We start with our theory of how change happens. Then we take action based on our theory. Then we take a step back and reflect on how the action went, which re-shapes our theory. Basically, praxis means ‘learning.’ It may seem simple, but few activists actually do it.
Praxis requires us to be students of our own experience and context. It’s not just about being smart and reflecting. It’s also about building specific behaviors and group norms that promote habits of strategy, debrief and revision. It’s about your group’s meeting style, organizational structure and leadership dynamics…
Organizers should have the praxis cycle spinning in their heads all the time. We are always learning from what’s going on around us. The point of building a culture of praxis in your group, however, is so your whole group can learn, not just a couple of organizers. When you develop your theory (your plan and your goals) with your group, and then have a real debrief after, the lessons are available to all.
– From Praxis Makes Perfect, Joshua Kahn Russell
Praxis: step back, learn, debrief.
Reflection brings theory and practice together. It is key to our ability to learn together. It enables us to strengthen the theory upon which our next actions are based.
When we make it a practice to regularly ask ourselves questions after we act, we build an internal culture of learning. At its core, reflection involves making time to ask ourselves and others to respond to prompts designed to draw out insights. That means making space for quiet reflection and providing tools for sharing.
As organizers or stewards of a group, we are responsible for the design and facilitation of group action/practice, but by virtue of our close involvement, our own perspective on the effectiveness of our work is limited. Therefore it’s important to not only reflect internally, amongst the organizers, but also to solicit input from others, like participants or observers, to gain feedback. Bringing in multiple perspectives gives us clarity and builds trust.
The phase of reflection on outcomes and feedback is the final step in our cycle of collaboration. By pausing to listen for what we need to adjust, or taking a moment to celebrate successes together, we nourish and sustain our group. We glean insights that then inform how we adjust the design of our efforts moving forward, back into action and practice.
Choosing your approach to gathering input
So, we know reflection is the way to go, but how do we engage ourselves and others in reflection? The good news is there are many tools to solicit honest, helpful, and clarifying feedback. We share some of our favorites below. First, we want to give a little context on how to navigate it all and decide when and how to gather input.
As we put together our suggested list, and discussed approaches, we realized that we tend to hold time for gathering feedback during meetings or workshops, rather than sending out a survey afterwards. We find online surveys are simply too easy to forget or ignore, and we’d rather give up a few minutes of the activity at hand to get fresh, in-the-moment reflections.
We also found that we usually went for an approach that combined different ways that people, including ourselves, could share open-ended thoughts and reflections (“What did you enjoy most?”), with defined feedback that we could track over time (“On a scale of 1-5, how prepared are you to take the next step, with 5 being the most prepared?”). We share more on this distinction below.
What a well-thought-through reflection plan potentially ends up looking like is a combination of methods for gathering feedback and structuring a debrief, while maintaining clear ideas of what we want to learn. The results we get will then guide our choices and changes over time.
As you explore the resources below and start to create your plan for gathering feedback, we’d like to suggest you keep one thing in mind: only ask questions you intend to read and use. Of course, go wide as you gather ideas right now, but then take a moment to discern between necessary vs. nice-to-know questions for your specific case. You can always add more questions or prompts in the next round, if you feel you need it.
Your group members will be eager to provide feedback if you give them a chance, and you all will learn a lot from it. As you experiment with different approaches, you will develop your own favorites. And we’d love to hear about them!
Ways to prime the space for reflection
Based on our own experiences teaching workshops, leading cohorts, and facilitating groups, in-person or online, we find that being very transparent about how and where people can share their reflections is the best way to encourage people to do so. Setting expectations and literally setting aside space in the room for reflection means that everyone knows how to contribute and share their thoughts. Depending on whether you are dealing with an in-person gathering or an online experience, here are a few tips for setting aside that space:
For in-person gatherings, we like to find a good wall and put up large pieces of paper with clear headers; we then pass out post-its and pens, and ask participants to write one idea on each post-it and put it where it belongs. We use “plus / delta” or “I noticed, I liked, I wished” as structures (descriptions of these approaches are in the Tool below). For a larger group or longer gathering, it can be useful to put up and refer to these charts at the beginning of the session and invite participants to post feedback or ideas whenever they feel inclined. Make sure post-its and pens are nearby and then refer to the charts again during closing, to invite people who haven’t yet added their feedback to take a minute to do so.
For online gatherings, we often use a Jamboard or a Google form. A Jamboard is a good tool for inviting feedback using virtual post-its, and you can set it up in a similar way to in-person versions, with headers already in place. You will need to plan for a few minutes in the agenda to talk over the use of the Jamboard for those that are unfamiliar with that tech. What is fun about this tool is that it is communal: everyone sees the responses fill the Jamboard as they get posted.
If using a form: We usually design Google forms to contain a mix of open-ended and defined-response questions, usually about 5-8 questions total. We make space in the agenda for quiet time for participants to start the form during the meeting. Then we send out a link to the form shortly after the gathering for those who need more time to finish it. Again, in our experience, most of the responses come from those who start or complete it during the gathering, while sending it out only generates a few responses.
Designing feedback forms
There is a whole industry around creating questions for feedback forms! We won’t go into it all here, but we do want to expand on the difference between asking open-ended questions and defined-response (or close-ended) questions. We like to use a mix of both because they elicit different types of information.
Open-ended questions allow people to elaborate and share their own experience, using their own words. This can lead to some very powerful feedback, and can often serve as a great source for testimonials. However, it is hard to compare these types of text-heavy responses across participants; while you can certainly see trends after reading a whole bunch of them, it is often valuable to also give people defined-response questions to take in a group snapshot.
Defined-response questions provide a choice of answers to choose from, which limits the responses to only a few options, and therefore allows you to group people’s responses. For example, if you ask a question with only Yes/No/Maybe as options, you can quickly see how the group splits out over a certain issue. You can also track these responses over time, which allows you to see progress or reversals; you can see if the percentage of the whole, i.e. the number of people in the group who answer one way, is increasing or decreasing, provided you ask the same question each time.
Post-it feedback, such as “I liked, noticed, wished,” gathered in-person or online tends to be anonymous. For feedback forms, on the other hand, we choose to ask for names. That way, if someone has a negative experience, we can follow up with them to hear more about it. If someone has a positive experience, we can celebrate that with them and request permission to use their name and feedback as a testimonial. We use clear descriptions in the form to distinguish between a testimonial-type question that we could share publicly and with permission, and questions that are for our internal learning. We’ve seen certain people sit up and take notice of the idea that their comments might be shared, and they offer beautiful writing in response!
In closing, it is worth taking time to design your questions or prompts with clear outcomes in mind. What do you want to know or learn to improve the workings of the group or your own facilitation? You might discover what is working well and receive confirmation that you accomplished what you set out to do. Make space for hearing or learning something surprising. Design for what you are willing to hear, act, or reflect on, and leave open a chance for new insights to emerge.
As you experience the process of soliciting and reviewing feedback, and offer structured ways for the group to debrief regularly, you will refine what it is you want to know and this, in turn, will influence the next round of designing for feedback. Your approach will change, just as the work of the group will evolve using the feedback you collect at each cycle.