we go to reflect by ourselves or with others on what we face in the Arena. Here we make sense of our reality and gain insights to improve our learning process.
  • The Roots is the space which we draw our growth and development energy from. We have roots both within ourselves and in our environment.
  • The Tower is where we set our intentions, our learning objectives, and where we go back when we need to gain clarity & an overview of our learning process.

Each of these spaces has a different quality - suggested by the different colors. In an emergent learning process, these spaces combine to the point of blending. Think of a spinning top, in motion:

The role of this model is to “slow down” the spinning top so the elemental energies can be differentiated. The movement of the spinning top is the vitality of our learning process - like an engine of our learning. The analogy is useful for making visible two fundamental relationships between the elements:

  1. Balance: For it to spin, there needs to be a balanced and rapid movement between the action space (The Arena) and the reflection space (The Fireplace). Similarly, for our learning to have vitality, we need to dance between the action space and the reflection space.
  2. Alignment: If the spinning top loses momentum we grab it by the top (The Tower), give it a new spin (we set intentions and make plans) and we make sure it lands on a good surface (The Roots - the context of the learning process). Similarly, our intentions and plans need to be aligned with the flows of energy that run through our life’s context.

How did facilitators contribute?

As you might imagine from the story of how the festival unfolded and what you learned in the spinning top theory, facilitators had the role of maintaining balance.

For The Arena space to work, facilitators had to find a balance between tasks not being boring and too easy and not being overwhelming. They had to take the skill they wanted to teach and break it down into smaller components that strike this balance. Also, they needed to be mindful of the sequence in which components were arranged, as it could have smoothened or roughened the learning process.

For The Fireplace to work, facilitators had to focus on clear explanations, modeling the skill for participants, giving timely feedback, and/or facilitating peer-to-peer exchange, and good debriefings/reflections. If applicable, they could have encouraged participants to observe each other and bring their observations to debriefings.

How did we contribute?

On the other ax, the design team had to ensure alignment.

The questions we asked in debriefs were meant to bring clarity to our learning intentions and our individual ways of learning, hence spending some time in The Tower. Although we didn’t have the time to deepen the tower space, in real life, there are a few stages you can go through and questions you can ask for yourself or when designing a learning space for others:

Figuring out a good direction for your deliberate learning efforts by asking:

  • Who am I?
  • Who could I be? What could I learn?
  • What do I need to deliberately learn right now?
  • What do I want to learn?

Defining a clear target for your learning efforts by asking:

  • What can I leave out?
  • How can I deconstruct my learning process?
  • What are the stages of your learning journey?
  • What is your learning objective?
  • How will you remember?

Crafting a strategy to reach your target by asking:

  • Where are you now?
  • How will you learn?
  • What is the right timing?
  • What will drive you until completion?

Remember that I mentioned a guided meditation session? Well, that was one of the smallest things we could have done to bring The Roots to our festival and regain some energy in-between practice sessions.

While we can’t set our levels of confidence, fatigue, shame, or fear, we can indirectly influence them. Here are some of the questions we can ask when feeling:

  • Drained - What can you tweak in your environment to set the right conditions for learning?
  • Frustrated - How can you learn to love the discomfort of the learning process?
  • Low in self-confidence - How can you be kind to yourself when failing?

The Conclusion

Organizing the festival and learning about Traian’s model was such an energizing and insightful experience for me as a learner & as a learning designer that I wanted to share it with everyone! Also, the feeling was mutual for participants:

This was a great time to experience the joy of learning something new, meet new brilliant people in a casual setting, and most importantly, put some quality thinking into how we learn and how we can be impactful in our work. Thank you!

I was left with a question: How can we build learning spaces in our organizations where the spinning top always goes round and round?

And I want to leave you with some questions as well:

  • Do you have a tower in your company? Is there a process that helps your colleagues clarify what they want and need to learn next & build a strategy around their goals?
  • Are you keeping a good balance between The Arena & The Fireplace? My conclusion was that the Arena is usually people’s projects, but do they get a chance to reflect or share their knowledge with their peers?
  • How about roots? Do your colleagues get the chance to reflect about what energizes them and go to that place from time to time?

I know that facilitating an environment where everyone owns their learning journeys is a big challenge for us, in L&D. I hope that by answering these questions gets you a step closer toward solving that challenge.

Lavinia Mehedintu has been designing learning experiences and career development programs for the past 9 years both in the corporate world and in higher education. As a Co-Founder and Learning Architect @Offbeat she’s applying adult learning principles so that learning & people professionals can connect, collaborate, and grow. She’s passionate about social learning, behavior change, and technology and constantly puts in the work to bring these three together to drive innovation in the learning & development space.

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