We all know what it feels like in the classroom when the environment is supportive, fun and engaged. In conferences and workshops, I often do a simple activity that combines the concept of a blind contour drawing with a traditional portrait in order to quickly develop that ambiance. The activity resonates well with teachers because, while initially awkward, they quickly remember what it feels like to be a little uncomfortable while learning something fun and new.
I start by asking the audience to pair up with somebody they do not know. While facing their partner, I then ask the teachers to take 1 minute and draw a portrait of their new friend without looking at their piece of paper. I do this same exercise by allowing the audience to look at their page but only give them 30 secs to draw. Either way, the idea is to deliberately handicap the audience so they can’t perform this task to the best of their ability. Immediately the environment in the workshop becomes uncomfortable and awkward. People get tight and start to make excuses for why the portrait of their neighbor promises to define a new low of artistic ability. Sometimes people become outright grumpy with me. Once the time is up I ask the audience, in turns, to reveal their portrait of their neighbor. The room explodes with the sounds of protests and embarrassment about having to reveal the evidence of their collective inadequacy.
At this point, I ask the audience what they felt when I asked them to reveal their portraits. People say all the things you might expect: embarrassed, unfair to their partner, etc. I then play a bit of a trick on the audience and ask them to repeat the showing, but this time they take turns role-playing being a five year old showing their neighbor their portrait to their parent. The “parents” must respond as parents (or teachers!). The feeling in the room is immediately totally different–people laugh, are relaxed, and generally very positive. I then announce that this is the environment we will keep for the rest of the session.
So what is this environment we’ve created? This simple exercise of drawing a blind contour portrait allows the audience to let go of the tension with which they entered the room while at the same time creating a safe space where failure will be greeted with positivity and support. This exercise can easily be translated into a classroom setting. Interestingly, by asking the people to pair with a stranger and complete a project that isn’t directly related to our other work in the session or course, we create bonds that quickly improve our productivity. Then, together, we can do our best work.