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Research as Craft #2 - Workshopping Workshops

Research as Craft
Research as Craft
Hey researchers! Jenny here. 👋🏻 Recently I’ve been thinking about how workshops are a valuable tool in a researcher’s kit. This issue looks at ways to bring researchers together to discuss, deliberate on or work through a particular issue or topic. What goes into making a workshop? And what can we do to make them better?

A smattering of digital post-it notes, a buzz of exciting new ideas and an array of technical difficulties. International rooms of researchers are available at a click, far more so than in the before times. As a researcher sitting at the intersection of policy, academia and the tech sector, I’ve been using workshops as part of my research toolkit far more often in the past 18 months.
What seems like thousands of Zoom calls later, I’m worried Zoom workshop fatigue is setting in. I fear my ‘go to’ workshop formats are starting to stagnate, and I’m missing opportunities to do better. So I’ve pulled together a list of 5 things I’m trying to prioritise when planning workshops in 2022 – hopefully it’ll help you too!
(There are lots of other types of workshop we can use as part of our research methods – from focus groups to citizens’ juries – but those are for a future issue.)
✏️ 5 things to think about when planning your next workshop:
1. Prioritise purpose
Once you’ve decided – or agreed/been convinced – to run a workshop, it can be easy to focus on the task of ‘running a workshop’ instead of the original purpose that you wanted to use the workshop for. Here are three questions I like to ask myself to get back on track:
  • What outcome do I/we want from this workshop? (Usually, it’s either a decision, gaining or sharing knowledge, or relationship-building).
  • What information will be exchanged? (What information do I want from attendees? What information do attendees want from me or each other?)
  • What can we get from this group of people being (virtually) together, that we otherwise couldn’t? (sometimes you know who’d attend specifically, sometimes it’s a more abstract grouping of people e.g. experts in a particular field)
2. Match your purpose with structure
Once you’ve outlined clearly what you want to achieve, it’s about identifying which structures best enable that. I like Liberating Structures’ outline of 5 underlying design elements of an activity or workshop:
  • Making an invitation – what you’re inviting participants to do or contribute
  • Arranging the space – what environment do you want to create? What resources?
  • Distributing participation – the answer shouldn’t be 100% of time to the presenter; but what should it be instead?
  • Configuring groups – what’s the right unit of people to work on this problem/discussion?
  • Sequence and time allocation – thinking about balancing timing, energy and intensity.  
3. Try new formats
Another Zoom breakout, another Google Jamboard. It can be easy to rely on old favourites – formats that require less planning because you’ve done them before. I find it helpful to test new formats on colleagues or friendlier audiences before unleashing them on a bigger workshop. Here are a few lesser-spotted workshop formats:
4. Make sure everyone can participate
We may not be travelling to workshops so much, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone to take part. I’ve found Paul J. Silvia’s short book on Disability and Accessibility in the Virtual Classroom has lots of useful lessons to take away for online workshops. Seeds for Change – a workers’ co-op offering training, facilitation, online resources and other support for campaigns, community groups and co-operatives – has comprehensive guides on workshop facilitation, with a focus on increasing participation – making space in a discussion for people who are less likely to contribute. 
5. Identify ways to deliberately practice facilitation
A lot of the success of a workshop relies on the environment you create in the (virtual) room.. So how can we practice the facilitation skills we’ll need on the day? 
  • Look for mini-facilitation opportunities – whether it’s a project meeting, part of a class, or just you and your favourite three research colleagues thinking through a problem. It doesn’t have to be a whole workshop to be useful practice – I really liked Alix Dunn’s suggestions of trying out different ways to close a meeting.
  • Pair facilitating – try pairing up with another facilitator so you can swap in and out of facilitating when you reach your limits and have a safety net for trying new things. If they’re a more confident facilitator, consider planning a secret cue to swap over if you feel out of your depth, or offer this to a facilitator you want to support. 
  • Shadowing – workshop feedback from attendees can be quite generic: try asking a peer to shadow your facilitation to give you specific feedback, or attend a workshop by a facilitator you admire solely to observe how they do their craft. 
📚 Bonus resources, reading and tools:
💭 Your thoughts?
We’d love to hear more about how you’re thinking about workshops and facilitation – what are your top tips? What are your uncertainties or fears? What have we missed that you’d love to share or hear about? Hit reply or reach out on Twitter – we’d love to hear from you, whether it’s a single-Tweet thought, a reading recommendation, or you’d like to contribute to a future newsletter.
💖 Thank you
Thanks for reading Research as Craft. If you think someone else would enjoy it, we’d appreciate you forwarding it on to them or sharing it wherever you hang out on the internet.
Got an idea for an edition? Questions or feedback? Or want to nominate a thoughtful researcher in your network? Hit reply to this email or tweet at us and we’ll add them to our longlist of potential contributors.
Research as craft is co-ordinated by Jenny Brennan and Aidan Peppin. We met in 2019 when we both joined the same tech & society research institute in London, UK.* Ever since we’ve been sharing ideas, thoughts, and questions on what research is and how to do it well. 
(*Research as craft is an independent newsletter and is not affiliated with any organisation.)
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Research as Craft is a newsletter and community about how we can grow and improve as researchers. Each month, we share ideas, resources, tools and more to support people who do research - whether in industry, policy, academia, activism or elsewhere. It’s inspired by the idea of traditional crafts as tangible practices that can be honed, shared and developed.

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