First published in Active Reviewing Tips 17.1 ~ ISSN 1465-8046 [details below]
How does the option of reflecting with a partner best fit into an overall strategy for facilitating learning from experience? When is reflection best carried out alone, with a partner or in a group? What are the best ways of combining these options?
This article will help you to facilitate effective paired learning. The context is "reviewing" – you are asking pairs to reflect on their experiences and you are providing methods that will engage them fully in the learning process.
"That's impressive. How did you do that? What steps did you follow?" Or maybe they were the two survivors from a battle, wondering if there could be more friendly ways of sorting out disputes.
Fortunately, groups don't always end up having battles, but difficult topics do become more difficult to explore as the group size grows. So does it follow that the smallest group size - listening pairs / learning buddies / partners / dyads / duos / peer coaches / twos - is just perfect for meaningful reflection?
In twos, reviewing can take place with a coach, a supervisor, manager, partner, friend, relation ... or even with a stranger. Much of our day-to-day reflection, whether formal or informal, is either on our own or with just one other person. In fact, reviewing with one other person can seem like such a normal everyday occurrence that we may well think of it simply as a conversation rather than as a "review". The term "reviewing" (like "debriefing") tends to be associated with what happens in facilitated groups.
Moving a paired learning conversation into a group setting does not necessarily make it any more valuable, so let's look at what might be gained and lost when moving from a paired review to a group review ...
- compared to reviewing in groups
These benefits are not guaranteed: some pairs may just not "click" with each other or may simply wander away from the briefing they have been given. The "benefits" listed below might therefore be more accurately described as "opportunities afforded by reviewing in twos":
In a group of 10 each person gets attention for 10% of the time available - if the time is shared equally. Whereas in a group of two people, equal time-sharing gives each person 50% of the time available.
It is easier to sustain reflection on individual experiences when talking with just one other person. In a group there are so many other interesting things to talk about that time for reflecting on experience can easily get squeezed out out by other kinds of discussion.
Confiding in one person feels safer than confiding in a whole group - whatever ground rules have been agreed in the group or however supportive the group might be.
In one-to-one conversations people tend to give a less selective and more honest account of what happened. It feels more OK to elaborate in a pair than in the whole group.
In twos people can more quickly experience a sense of belonging, acceptance, empathy, mutual understanding, support, friendship, being valued and respected. It takes longer to experience such things at a group level - however effective your favourite energiser or group reviewing technique happens to be!
Some of these benefits of reviewing in twos can be seen in sharper relief if contrasted with the kinds of "editing" that take place in the larger group: in whole group reviews participants tend to be more cautious or don't want to appear greedy by taking up more than what they see as their "fair share" of time; or some people may simply feel that what they might say to one other person is just not important enough to say in a group.
Despite these potential benefits of reviewing in twos, things do not always work out as you may hope. Pairs may not get on well with each other – they might get into conflict or spend their time in silence rather than supporting each other's reflection. [For some solutions see Section 4 on Planning for Reviewing in Twos.]
Although the main focus of this article is "reviewing in twos", the relative benefits of reviewing in groups deserves a brief mention:
- compared to reviewing alone
There are also situations where reviewing in twos is more beneficial than leaving participants to reflect on their own. Compared to reviewing alone, reviewing with a partner has these potential benefits:
The comparison above shows how valuable paired reviewing can be. But it would be an oversight not to mention that reviewing alone can also be valuable:
Naturally there are also some drawbacks when reviewing alone (compared to reviewing in pairs).More self-discipline and commitment are needed for reviewing alone, and if your reviewing habits when alone are not very productive – then it will be important that any opportunity for reviewing alone is set up in a way that helps you to avoid bad habits and develop better ones.
Here are some choices you cannot avoid when setting up reviewing in twos - so it is worth thinking them through rather than making these choices on automatic or by default:
How will partners be chosen?
If your purpose is to encourage lots of fairly brief conversations, each person simply pairs up with anyone from the shrinking pool of people they have yet to pair up with during the exercise. But if you are setting up something like a learning buddy system that is to last for some time (and even beyond the course) then it makes sense to ensure that pairs are well matched, are committed to supporting each other and know how to do so. It takes time to set this up well. By making the first paired review "a trial session" participants are less likely to get stuck in a pairing that isn't working well.
How long will participants stay with the same reviewing partner?
Unless your purpose is to establish a long-term learning partnership (as in the example above) the benefits of frequent changes usually outweigh the disadvantages. If people stay in the same reviewing pairs all the time, there is a risk that some pairs will be stuck in a low functioning partnership. It is in no-one's interest to sustain unproductive pairings – so ask participants to find a new partner each time you ask them to review in twos. This strategy is a kind of safety net that rescues people from unrewarding partnerships. Expressed more positively: regularly changing reviewing partners increases the chances that most of the time everyone has a good experience of reviewing in pairs.
What is the source of the experience about which you are asking people to reflect?
The experiences being reflected upon can come from many sources. These include:
Examples of paired reviewing methods suited to each of these situations follow in Section 5 below.
What roles can the listening partner take?
The risk of ending up with an 'unhelpful' listener can be reduced by providing clear briefings and by providing an easy way for the 'speaker' to change the rules or opt out if they find the process is not working well. Here are some potentially helpful roles that the 'other person' can play when reviewing in pairs:
What will you ask people to do when reviewing in twos?
Participants are more likely to stay on task if there is something for them to do as part of the reviewing process (other than just talking). Participants can be asked to make, choose and use visual communication aids to help them reflect and communicate – such as diagrams, maps, pictures or movable objects. Or participants can be asked to tell the story of their learning journey as they walk between points representing stages of their journey. Or participants can walk and talk together as they follow a question trail, or as they walk to different parts of a model that is scaled up to fill the working space. A review that involves some degree of movement can help the facilitator to see at a glance if there are any pairs that seem to need extra support to engage in the process. You can find more detailed examples of these active methods in Section 5 and Section 6 below.
Will you ask pairs to report back in any way?
If reviewing in twos has been working well and producing significant learning there is a risk that any sharing at the group level is going to be relatively superficial and less interesting for speakers and listeners alike: sharing learning in a group can be an anti-climax. Sometimes such sharing is primarily for satisfying the facilitator's curiosity (or for providing a quality check) rather than for enhancing the learning of participants. The more confidence you have as a facilitator in paired reviewing, the less need there is for a sharing session. But if it is important to have a sharing session, consider giving a separate briefing for this after the paired reviews. This is because the quality of the initial paired review can suffer if pairs start thinking about how they will share their learning before they have had time to learn anything worth sharing. (But there are exceptions where 'preparing to share' can help to keep pairs on task.) It is usually wise to encourage brevity and creativity in the sharing method so that the sharing stimulates responses that add further value.
Will you give time for individual work after reviewing in twos?
If reviewing in twos has worked well, then each individual may appreciate some time on their own to add their thoughts to their learning journal, their ideas and applications notebook, their action plan, their blog, etc. If you are working within a groupwork paradigm you may prefer that everything begins and ends in the group, but if you are hoping that individuals will transfer their learning to other contexts then reflecting alone can sometimes be a more productive way to finish a review session. Time for individual recording after significant reviews will almost certainly assist with the transfer of learning. Suitably designed group sessions can also provide powerful ways of supporting learning transfer. When working in groups it should not always be assumed that the end of the process is in the whole group. Sometimes a paired reflection (without sharing) is a suitable way of ending a review session. And sometimes the best ending can be providing time for individual recording.
These paired reviewing methods are chosen to match different sources of experience – such as the vicarious experience of watching a film, or the shared experience of working together, or an experience occuring elsewhere about which the narrator is telling their partner.
Reflecting on an input - such as a presentation, performance or a film
Walk and Talk:
a paired learning conversation on the move
After sitting and watching a presentation, performance or a film it is helpful if the review process is reasonably active. Participants may well have the dual needs of wanting to talk about the performance and wanting a bit of exercise. These two needs can be satisfied by walking and talking with a partner! To ensure the time is shared 50/50 you can ask people to swap roles at half time, or you can use a chat card process in which the pair work together through a series of questions with one person giving the first answer to the odd-numbered questions and the other person giving the first answer to the even-numbered questions. Another way of providing a structure for reflection is to create a question trail or designate certain parts of the route to specific topics. For example, each side of a field or square can be associated with a topic or question that guide conversations as pairs walk along each side together.
Reflecting on group experiences - in which the pair have both been participants
making a graph showing the ups and downs of feelings or progress
This exercise can be done on paper, but the large scale version using a 5 metre rope on the floor has more impact for both the storyteller and the listener. The making of the graph can be valuable time for reflection and preparation. Walking along the graph tends to improve the quality of the storytelling. Optionally brief the listener to ask questions at key points eg "What helped you reach this high point?" or "How did you recover from this low point?" Such questions tend to prompt or reinforce learning.
choosing five pictures to illustrate a story about facing a challenge
This can be followed by an unstructured conversation with a partner. But it is more likely to be a learning conversation if their is a suitable set of questions that helps people to analyse their story. Some questions can focus on the story: "Which is the most 'significant' picture and why?" Some questions can bring out patterns: "Would these pictures also illustrate your response to other challenges? If so, how?" Some questions can make connections with the future: "Imagine a future challenge that you respond to really well. Choose up to 5 pictures to illustrate your future ‘inner world’ story of this achievement."
Reflecting on a paired task - that the pair have just conducted together
guessing how a partner has answered a scaled question
Pairs ("A" and "B") stand back to back, half a metre apart. The facilitator asks a question that can be answered on a scale (eg "How difficult was it for you to ...?"). Person A answers by positioning one hand on an invisible vertical scale stretching from the floor to the highest they can comfortably reach. Without looking at shadows or reflections, person B guesses the height of their partner's hand by positioning their own hand at the height that they think their partner has chosen. Now ask everyone to turn to face their partner while keeping their hands in place long enough to register their relative positions. (Clarify that full stretch = 100% in case pairs with a height difference get confused when comparing scales.) Leave about 30 seconds for conversations before asking your next question which should be for B to answer by hand height (and for A to guess the height of B's hand). Continue alternating with fresh questions so that each person has from 3 to 5 guesses.
Reflecting on one person's performance - in a group activity that was observed by the other
receiving instant feedback from a partner during a group task
Goal Keepers speeds up the process of learning from feedback. The first task is for each person to prepare 2 or 3 cards by writing (in big letters) a word or short phrase that they want to pay special attention to when it is their turn to join in the group task. The words state the areas on which the "performer" wants feedback. During a group task each performer's learning partner (or "Goal Keeper") is an observer who looks after their partner's cards (goals) and occasionally shows them to their partner with either a thumbs up (meaning "you are doing this well!") or with a thumbs down (meaning "remember what you wrote on this card!"). This instant feedback process is not a full review so allow time for further reviewing in pairs whenever roles are swapped.
Reflecting on one person's experiences – not necessarily witnessed by the other
Back to the Future:
an audit of exisiting assets that will help a partner achieve their goal
One person in each pair chooses a picture that represents their goal. This person describes their goal to their partner and lays it on the floor. Both people move 5 metres away from the goal. (Laying down a rope connecting them to their goal is a nice optional extra.) The person who chose the picture now faces away from the picture/goal, and their partner asks "What strengths do you already have that will help you on this journey?" (Subsequently, a number of other words can be substituted for "strengths" such as "values", "support", "experience".) The person giving the answer moves backwards towards their goal – a small step for what seem to be "slightly useful" assets and a big step for assets that they expect to be really helpful. The backwards walking allows the walker to keep all their assets "in view". The process boosts confidence and helps to ensure that the "walker" includes these assets in their plan for achieving their goal. It makes sense to follow up this audit with a plan. It is not a substitute for a plan.
Reflecting on their paired review
arranging a list of factors that have supported learning
These factors can be in the form of a pre-made set of cards that the group have agreed to in advance. Or the list can be created by the group in answer to your question "When you are reviewing in twos what do you expect from your partner in order to make it a valuable learning experience for you?" The list can be numbered and kept on view so that all pairs can readily refer to the list as they each place the items in rank order as a form of feedback for their partner.
Ask two people to do a job that is normally done by one person, and they start thinking aloud, sharing ideas, pooling their knowledge, explaining the rationale behind their proposed course of action, reviewing their performance as they go ... "How are we doing?" "Do you have any ideas?" "Great – let's try it out!" "What do you think?" "Why did/didn't it work?" "Shall we try it this way?"
Working in pairs creates the perfect opportunity for voicing thoughts in these ways. Working alone, internal dialogues are less coherent and less open to scrutiny. Working in groups allows everyone to voice their ideas, but the bigger the group the fewer the opportunities for everyone to be thinking aloud. So "Reflection in Action" generally works best in pairs.
Is performance or learning enhanced when thinking aloud with others? Quiz teams probably think so – conferring improves their chances of finding the right answer. A more dramatic example comes from "pair programming" where software developers work together on a single computer. One is the 'driver' who keys in the code. The other is the 'navigator' who is the principal source of ideas. They switch roles every few minutes. It has proved to be a more creative and efficient way of working compared to having developers each working alone on their own computer.
It is interesting to speculate about other job roles that might become more efficient if performed in pairs – co-facilitating, co-leading, co-working, co-operating or co-anything. Part of the increased efficiency happens because working-and-thinking together has such potential for accelerating learning. This principle can be readily applied in the training room. For example, if you have any concerns that there are too many people for a group task, consider replacing the potential for redundancy with a learning buddy system. You can adopt the driver-navigator system where one person is "hands-on" while the other is "hands-off". In a game of strategy where individuals are competing against each other (eg in a board game or in a simulation game) you can have people play in pairs – so that they are quietly and continuously reviewing their strategy and considering their next move. Or you can set up a group task as shift work. The key to this process is to change shifts frequently and to give sufficient reviewing time in pairs between each shift. Between work shifts, participants are on an "observer shift" so that the paired review in the changeover period can include a mix of perspectives from watchers and doers alike.
A good facilitator can improve the climate for learning by using a smart combination of reviewing in twos, reviewing alone and reviewing at the group level.
Here are three examples of "smart combinations":
A reviewing sequence that begins and ends with the INDIVIDUAL
Sequence: 1 → All → 2 → All → 2 → 1
A reviewing sequence that begins and ends with the GROUP
Sequence: All → 2 → several paired interviews → 2 → All → All
A reviewing sequence that begins and ends with PAIRS
Sequence: Pairs → Pairs perform to group → Group supports individuals → Pairs make plans for action and for supporting each other
examples have shown just some of the ways in which reviewing in twos
can be used at the beginning, middle or end of a group review. How well
people know each other is a significant factor affecting the quality of
reviews – whether reviewing in a group or in pairs. If people do not
yet know each other well, their limited knowledge of other participants
limits how helpful they can be. People get to know each other much
faster in a paired conversation than in a group setting. On the other
hand, pairs may know each other so well that individuals may feel
cramped, uneasy or even intimidated in each other's presence. Being in
the same pair can be more challenging than being in the same group.
About the author
Dr. Roger Greenaway provides trainer-training events worldwide that help facilitators to engage participants in review and reflection using a versatile range of active methods. More information about Roger and the clients he has worked for and his articles on reviewing can be found at http://reviewing.co.uk
What roles can the listening partner take? (in section 4) is extracted from my article on 'Reviewing by Numbers: facilitating reflection in small and large groups'.
This article is also available in pdf
Greenaway, Reviewing Skills Training, 2015
This version of Reviewing in Pairs was published in Active Reviewing Tips ~ ISSN 1465-8046. Active Reviewing Tips is a free monthly publication which you can sign up for here.
Reviewing in Twos is also available as a pdf
Enquiries about this article or Roger's consultancy services are welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Article Index | Reviewing and Reflection (books and reviews)