Getting the geography right

I am currently delivering some training for Heart of Birmingham Teaching Primary Care Trust, as part of an excellent project to improve public health.  The idea is to recruit people who are active in the community – youth workers, religious leaders, voluntary group co-ordinators, ESOL teachers and the like – and get them to help promote particular important health campaigns locally.

The hotel venue for this week’s training couldn’t have been more helpful and friendly – but as the day wore on, I realised there was a real problem with the geography of the room.  Attendees were sitting round the back half of large cabaret-style tables, all facing forward to see the screen where the various speakers were projecting presentations on their health topics.  The projector was positioned on a huge table some distance from the screen, that effectively cut the room in half.  This was fine as long as everyone was simply looking at presentations.  But as we all know, you can only do that for so long before your brain goes as numb as your bum.

As soon as the floor was opened up for conversation, the problems surfaced.  People at the back couldn’t hear questions asked by those on the front tables, and frequently couldn’t hear the answers either as presenters forget to direct their responses to the whole room.  Inevitably people instead starting chatting in small groups at their own tables, increasing the noise level in the room and making the whole problem worse.  Even though they were actually discussing the topics in hand, the energy, focus and cohesion in the room became fractured and dissipated.  Trying to initiate any kind of group activity was even worse, and required lots of moving of chairs and large heavy tables to enable people to see each other, and then moving everything back for the next speaker.

I have learned (or more accurately, re-learned) my lesson, and before the next session the geography of the room will be radically altered.  The round tables will be gone, replaced by oblong tables pushed back against the wall, where they can be used for group writing work when needed.  The huge projector table will be replaced with a much smaller trolley on wheels that can be rolled out of the way when not in use.  Everyone will simply be on chairs, that can be quickly and easily stacked away, or rearranged into any configuration, including the all-important discussion circle.  In order to make this happen, everyone will need to be given a folder or clipboard so that they can take notes on their lap, but this is a very small outlay to ensure that the room geography fits the needs of the training, and not the other way round.

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