Train the Trainers: When Co-Conspirators in Learning Set the Agenda

May 29, 2021

The fabulous learners in the six-part completely-online two-hours-per-session train-the-trainer series I’m currently facilitating are increasingly adapting to their roles as co-conspirators in learning. Seeing themselves as equal partners in their learning process. Interacting with each other—and with me—as partners in the training-teaching-learning process by bringing to and sharing within our virtual train-the-trainer sandbox the experiences upon which they are continuing to hone their skills as trainers and leaders within the libraries they serve here in California.

And, this week, they took another big leap (at the beginning of the fourth session) by accepting my invitation to choose key elements determining how that session would be run—including setting the agenda for that session, which the last before we move into two sessions build around opportunities for them to present sample training sessions in a master-class format which includes chances for them to critique—and learn from—each other’s work.

Several elements were in place to make that a successful endeavor for all of us. 1) All sessions are highly interactive. 2) Each session takes a different approach to using our virtual learning space within Zoom (e.g., using PowerPoint slides as a background rather than a stand-alone element; having slides on one side of our screens while participants/co-conspirators remain visible to each other in Zoom’s “gallery view” during as much of the session as possible; having an entire session with all of us visible to each other and leaving the slide deck to be used later as a hand-out that supported our activities and discussions). 3) All sessions are interwoven in ways that help learners develop a framework to deliver a five-minute training for their course colleagues before this train-the-trainer series ends and, more importantly, to create something they can immediately use in their own workplace learning and development environments. 4) There has been a formal structure to each session alongside an informal approach that allows us to take brief diversions if learners raise a question that should not be deferred. (One of the more interesting/fruitful/productive detours came during the first session, when a learner gently raised a question about the lack of diversity evident within the images used in that session’s slide deck.) 4) We are intentionally taking a variety of approaches to learning, including, for one session, a Flipped Classroom model approach that placed some of the learning outside of the two hours we had together online so we could use those two hours to practice what had been explored before the session.

With that as the background, we began the fourth session with a few questions: 1) Do you want a more-or-less formal session (more presentations interspersed with activities and discussions) or something informal (a session driven by their own questions and concerns about preparing for and facilitating the training sessions they will lead during our final two workshops together)? 2) Do you want a session that fully incorporates a slide deck into learning, a session (similar to the third) that has us “face to face online” with each other throughout the entire session, or a combination of the two? 3) Do you want to formally set the agenda for a session that prepares you for the training sessions you are designing and planning to deliver within this series?

Each answer shaped the session and led us down a series of options I had partially mapped in anticipation of the options available to them. The “formal vs. informal” choice came clearly down in favor of informal, which made me remind them that any decision like that makes us think about how best to take advantage of the decision to support the approach we are taking. So the first thing I did was step off camera briefly, while continuing to talk with them, so I could remove my tie and the dress shirt I was wearing, and come back onscreen in a much less formal outfit. I then removed the more formal background I had designed as a way of visually tying all sessions into a unified series; what replaced that background was a clear view of the room in which I was actually sitting: my own office/study, which more closely matched the backgrounds of the informal spaces in which my co-conspirators were learning.

The second set of options provided an interesting split because so few of us were together for the live session. (Others, because of scheduling conflicts, participate asynchronously be viewing the recordings we produce and contacting me outside the sessions if they need additional support.) With three co-conspirators voting, there was one vote for slides, one for discussion, and a third for a combination “based on what is most appropriate for what we’re covering”—which, of course, produced a wonderful learning moment for all of us because it reminded us that learning involves a solid pedagogical underpinnings as much as it involves our preferences. Laughing over the idea that we had arrived, through discussion, at the obvious reminder that learning goals could drive our decision, we agreed to follow whatever seemed most natural—drawing upon the deck I had prepared, if/when necessary; engaging in discussion and activities when those were likely to produce the best results; and turning toward screen-sharing for demonstrations when that best suited our learning goals.

Our final choice—the one in which we set the agenda—provided most rewarding. Two big items clearly needed to be on that agenda from the learners’ point of view: time to practice skills that would be used during the upcoming learner presentations, and time for working through the process of deciding what to include and what to exclude from a training session.

How it all played out—quite well, actually—will eventually be visible through a recording of the session (to be posted on the California Library Association’s “Developing Leaders in California Libraries” website). A short summary would include the ideas that participants shared, with each other, their own approaches to training-teaching-learning that best served them and their learners (reminding themselves that they already have developed some magnificent tools in their individual trainer’s toolkits); that they quickly thought back on all they have learned during their months of participation in leadership development work (of which the train-the-trainer series is a component); that they identified elements of that training that they would like to share with colleagues in the libraries in which they currently work; and, with only a moment or two of preparation, that they were able to give brief, focused presentations that allowed them to become more comfortable with online presentations.

All of us walked away from that final, spontaneous exercise very happy with what we discovered and accomplished. Making an in-the-moment decision to have each of the two participating learners redo their initial in-the-moment presentations after a brief co-conspirators’ debriefing produced magnificently obvious positive results: the improvement between the first and second practice presentations was noticeable and positive; it left learners with a much more positive memory of the experience than they would have had if left only with the memories of the initial stumbles and hesitations; and it produced, in each participant, a sense of confidence grounded in the realization that a series of quick practice sessions can tremendously improve any presentation we are developing for use with our own learners.

With that confidence in hand, we are poised for our next step: more fully-developed online presentations that can be adapted in our own learning landscapes.

N.B. – This is the second in a set of reflections inspired by a collaboratively run online train-the-trainer series.


Train the Trainers: On Inclusion, Trust, and Co-Conspirators in Learning

May 24, 2021

The word “co-conspirators,” as Stephen Hurley (half-jokingly) suggested during our latest “Collaborations in Learning” conversation for his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” show this morning, conjures up images of people furtively meeting to plan some sort of insurrection. And I have to admit that it makes me smile by reminding me of those comically sinister little figures from the Spy vs. Spy series I enjoyed many years ago.

But it also, as our conversation suggests, is a wonderfully subversive and productive word to describe the relationship between learning facilitators and learners when they toss out assumptions that learning involves one person providing information and another person (passively) absorbing that information. Co-conspirators in learning, as I learned from my time with Alec Couros and others in #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course) several years ago, are those who see the learning space as a place where everyone learns—teachers and students alike. It’s a space where we toss out quite a few assumptions about what learning involves and place a focus on the collaborative nature of learning.

It requires tremendous levels of trust. Learning facilitators (aka “teachers” and “trainers”) must trust their learners to be willing participants in the shaping of their own learning. Learners must trust the learning facilitator’s assertion that everyone has something to bring to the table during a formal or informal learning opportunity and makes the experience stronger, more productive, more results-driven, and more transformative than learning situations where learners are an audience drawn to words of wisdom provided by the person at the front of the room. In fact, as I suggested to Stephen, there really is no “front of the room” in a learning space (onsite or online) where everyone is seen as a co-conspirator in the learning process. Every part of that learning space is a dynamic space in which trainer-teacher-learners interact with other trainer-teacher-learners to achieve the learning goals they are pursuing. Together.

But all of that is far too theoretical. Far too academic. It misses the dynamic nature of “learners as co-conspirators” that becomes obvious when we see how it plays out. As I did last week during the first of six two-hour online sessions with a group of wonderful adult learners in a train-the-trainer series I have designed and am currently facilitating.

I made it clear, during the opening session, that we would be doing far more than learning the basics of training in a way that supported course participants in their efforts to hone their own training skills. I am encouraging them, through different approaches I am taking in each of those highly-interactive learning sessions conducted within Zoom, to interact within the basic structure of each of those formats. I try to get them to help shape each of those sessions by participating in discussions and activities that give them practice at using the skills we are exploring. And I make efforts to inspire them to question and understand the approaches and techniques and skills under discussion so they can decide for themselves which were worth using with their own learners and which might not work within the specific contexts in which they foster learning.

Image by truthseeker08, from Pixabay

Which means I need to be ready for those hoped-for moments in which they take control of the learning space and ask questions I might not have anticipated so I, too, am a learner in those sessions. Like the stunningly-unexpected question that came during the second half of the first session: why are there so few people of color included in the images used in the slide deck for this session?

Understand, please, that the question was sent privately through Zoom’s chat feature so I was the only person initially aware that the question was being raised and the only person seeing the brief, very polite, almost apologetic comments surrounding the question. It was in no way confrontational, and the learner explicitly expressed the hope that I wouldn’t be offended by the question. It was clearly a difficult question posed by a wonderful learner who felt comfortable enough to raise that question in a way that had none of the public-shaming aspects that we so often see these days through social media posts and other online interactions.

It deserved an immediate and honest answer. So I took a deep breath, stopped the lesson-oriented conversation that was underway, and told all participants that I wanted to share and address a comment that had been directed at me privately—because I felt it was an issue well worth acknowledging and addressing in a virtual room with co-conspirators in learning. Without identifying the person who had raised the question, I started by saying I was appreciative that our co-conspirator had brought the thought to my attention. And, glancing quickly at the images I had been using in the PowerPoint slide deck supporting the discussions we were having, I acknowledged that I had not been as diligent as I always try to be in creating something that was visually representative of the diversity of our community of learning. I assured everyone that I would be applying a different, more critical eye to the decks for the remaining five sessions. Then, after again thanking the person for the comment, I returned us to what we had been doing. And, afterward, took the small amount of time it takes to review decks already prepared for subsequent sessions and making adjustments that were easily made.

This might seem like something that, once addressed, would be done. But the real work is to see what sort of positive impact our actions with our co-conspirators in any learning situation have. So, without doing anything to overtly continue that particular thread of conversation and learning, I worked with that same group of learners during the next session and, as always, let the learners know that I would stay for a few minutes after the formal end of that virtual session in case anyone had further questions or items to explore—the online equivalent of staying in a physical classroom for post-session conversations with interested learners. You can, of course, anticipate what happened next: The only learner to stay was the one who had raised the question about the lack of images of people of color in the first session. And the reason the person stayed was to continue a conversation springing out of the second session. Because that learner was engaged. Comfortable. Interested in gaining all that could be gained during the time we had together.

As the post-session conversation around Session Two content wound down, I couldn’t resist asking whether there had been any noticeable difference in approach to the images used for that session. “Yes,” the learner replied simply and directly. “It felt more on point.”

And those few simple words, for me, spoke volumes in terms of how much we all gain when we are co-conspirators in learning. We all learn. We all improve. We all gain. We are all transformed, long-term, by the positive nature of those all-too-brief short-term interactions. And those we serve long after our shared learning moments have ended are the real beneficiaries of what we accomplish together.

N.B. – This is the first in a set of reflections inspired by a collaboratively run online train-the-trainer series.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Training Trainers, Learning, and Victory Dances

May 6, 2020

There are obviously numerous buildings with “closed” signs on them as many of us continue to follow shelter-in-place guidelines in effect because of the coronavirus pandemic. But “closed” remains a relative term for many, e.g., libraries and other learning organizations, because the buildings may be closed, but the learning is continuing online. In offerings that sometimes are arranged so quickly that everyone’s head is spinning. And, sometimes, in offerings done effectively enough to leave learners with useful, memorable, engaging learning experiences that they can either immediately apply or can begin incorporating into learning opportunities with buildings once again sport open doors.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, through all of this, to have had several projects underway that were primarily set up as online learning experiences. And one that was scheduled to begin with a daylong series of onsite sessions (in Tampa, Florida) and then continue with three subsequent one-hour online sessions. That train-the-trainer course, for learning co-conspirators (aka “adult learners”) through the Tampa Bay Library Consortium, was charmed from the beginning. Our onsite time together in Tampa took place less than two weeks before shelter-in-place suddenly became an all-too-familiar experience and temporarily put on hold most face-to-face training sessions. The first of the three webinars was held a week after shelter-in-place went into effect, and offered us an opportunity to begin exploring what trainer-teacher-learners could—and have to—do when their world suddenly goes topsy-turvy and many long-held beliefs and expectations fly out the window in a rapidly, ever-evolving learning environment. And the final webinar, completed earlier today, brought us full circle through explorations of how to design and facilitate online, onsite, and blended learning opportunities—by engaging in onsite, online, and blended learning opportunities using whatever tools we have available.

Some things, we confirmed together through a highly-interactive and collaborative approach, remain constant at a time when “emergency remote learning” is all around us: Following a learning model such as ADDIE (Assess, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) and USER (Char Booth’s Understand, Structure, Engage, and Reflect) continues to provide strong foundations for effective learning. Preparation, flexibility, confidence, empathy, attention to detail, and humor all remain essential elements of what we do. Collaboration produces magnificent results, as we frequently saw when the learners were participants in shaping sessions in the moment; there were times when learners’ questions and suggestions inspired me to set aside activities I had planned and, on the spot, replace them with activities the participants themselves helped create and implement. And there were times when delivery/facilitation of a session changed on a dime, as when a slide deck I had planned to use for the first webinar wasn’t loading properly through screen-sharing—so we set aside the deck and simply covered the material in that online environment through virtual “face to face” conversations that pretty much replicated the spirit of what we had achieved a few weeks earlier in the physical learning space that was our initial meeting place.

Learners had a variety of options available to them because a well-designed infrastructure. They had an online asynchronous meeting place—the Bridge learning management system—where they could easily find materials, updates, and guidance as to what they needed to be doing. They had an easy-to-use online platform for meetings—Zoom. They had a wonderful organizer/liaison/host/–TBLC Manager of Programs and Services Kelly McDonald. They had the opportunity to participate in the live webinars or participate asynchronously by viewing archived recordings of those webinars. And they had access to all PowerPoint slide decks, which included copious speaker notes so they could review topics of special interest to them.   

Because they were engaged in further improving their own training-teaching-learning skills, they also had—and created—ample opportunities to practice what they were learning. While onsite, they engaged in impromptu presentations that helped them experiment with different ways to use their learning spaces. While online, they sometimes became presenters themselves by picking up themes from the typed chat and explaining and exploring those themes with their online collaborators. If there were missed opportunities for engagement, we would be hard-pressed to identify them because we jumped at those opportunities whenever we could.

The series concluded with plans for how that particular community of learning might continue through learner-directed interactions and collaboration; with reminders that the series had formally concluded but the learning would continue as they applied what they had absorbed; and with reminders that taking time to reflect upon our shared experiences would provide an additional platform for gaining all they could from all the effort we all expended together.

Following my own guidance and longtime commitment to reflective learning, I took a few minutes, after logging out of the final session, to reflect on what the time with those learners inspired. And those moments of reflection rekindled memories of previous training-teaching-learning experiences, including one that began more than a decade ago when I had the unexpected pleasure of being paid to attend a TED conference. A friend who owns a bookstore here in San Francisco was the official onsite bookseller for the conference, and he offered me a last-minute chance to attend the conference as one of his employees in the bookstore. It was every bit as fun and inspirational as I expected it to be, and there was the obvious thrill of watching that spectacular live feed of TED talks on a screen in the bookstore and chatting with some of the presenters as they wandered through onsite bookstore.


One of the more memorable encounters was a brief face-to-face conversation with Matt Harding, who at the time was receiving tremendous, well-deserved attention and praise for his “Where the Hell is Matt?” videos showing him doing a brief, playful dance with volunteers in settings all over the world. (A video available online shows him explaining how he created his work.) I loved Matt. I loved the videos. And I loved the sheer joy that flowed through his work.


A year or two later, working with a training partner on a series of classes and workshops on a challenging topic, I was looking for a playful way to end one of the most difficult hour-long workshops, so suggested to my partner that we end that session with a “victory dance”–which, of course, involved showing one of Matt’s videos to the learners as a way of leaving them smiling.

We had no idea whether it would be successful, but we tried it. And we knew it had worked when, at the end of a subsequent workshop (the following day), someone smiled and said, “What? No victory dance today?”


I still love those videos. I still return to them occasionally. When I want to smile. Or when I want to celebrate something that has just occurred. And so, after facilitating the final webinar in the four-part blended (partially onsite, partially online) set of Train-the-Trainer sessions for the Tampa Bay Library Consortium earlier today, I decided to celebrate in private by watching a Where the Hell Is Matt? video and do a virtual victory dance to celebrate the successful conclusion of the latest successful collaboration with the learners who continually enrich my life in ways that surpass anything I will ever be able to offer them. And at the end of all of this, I’m left with one of the best suggestions I can offer to any training-teaching-learning colleague: let’s dance.

–N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


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