Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

For reasons too random to discuss here,I found myself yesterday giving some advice to a very prestigious research centre, based in a world-famous university in a city close to here. They don’t do teaching normally, but they do have an annual conference for their staff and I had come to their attention as someone who might have some ideas to make it more engaging and interactive.

It was a very productive discussion – on both sides – not least because many of the issues we face in the classroom are the same that we face in the conference venue: conventional formats that leave little room for participation.

Rather than share all that we discussed, I’ll just mention one idea that we came up with, which might be of interest to others.

The research centre has about 60 people, working in three distinct groups. One of the aims of the conference is get people aware of what’s happening outside their group and – ideally – to share their knowledge and expertise more broadly.

With that in mind, we talked about having a big whiteboard at the side of the lunch room. On it would be some key words of known expertise in the centre. Staff would then be encouraged to write their name next to the key words that matched their abilities, and to add more key words if they were missing. Already this would produce a map that the conference organisers could turn into a PowerPoint for later distribution as a useful resource.

But we also went beyond that. The suggestion was that during the afternoon there would be a group activity. All the key words would be written down, put into a hat and then drawn out in threes. This then gets written up on a PowerPoint slide, with each threesome being the topic for a group. Staff select a group to join and then they discuss a new research project they could develop that would bring together these areas.

This second stage would produce some random combinations, to help get staff thinking about different approaches, as well as encouraging them to talk with colleagues they don’t know so well.

The organisers are still discussing their plans, but when they run their event I’ll be checking in to see how it goes and see if there’s something that I can take back into a classroom setting.