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Sharing a Space to Learn

Space to Learn

Virtual facilitation made me go back to basics when I design and prepare the perfect environments for learning programs.

I have been a facilitator in the learning and development fraternity for more than a decade; My journey started as an educator on the other spectrum, in the field of early childhood education. This trained me to be conscious to designing inspiring learning environments. Young children are a different audience, of course, but many of the aspects that help children learn are still true – and often overlooked – in adult learning. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the fundamentals of creating learning spaces are the same.

One of the shake-ups of 2020 has been the redefinition of the very concept of a learning space. Learning spaces are no longer fixed to a time and space; They can exist in virtual environments, assisted by a myriad of amazing virtual tools like collaboration boards and live feedback apps.

When it comes to corporate learning, however, there is a clear distinction to be made between online training off the shelve, and offerings that offer an immersive, personal experience and fit into a larger organizational learning framework. The latter does not even have to be the more expensive choice. What it often boils down to are the basics of facilitation and engagement.

Having had the chance to work with and experience many facilitators both in the virtual and physical space, I started reflecting on the fundamentals of creating optimal learning environments:

1. Knowing One’s Personal Preferences As A Facilitator

I often feel that we do not spend enough time thinking about our personal makeup as facilitators: What makes us passionate and energetic? What are our fears and weaknesses? Personally, I know I tend to want to pack a lot of content into my workshops (and I am still guilty of it sometimes). I also tend to rush when I’m under pressure or overly excited. I’ve learned to be very mindful in pacing myself and to always ask for feedback for my training plans.

Reflection and planning go hand in hand. It’s always important to reflect on how each session went right away, and to note how to improve. With every new brief, I remind myself of past notes and then visualize how the entire session will look, feel and sound. Learning, after all, is a multisensory experience. Being aware of this has helped me to avoid overpacking sessions with content. Rhythm and flow are as important as the actual content.

Watching other facilitators is a huge source of inspiration, of course. When I was a program design consultant, my team and I used to experiment a lot with different formats. I remember a colleague who liked to open with a debate right away. It helped the whole group to set the tone. I found it interesting, but I was hesitant to try. I felt I would lose control and I won’t make it exciting. But to my surprise, the debate facilitation was not as difficult as I thought, and I got better at it as I refined my own ways. So while I urge everybody to develop their own style and try to perfect it, I encourage you to take a leap of faith every once in a while. After all, we often ask our participants to do the same.

2. Knowing Our Learners

People have very different preferences when it comes to learning. An audio learner prefers taking in information very differently from a kinesthetic learner.

Understanding your learners does not have to be a hugely time-consuming process. It can just openly be discuss at the beginning. Why they are here, and what would they like to take away? To give participants a voice is a crucial step to create a safe space. This also helps to create ‘buy-in’ and sends out a clear signal that meaning-making will be co-created, with them as active participants in the process.

Participants will come in with a vast body of knowledge and experience. I often feel that many facilitators skip this step, resulting in participants who are not as connected. 15-30 minutes of open discussion will work wonders!

I’ve previously co-authored an article on learning fatigue. One of the reasons for learners’ fatigue is the mismatch of expectations from the organization and the actual learners’ needs.

These are some of the important aspects I try to take into consideration:

  • Personality – Are they more passive or active? Are they ‘people’ or ‘task’ oriented? People-oriented folks will prefer to have more fun and interaction times, and the task-oriented ones will appreciate clear objectives and final outcomes.
  • Learning & Thinking Styles – Are participants more audio, visual or kinesthetic when learning new information? When preparing our activities, do we cater to the different learning styles? A simple check is to glance through our workshop plan whether there is there a good balance between discussions, visual presentations and hands-on activities. People also process information very differently. This is an interesting point to note. More often than not, we tend to plan our content based on OUR own thinking style. I’m personally a very literal and an experiential thinker, and I often feel challenged by people who are theoretical and analytical. Hence, I push myself to read up more, and understand the ‘why’ of things (to address the theoretical thinkers) and I often break down my content to see things from different perspectives (to address the analytical thinkers). It definitely takes effort on my part and it never feels natural, however, it definitely helps me to connect better with all my participants.
  • Culture – Every team has a different working dynamic and energy. More often than not, this has a lot to do with their culture – geographical, industrial, organizational and team cultures. It’s not always possible to know before a session actually starts, but it is important to consider and try to understand the cultural dynamics before each session. Some cultures are used to freely and openly share their thoughts, others might be more resistant. It’s important to adapt, slow down and be less forceful in expecting immediate responses.

Using virtual learning platforms has further complicated all of the above [10]. Time zone differences, cultural norms and mannerism with unsaid virtual etiquettes, have created never before challenges for facilitators and designers. I am playing catch-up myself here, but being mindful of the above 3 main points will always help me feel prepared to keep the environment positive.

3. Keep The Environment Positive, Inviting & Relevant

The devil is often in the detail. A well set up environment, be it virtual or physical, promotes active learning by setting a friendly, safe tone from the very start.

I personally love entering a physical training space that is filled with snacks, and the aroma of coffee. I observed that when there is such a set-up, people do warm up faster.

Apart from the set-up being welcoming, I also think about the elements that make an environment filled with meaningful things, for example using displays that are relevant and props that are thoughtful. People feel in safe hands when they see that the event is treated with care.

Lately, I am getting better at setting up the virtual learning environment. I’ve observed that subtle cues such as background music before and in-between sessions, good lighting on the host, and a nice and simple background screen are the way to go for a welcoming space. Participants also do open up more when they’re greeted each time when they enter a session or return from a breakout session. Nods and smiles also help to assure them too.

Always remember, less is more. It’s never about how fanciful the set-up is nor how charming we are; it’s all about scaffolding around the value: giving participants the deserved space to discuss and co-create knowledge.

4. It Is Two – Way – Never One Way!!

Tools and technologies such as post-its, flip charts, polling apps and collaboration boards are best for co-creating and encouraging contribution. We need to remind ourselves never to use them for the sake of it, and be very clear about the objective.

I’ve attended workshops whereby the facilitator invited participants to collaborate with a very smart tool only to then move on immediately to something else right after, without those contributions ever being mentioned or discussed again. That creates unfulfilled expectations and frustrations. We must acknowledge the contributions and ideas of the participants.

Don’t steer away from spontaneous discussions or deferring opinions, and don’t be afraid of not being in control. I personally go by this 30-70 rule: I should only be heard 30% max of the time. In fact, when our participants are willing to spar with one another and with the facilitators, it is a very good sign that they feel safe, comfortable and engaged.

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to ask for immediate feedback (and I don’t mean the final evaluation feedback!). It’s a good way to assess the effectiveness of the on-going session. This can be as simple as asking participants to show fingers rating of how they’re feeling at that moment or using tools such as Mentimeter, or putting up a parking space using flipcharts, or virtual tools such as Miro or Padlet for them to reflect and ask questions.


Despite the advancement of technology and demands of learners, I think the main ingredients of empathetic and productive facilitation remain the same. They remind me to be less of a presenter, and more of a catalyst for real and self-learning of our participants.


Lisa Hughes

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