You can see the bafflement on peoples’ faces sometimes. They walk into our classrooms at the start of one of our leadership development programmes and there, on the desks are brightly coloured pens, ‘fuzzy sticks’ (called pipe cleaners when I was young) and pompoms.
I remember one ex-army officer making loud disapproving noises – he didn’t like the idea of making the desk untidy – but that was before he created a perfect model of the Forth Road Bridge.
Why do we use these?
A lot of attention is paid to how people learn. The study of neuroscience and ‘brain friendly learning’ is all the rage. We call it ‘accelerated learning’ because we see how the environment we create in the classroom helps speed up peoples’ learning.
Accelerated learning is multi-sensory. To learn best, people need to engage all of their senses: eyes, ears, hands, and feet – not just their brains. We also know that learners aren’t focused 100% of the time.
I observe our course participants disengaging from time to time – not because they’re not interested in the topics we cover – but because it’s not physically possible to be full-on, all the time. Nor is it possible, when you have a group of people in the room – to have breaks that suit everyone.
Our workshop participants are already using their eyes, and ears in the discussions and practical skills exercises we use. They use their feet when we get them to move around the room. So this aspect of accelerated learning is a creative way to use their hands, when they’re not taking notes or jotting their ideas down on paper.
Accelerated learning shifts us to the creative side of our brains. It’s also giving our logical brains a break from full-on focus, without leaving the room. We see people pick up a coloured pen and start doodling. This keeps their brain working, in a pleasant way.
We see people start to twist the fuzzy sticks into different shapes and then start weaving in the pompoms to create the desired effect. Then, when they’re ready, they put down their work and re-engage with the discussions.
It’s a key principle of adult learning environments that they are safe places in which to learn. The last thing our senior leaders need is to feel stupid, or that it’s unsafe to speak up and challenge the prevailing view. We want people to explore and challenge our thinking – because that’s what leaders need to be able to do back it the workplace. Equally, their peers need to feel that their views are respected – even when not everyone agrees with them.
So fuzzy sticks, pens and pompoms are part of this safe environment. It also helps in creating community as people start working their designs together. If one person creates an animal out of the materials in front of them, someone else might build a shelter.
This is not to say that the serious content of the classroom isn’t happening. It’s just that we build ‘serious play’ in to the learning process. We help people to recognise that downtime is as important as the content and that it’s not ‘wrong’ to want to switch off from time to time.
So the next time you want to inject some creativity into your meeting – or need a way to keep attention high over a sustained period of time – try a few fuzzy sticks – and see what a difference accelerated learning makes.