So that was the summer pause, apparently, and now it’s back to the grindstone.
Luckily, one of my very first tasks is to get ready for the annual UACES Teaching & Learning workshop, which we run ahead of the main conference, this year in the fine city of Bath, England.
The event has developed over recent years into a very useful mix of activities and reflection, each time taking a different approach, to keep it fresh for participants and to attract the curious.
However, one element that seems to be a recurrent one is an opening ice-breaker activity. Last year, I found myself scurrying around Krakow to find post-it notes (and then writing a very similar opening to the current post, it seems).
As you’ll note, this year, I’m writing ahead of the activity, mainly because I wanted to reflect a bit on what the function of an ice-breaker is/might be, rather than an actual example.*
Thinking about it abstractly, we’re definitely trying to do one thing, and usually trying to do another too.
The definite element of an ice-breaker is to reduce inhibitions among participants. Like the eponymous ship, the activity is intended to get us out of ourselves, feel less self-conscious and start to develop a sense of a group, within which exchange is easier.
We do that by distraction, broadly speaking. Give people a task, especially if it’s light-hearted, and they’ll be likely to get into it. I think here it’s partly about diverting attention from “here’s a bunch of people I don’t know” to “here’s a fun thing to do”, which in turn opens up a reason to talk/interact with those people we don’t know.
To flip that around, you can’t just stand at the front of a group and tell them to become less inhibited and more willing to participate. Or rather, you can, but your chances of success are slim.
And we do this dishibiting because we think it aids subsequent debate and work. Individuals are more likely to speak up, connections are more likely to be made and generally more will be got from the session, because there’s more focus. At a mundane level, that might just be because the enjoyment of it all means people are less likely to be distracted by their mobile phones.
But there’s also a second element in a ice-breaker that is usually found, namely increasing knowledge.
That might be something simple, like learning the names of other people, or something about their work (as in the Krakow exercise).
But it can also be a more abstract point, such as the nature of human interactions (as in the Hobbes game), or scholastic skills (as here). Clearly, that insight can be both mixed with the more prosaic stuff, and also connected to the wider objectives of the session.
In this, we’re doing something very close to a simulation game: getting participants to have a visceral experience that feeds into their emergent understanding of a situation.
Thinking about ice-breakers in such a fashion can be helpful, not least in identifying what you what to achieve from it.
In practical terms, you’re always going for the dishibition, so you need to be asking what else you want/need to achieve while you’re doing it.
In my case, given the rest of the programme for the workshop (a variety of active sessions), and the 15 minute slot I’ve got, I need to keep things simple and focused on ‘getting to know you’-type things.
Which means my big pile of blindfolds probably has to wait for another occasion.
* No, I still to sort out what’s happening in Bath. Obviously.