13 September 2016

Guest Author and Member Jackie Dodd has spent the past 5 years living and working in the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia on community-based marine conservation projects, and in China on youth empowerment programs. She has spent much of her time facilitating environmental education and awareness programs for adults and children. She has agreed to share her checklist of best practices for successful learning experiences.

Notes from the Field
The conservationists I have met and worked with all know the importance of environmental awareness and education. We see that by helping local resource users and managers understand their ecosystems, they manage their resources better and more sustainably.

When I facilitate conservation awareness activities in the Philippines and elsewhere, I have learned that the more I pay attention to my audience members and their concerns, the more they listen to the information that I share with them.  The more I ask them about their knowledge, experiences, and opinions, the easier it is to find ideas and sustainable solutions. It is my role as facilitator to learn about their situation.  I value the information that each person shares.  And I empower them to develop their ideas and create their own action plans.

Most of us know that in real life, there can be many roadblocks – some small and some very big.  I have developed my own checklist when preparing for community awareness or education events.

The Basics

  • Is the space the right size – not too big, not too small?
  • Is it the right temperature – not too hot, not too cold?
  • Can all the speakers be heard in this space?  What about noise from the outside?
  • Can people get to the location easily?
  • Do I have the right equipment – electric plugs and cords, white wall or screen for projector, WiFi, adapter for computer, etc.
  • Is the presentation or workshop at a good time? (Not after lunch if possible!)

Make a Positive Start
As facilitator, I need to start with a lot of energy and adapt the program to the participants.

  • Greet everyone who comes. Exchange hellos and names.
  • Boost the participants’ energy with activities that include physical movement, especially if they make people laugh.  This helps the participants stay focused and positive.
  • Ask everyone how they are doing at the beginning of the session.  Then ask them what they expect or want from the session.
  • Use group brainstorming or writing or simple drawing to get people involved.  “Spectrums”  (“Everyone, hold out your hand showing the number of fingers that corresponds to your energy-level, from 1 to 5!”) are a good way to get shy people to participate.

Adapt Content for Effectiveness
No one likes to listen to a textbook!  As facilitator, my role is to make learning exciting.

  • Many training materials are not in the native language.  Translate them if you can, and…
  • Use graphics and pictures with little or no text.
  • Be sure the texts are short and include interesting data.
  • In visual presentations (such as PowerPoint), use photos and videos of the local area.  Be sure that the graphics make a connection to the national, regional, or local context.
  • For more impact, be careful not to give too much information.  The participants will get tired if they are overloaded with information.
  • Native language presentations are more effective.  If that is not an option, speak clearly and slowly, use easy-to-understand words, have a translation team, etc.
  • Do not sit for too long.  Do a physical game, or activities that simulate concepts and test ideas. This can help everyone stay focused and involved.
  • Invite participants to talk and walk. Ask questions, do quizzes, and call on volunteers to draw on the board or to hold up props.
  • Explore the real world.  Go to the beach, get in the water. It is always better for participants to see with their own eyes the beauty of nature – or the damage done to it.

Create a “Safe Space” to Develop Ideas
It is my job as facilitator to respect and listen to everyone in the group.  It is also my job to make sure that the other participants know that they must also listen to everyone’s ideas.  They do not need to agree, but they need to respect the opinions and experiences of the other participants.

If I want to help my group find solutions and create action plans, I need to understand their issues. Sometimes these are sensitive social and economic topics.  It can take time, trust, and careful observation to identify the root cause of a problem. Here are some suggestions for making a safe space, but be sure that you adapt them to your context and participants:

  • Explain to everyone that, as the facilitator, you are 100%-interested in your group’s opinions and experiences, whatever they are.
  • Have the group brainstorm to create the rules for how they should listen to each other and participate in the activities.  (Examples: No one should be forced to participate in an activity if she or he is uncomfortable.  Everyone is entitled to their own experience. You can disagree with each other- but do so kindly. If you have an issue you would like to discuss at length, we can schedule another time for that.)
  • If participants are afraid to speak to a large audience, split them into small groups or partners so they can feel comfortable sharing their opinions. Games, and written or drawn responses, also help participants feel comfortable to state their opinions.
  • Be sure that there are ideas, even small ones, that can be used at the local level.  Sometimes participants feel that they do not have the social power or the money to make any change at all.

Positive Next Steps
At the end of the session, be sure that everyone agrees with (or is at least “neutral”) about the next steps.

  • Write up the action plan, or set up a new meeting to develop it.
  • If no solution is found during the first session, do not pretend that you have the perfect answer.  Remind everyone that a good solution may take time to develop.  Focus on the next steps to take. (“Let’s meet again in two weeks to keep brainstorming”).
  • Ask participants what they will tell their friends or family about the meeting.
  • Be sure to thank all of the participants for their input, ideas, and efforts.

Every awareness or education session has its own objectives.  It also has limits on how much can be done at one time.  But in my experience, good preparation and careful listening help all types of groups reach a positive outcome.  The more groups I facilitate, the more I learn from them.  The more I learn, the better I am as a facilitator.  And more learning for everyone is the key to creating effective and innovative conservation solutions.

Photo above from Grace Quiton, Executive Director, ORC Philippines and Big Blue Network Member. “Creating a positive atmosphere with group activities can help with finding new ideas and solutions.”

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