Five ways to add movement to your virtual classes

When it comes to learning, we have known for a while now, that movement trumps sitting1.  Finding ways to build movement into activities in the virtual classroom is more challenging than in the in-person classroom. This means that we trainers need to be more deliberate in including learner movement as often as possible.

Research shows that moving around increases our blood circulation, which carries oxygen and glucose (energy for the the brain) to the brain more quickly – thereby increasing brain activity and improving cognitive function.  We also know that the release of neurotransmitters and BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) help with memory, attention and motivation. You can find out more about research into the link between movement and cognition in the excellent article: Physical Activity and Cognition: Inseparable in the classroom2.  

Movement can also be a great way to introduce a bit of fun into the classes – silly waves, disco moves, animal impersonations – you name it!   However, as some of my learners have pointed out: these activities are great fun if you’re working from home, but might not be so be so well received in the open plan office alongside your colleagues! 

So encourage your virtual class learners to move! Below are five activities you can use to bring movement into your virtual classroom, whether your learners are live-streaming from home or from the office:

1. THE WINDOW BREAK

Each learner moves away from their screen to stand by a nearby window or outside door (open if possible) for about 90 seconds.

They focus on a point in the distance, and breathe slowly in and out three times taking exaggerated deep breaths. At the end of the 90 seconds, return to screen.

This activity can be extended to a window reflection activity, where the learner reflects on a question they will ask or an answer they will share when they return to their screen.

2. 3D THINKING

Each learner is tasked to go and find a 3D object not immediately within reach to represent a specific concept. They have up to 2 minutes.

The concept can be the same for everyone in the class – eg find an object to represent the concept of “put the learner at the centre of the learning” or it could be more individualised – eg find an object to represent “the most important thing you have learned so far”.

Learners present back to the group, holding up their object and explaining the significance.

The activity can be modified to learners gathering supplies and then building a 3D object, from modelling clay, small bricks, pipe cleaners, paper clips etc. This requires more time: 5-8 minutes.

3. LEARNING WALL

Each learner identifies a nearby wall, whiteboard or cupboard door to put up a blank poster (eg A3 sized).  It must be at least a few paces away from their monitor.

Learners draw an appropriate title and outline – eg of a lightbulb/treasure chest/toolbox to capture key ideas, concepts or tools.

At various points during the training, the facilitator should pause and give learners 1-2 minutes to capture a key concept on a sticky note, get up, review previous sticky notes and add this new one to their poster.

An alternative to this is to provide/ have learners create a treasure chest or box suitable for index cards.  Again, it should be positioned a short distance away from their seated position, for them to get up and add to throughout the session(s).

4. WALK AND TALK

In this paired activity, learners switch the video streaming off, and take the two-person ‘breakout room’ conversations on the move – or even choose to switch to a mobile phone call instead!

Walk and talk is a simple way to introduce movement into 5-10 minute discussion activities when reference materials are not required – it could be a lap inside the office building, or a short walk outside if internet/phone reception (and the weather) permits. 

5. FORGET-ME-NOTS

Each learner is asked to make a note of a follow up action, or an important point they want to remember after the training, on a sticky note.

They then have 1-2 minutes to move away from the screen to place the note somewhere they will notice it when the session is over– eg on the fridge door/tea bag supply/lunch box.

SUMMARY

Remember, the whole point is to create ways for your virtual class learners to move! If you found these ideas helpful, please share your own movement tips with your colleagues – the more we can encourage learners to move around while learning in our virtual classes, the better!

And finally… REVIEW ACTIVITY

Before you go – let’s do a one minute review activity. Do a standing or seated stretch, and have another look at these five pictures.

Can you remember which activity each one represented?  

Which one do you think you’ll use first…?

1 ‘Movement trumps sitting’ is one of six brain-based learning principles introduced by Sharon Bowman in Using Brain Science to Make Training Stick

2 Frontiers in Education article “Physical Activity and Cognition: Inseparable in the classroom” by Anya Doherty and Anna Forés Miravalles, 2019

Illustrations in this post by hachikoart.

Virtual Concept Centres in MS Teams

Since April we have been using MS Teams, our corporate teleconferencing tool, to successfully run an online immersion event for groups of 30 at a time using breakout rooms functionality to create virtual concept centres. 

With a requirement to immerse ~300 employees in refreshed leadership behaviours, and the uncertainty of when/if we would ever fully return to the office, it was an interesting challenge to strike the balance between a group size that enabled everyone to participate but in as few sessions as possible.   

Here’s what we did… 

Event team: 

Our team consisted of 3 facilitators (one for each concept centre), and crucially – a producer.

Given the current limitations of MS Teams (July 2021), the owner of the meeting is the only one with access to the breakout functionality, so the meeting owner must be the producer. 
Along with setting up pairs, trios and later the 10-person concept centres, the producer also sent announcements of timings – “10 minutes left”, “break from 10.15 to 10.30”, posted links, ran polls, and helped troubleshoot tech issues. 

Timings/ Format: 

The ‘one day’ event was split into two half days, and these were run as afternoon day 1, morning day 2, to reduce cognitive load and allow reflection time between sessions 

Session times were ~ 3.5 hours each, with breaks every ~40 minutes 

Part 1: 

Initial whole group 40 mins interactive lecture, with a 5-minute breakout quick draw/pair share and playbacks halfway through.

Then 3 x 35-minute virtual concept centres, with extra 5 minutes in the first session for introductions.  The attendees were moved into breakout groups of up to 10 people, where they stayed.  The facilitators were rotated around between the rooms during the breaks between each concept centre, with attendees encouraged to leave their computers and take a proper break away from the screen.
At the end of the concept centres, attendees were brought back to the main room for polls, one or two shared reflections, and a ‘tickets out’ style chat storm sharing one thing that they had learned from the session. 

Part 2:

Fairly swift introduction, paired breakouts to share reflections on learnings from the previous day. (Time was built in between paired breakouts and the larger 10 people groups to ensure the producer had time to manually reset the breakout rooms – we did our best to ensure people were separated from their day-to-day direct colleagues, so the groupings couldn’t be random).  

Then a similar format – 3 facilitated concept centres with breaks in between each, and back to the main group.   

On the occasions where we had less than the maximum attendance, we opted for group size as close to 10 as possible – eg we split a group of 21 into two breakout groups of 10/11 each rather than 3 groups of 7.  This gave one facilitator a break of 35 minutes for each rotation, and maintained a good mix of perspectives within the full sized breakout groups 

Concept centres: 

We made a conscious effort for the concept centres feel different – different facilitators (each with a virtual background specific to the concept), different activities, different topics. 

Activities included: 

  • Quick write discussion: everyone shares their own positive experience via virtual sticky notes, repeat for negative experience, discuss themes, and answer reflection questions. 
  • Talking circle (equivalent of virtual ball toss without the ball!) where every person in the group takes a turn to answer the question from their own context. 
  • Pair share (by allocating pairs and getting them to call each other via MS Teams chat to discuss reflection question) and then feed back to the group 
  • Fish bowl: half of group has cameras on and after short reflection period answers a question, while the other half of group are cameras and microphones off, listening.  Then silent half of group are invited back into the bowl to comment or build on the conversation they observed.  Then swap for a second question. 
  • Divide and conquer: Set of five questions, each pair takes one question, discusses for fixed period and then plays back key points to the group – essentially a jigsaw activity. 
  • Metaphor magic: Each person invited to share (and explain) an object representing an important change they have made in the last 12 months.  Second part – brief lecture to explain change formula, then discussion for participants to link their experiences to the formula.

Materials /Pre-work: 

Attendees were provided with a workbook – they could choose to have a physical one posted or simply download an interactive pdf version. 

All attendees were expected to complete an online self-assessment based on conversations they had with team members (an MS Form linked up by Power Automate to generate an automated email with the questions and their responses) to refer to during the session. 

Tech challenges: 

We had a surprising range of difficulties with the few short video clips we presented – this came down to the tech set up of each individual, with tech check instructions ranging from ‘unplug your second screen’ to ‘change the audio settings in teams to ensure it is coming through the right audio device’.  It seemed to vary according to the platform the video was based in too – one to test with a variety of setups before going live. 

Initially we also had difficulties with use of MS whiteboard – ensuring everyone is accessing it through the app and not the browser is tricky, and we had a few mysterious cases of disappearing text/sticky notes.  So we switched to using a mural board, with participants joining as anonymous guests with editing rights, many using mural for the first time, after a quick 5 minute ‘orientation’ built into the concept centre.  This worked well, with facilitator sharing screen / participant posting their comments in chat on the rare occasion where individuals couldn’t get mural to work on their machine (usually down to individual internet connectivity). 

Occasionally the breakout rooms did not open as they should, so the producer had to bring the participant back to the main room, and then invite them to the breakout room.

On one occasion, one of the participants was not able to see the chat. This was remedied by leaving the meeting, rebooting, and rejoining.

Feedback and learnings 

  • For a corporate immersion event, with internal facilitators/producer, MS Teams worked well – we had a lot of feedback from pleasantly surprised attendees at how ‘slick’ the sessions had been, and a greater understanding of the breakout functionality in MS Teams. 
  • Build in a tech check with participants – and if you are playing videos, do a tech check for each video (since the audio may come from different sources depending on the setup of the individual machine). 
  • Virtual concept centres – to reduce the load on the producer: keep attendees in the same breakout room and rotate the facilitators.  Have published, pre-agreed times to start and finish each concept centre, including breaks, and ensure these are communicated via announcements in chat to provide a regular reliable time-check. 
  • Create a variety of activities and build in time and resources (eg workbook) for reflection, discussion, and breaks.  We had a lot of positive feedback both for the variety of activities (and facilitation styles) throughout the session, and for the extensive opportunity to learn from shared experiences of colleagues across the business. 
  • Group size of 30 split into 3 groups of 10 plus facilitator worked well.  The smaller breakout groups made it possible for each person to engage with the content, creating safe environments to share experiences and gradually build a relationship, while the large group elements at the beginning and end of the sessions allowed participants to hear fresh perspectives from outside their breakout group. 

From this experience (we had run 12 pairs of immersion events at the time of writing this blog) I conclude that facilitated virtual concept centres are a useful tool in the virtual trainer’s toolbox, particularly when working with larger groups.

The Power of Psychological Safety in Learning

I attended a coaching training course a few years back, as a sort of assistant facilitator to the excellent external trainer. The course was targeted at a group of Technical Mentors of our Software Engineering Trainee programme.

I was there for a few reasons – to help relate the learning to expectations of the technical mentor role, to be an extra person when needed to give an odd or even number depending on the activities, for use in demonstrating a coaching conversation, to help make sure all groups received feedback during the practical exercises, and to see first hand how our mentors responded to the training content.

We know from TBR (Training from the BACK of the Room) that psychological safety has a substantial impact on the quality of  learning, and from experience I was very aware that beginner coaching conversations on superficial problems tend to be fairly insubstantial and unsatisfactory.  So I decided to lead by example and pick a genuine topic (with some vulnerability associated with it) to be coached on in front of the group.

When listening to the coaching triad practice sessions later in the day, I was pleasantly surprised to find my Engineering colleagues were having high quality coaching conversations on fairly substantial topics. The external trainer remarked on the unusually high quality of the coaching conversations given that these were first time attempts.

In discussion with colleagues later, I learned that while they had expected a fairly ‘fluffy’ training workshop, they actually felt it had been exceptionally useful.  On further reflection, they decided this had a lot to do with the coaching demo earlier in the day.  By choosing the ‘vulnerable’ topic (and stating to the class that I was intentionally doing so, on the basis that this was a safe environment, so I would lead by example), two things happened:

1) the learners were able to observe what a high quality coaching conversation looked and sounded like, complete with seeing first hand the substantial impact reframing a question had on the output. [“what else could you do…”, vs “what would you tell someone else to do if they were in your situation…” vs “what if we removed the constraints altogether, what could you do then…”].

2) the learners felt safe and empowered to talk about things that were more meaningful to them, because of the psychological safety established in the initial demo.  They became invested in their coaching conversations, and worked very hard to frame the questions from the GROW model to help their colleagues get the most out of the conversations.

Although I had hoped the demo would set a positive tone, I did not expect such a direct impact, or for anyone to explicitly notice, so I was delighted I had taken the ‘risk’ in the demo.

In summary – don’t underestimate the importance of psychological safety to the learner’s experience – we build this through connection activities, and we reinforce it throughout the day, in the activities we run, and in the example we set.