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Training From The Back Of The Room

Over the past few days I read through Sharon Bowman’s book “Training from the back of the room.” I mostly read it to give me some new ideas for RailsBridge Cape Town, but also because I generally want to improve my facilitation skills. They’re kind of the same reasons that I went on Growing Agile’s great Facilitation workshop last year, which uses a bunch of the techniques in Ms Bowman’s book.

Quite a lot of my job is arguing about / selling people on ideas and approaches (building with Progressive Enhancement, or Responsive Web Design, or adopting a particularly User-Centered Design flavour of User Experience). I’ve also been trying to keep in mind Mike Monteiro’s advice in his books and talks (which are about being a Designer, but lots of the lessons apply across disciplines. Check out his keynote at Interaction15).

What I learnt about RailsBridge

Reading Ms Bowman’s book, my biggest realisation was that we need to be a lot more learner- and learning objective-focused. We’ve made a lot of changes to the course since July 2013, and added lots of good things (based on feedback from the students), but we haven’t added them all in ways that are really learner-focused. The changes tend towards more of us talking, and not more of them doing, which it should be.

In particular, we’ve added some contextualising / explaining into the opening presentation. We should be doing these things as activities by the students instead. We also need a much better as-they-arrive set up. At the moment, they’re welcomed, grab a drink and a name tag, but they should start with something topic-related immediately.


We’re care a lot about feedback at our RailsBridge because we’re really interested in continuous improvement. After reading Ms Bowman’s book, I realise that we’re doing it a bit wrong: our feedback mechanisms have been great for us, but we should be focusing on it being great for the students. We started this a bit with using pair-teaching at recent RailsBridges, but we need to keep moving in that direction.

One of the challenges we face is pacing: our students arrive and (especially) leave at very varied times. This makes it difficult to do things that involve big groups of people: we can do single and pair activities fairly easily, though, so we’ll need to focus on those.

Next steps

There’s so much good stuff in the book that it’ll take a while for it all to sink in. I think that the book would have worked slightly better for me in print. I’ve ordered a paper copy (I read it this time on Kindle) so that I can re-read it, scribble in it, and make notes.

I’m also going to make up index cards of the 65 activities in the book and have them as a deck of cards. I’m going to use that deck to help me figure out which activitieswould work best at RailsBridge.

I really enjoyed Training from the back of the room and learned a lot about how the brain works, and a better way of teaching. I hope it will help me make some changes that will mean a better learning experience for RailsBridge attendees.