Creating a Learning Environment in Your Small Group

One of things I realize when I work with a group or team is I don’t want to simply have them connect relationally; I want to create an environment where learning is optimized, where people can engage ideas and express truth, etc. So here are a few things that I try to be aware of and maybe you can as you work with your teams or you teach a group or class, as you lead your management team, whatever.

The first is the varied learning styles. This is fairly popular teaching around auditory learners and kinesthetic learners and experiential learners. I think we know that and we’ve been exposed to that, many of you know that there are those who learn best by doing or learn best by hearing or by reading or by sort of on the job experiential “gotta get my head and hands around it and try few times and be mentored by someone.” Each of us has different ways that we prefer to learn. But when a group of people comes together, obviously you have a variety of those styles, so you need to vary the learning style along the way. It might be group interaction or a debate or a case study or a lecture or a teaching moment or something you have everyone read or prepare ahead of time or watch or take them out on an experience.

I remember taking a group of people to a homeless sort of shelter to spend some time because I couldn’t just teach about it; we had actually engage and feel and see it and see the people and see the environment. That was an optimized learning experience. So vary your learning styles.

Second thing is don’t be afraid to engage truth, to name reality, to say what needs to be said, whether that’s content that you’re teaching for your particular sort of area of expertise or you’ve got some new data to share with your team. Engage it, don’t just talk about it — process it, ask the difficult questions, flip it around and look at the opposite point-of-view — do what you need to do to engage the truth, not simply declare it. It’s one thing to declare it, but it’s another to really get into and engage it and allow others to speak into it, tear it apart, whatever they need to do.

Another principle to creating a learning environment is to seek to understand first. Again it’s common, it’s been said, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.” But I know for me — and I’m a person who’s frankly a little too selfish sometimes and is too interested in what I want to say — if I seek first to understand, I’m going to ask you follow-up questions, clarifying questions, I’m going to get into your world instead of thinking constantly about my world. So that’s another principle I’ve found that is really helpful to draw people out.

Finally, I would say really push the idea of putting the truth or the content or the issue into practice, sort of spending enough time in your meeting or with your team to say, “So, what we do with this?” sort of a, “How shall we now live?” Even one of the greatest teachers of all time, Jesus of Nazareth, at the end of his greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, said, “If you don’t take these things I’ve taught and put them into practice, you’re a fool, and you’re like a person who builds a house on the beach instead of on solid rock and the storms will come and wash that house away.” So the idea of simply talking about an issue or thinking about an issue isn’t sufficient. It’s important to say, “What are we going to do with this?”

I hope that helps as you think about creating a learning culture.

What are some ways you have created a “learning culture” or “learning environment?”

What techniques have you used to get your point across or increase engagement?  

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Bill Donahue
Bill served at the Willow Creek Church & Association where he developed leadership strategies and training events for over 2500 volunteer leaders. In addition, Bill launched and led the Group Life initiative, creating tools and resources for leaders in 13,000 churches on six continents, representing over 95 denominations in over 30 countries.

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