Setting wheels in motion: Mindsets workshop structure at MIT Media Lab

I’ve organized small and medium-sized workshops and even large conferences in my day, so I’m always interested in how others execute their events to encourage engagement and meaningful outcomes. So, setting aside the richness of the discussions, the knowledge-sharing, and the many connections at today’s mindsets, motivation and online learning workshop (hosted by MIT Media Lab) I want to describe the very clever structure and sequence that Philipp Schmidt and team used to combine and re-combine a group of over 30 researchers, teachers, technologists, and administrators from various backgrounds into fully engaged teams of collaborators:

  1. Small groups introduced themselves to each other to forge strong initial connections around their own interests in the topic at hand.
  2. These initial groups accumulated post-its that described their groups’ take on important challenges and opportunities on a shared wall, serving as a visually conspicuous place of individual contemplation and casual discussion.
  3. Two rounds of “speedgeeking” were organized at 10 separate stations. Each station featured one participant sharing their current interests and projects in 5 min or less to rotating groups. The two rounds were for “researchers” then “platforms”.
  4. (Lunch)
  5. The post-it wall was re-organized into themes by the workshop facilitators. When the participants regrouped in front of the wall, a “dotmocracy” activity gave each participant the chance to up-vote 3 topics using a white board marker.
  6. The top 5-6 topics were then adopted by participants for another group activity, where members discussed the topic for about an hour, aiming to highlight just a few key insights or questions.
  7. Those insights and questions were shared back with the entire cohort of participants, and formed clear agendas for continuing discussion the next day.
  8. Finally, each participant was asked to quickly share one take-away from the day with the group before breaking.

From someone who typically hates group activities and by nature avoids social interactions, this day was tremendously useful and surprisingly comfortable. A few ideas about what attributes or factors contributed to its success:

  • All activities were interrelated, even if accidentally
  • Activities seemed design to deliberately alternate between active sharing and listening
  • Group members varied throughout the day so that by lunchtime I probably remembered the names of at least half the people
  • Participants had clear and simple directions at each stage that consistently aligned with both individual and collective motivations
  • All participants were open, collaborative, and friendly

It’s difficult to determine whether that last point facilitated the success of the workshop, or was a by-product of the design of the activities. Regardless, I’m looking forward to more interactions with the group tomorrow, and some time over the weekend to process and reflect upon the possibilities.

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