“UnSession” Takes Novel Approach to Learning

By Ed Rutkowski
The room is like any other in the Palais de congres de Montreal, but in place of the usual sea of chairs are maybe ten large circular tables and just as many flip charts. Attendees wander in and tentatively pick their seats, as if unsure how long they’ll stay. Soon four of the tables are filled. Standing at the front of the room are five or six people who seem to be in charge, though the whole notion of authority—along with every other idea related to the traditional conference experience—is called into question when one of them steps forward and says, “Hi, my name is Cathy, and I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Welcome to the UnSession, an experimental educational experience intended to conjure learning out of thin air. Unlike standard technical sessions, the UnSession has no papers, no presentations, no lectures or lecterns, and perhaps most refreshing, no PowerPoints. What it has is the collective wisdom of its participants, and the patient guidance of a handful of moderators who are present not to impart knowledge but to document and facilitate it, and perhaps benefit from it as much as the attendees themselves. Here in the UnSession, everyone is a moderator and everyone is a participant. It is a LinkedIn Group made flesh.

The Scenario

Despite her disclaimer, it’s soon apparent that Cathy is practiced at handling large groups of people. Her manner is casual and collaborative but commands attention. “This session is called the UnSession,” she explains, “because it’s the opposite of all the other sessions. We’re going to break down barriers and see what we come up with.”

Before the breaking down can begin, however, some ground rules are necessary. The UnSession may be many things, but it isn’t chaos. The rules are modest and few: stay respectful of others, have fun, mix it up. These are written on one of the flip charts. At Cathy’s suggestion, a fourth rule, “food,” is added, and is quickly seconded by multiple participants. Cathy knows what the people want.

Almost before we realize it, the UnSession is underway. “Here’s the scenario. What’s one of the hardest things we have to do in our job?” Cathy pauses before answering her own question: “Give bad news.”

She asks for a chemical. One participant at my table, a woman named Donna, suggests formaldehyde. “What type of work?” Cathy asks, and someone else says, “Blending liquids.”

Soon the scenario takes shape: you’re an IH, and your sampling has found that a longtime worker has been overexposed to formaldehyde. Your job is to inform him that he hasn’t been adequately protected, perhaps for as long as he’s been in the plant, a period of twenty years. Each table is to decide on a strategy for communicating with the worker. The larger group will then vote to determine which strategy is best.

The Hard Way

At my table, the conversation centers on that twenty-year period. The man to my left says, “What if the worker asks, ‘Why haven’t you monitored for this carcinogen in the last 20 years?’”

“You could say, ‘If I’d been here the last 20 years, you would have been monitored,’” another man offers.

The first man is skeptical: he isn’t sure we’re allowed to assume the IH is new to the facility. When Cathy wanders over he asks, “Is the scenario that we’ve been there 20 years or brought in as a consultant?”

Cathy seems to sense his discomfort. “What do you want it to be?” she says.

“Brought in as a consultant.”

Cathy nods. “Then let’s do it the hard way,” she says, though she immediately relents and offers a compromise: “Let’s say you’ve been there 5 years.”

The conversation turns to strategies for communicating with the overexposed worker. My table considers additional layers of complication: Is the facility a union shop? Does the workers’ rep need to be present? If so, someone from management should be present as well—but if you show up with an army of people you risk terrifying the worker.

A man who’d been standing at the front of the room, one of Cathy’s facilitators, has stopped at our table. “What if it’s a bad data point?” he says.

“You’d have to re-monitor,” Donna says. “You can’t do $30,000 worth of ventilation on the strength of one sample.” She relates a story from a previous job: she once dealt with a worker at an off-site facility whose samples showed that he had low exposures when he was being monitored and high exposures when he wasn’t, a clear sign that he was removing his respirator when no one was looking.

The Vote

By the time we report to the larger group, our table has a fairly detailed strategy. You don’t want to surprise management, so you should talk to them first. When you talk to the employee, tell him how you’re going to protect him. Be honest. Acknowledge his concerns. Tell him he needs to wear a respirator. Ask him why he thinks the overexposure occurred and solicit his ideas for controlling it. Resample.

It turns out that the other groups’ strategies are similar to ours. One facilitator writes each group’s suggestions on the flip charts while another distributes sheets of colored stickers to the tables: red, green, yellow, blue. We are to vote with the stickers, Cathy explains: each color has a value, red the lowest and blue the highest—or is it the other way round? Are we to vote for an entire strategy or particular elements of it?

Having proceeded smoothly for 30 minutes, the UnSession is experiencing its first moment of confusion. Many people are talking at once. Now everyone’s attention turns to a young man at another table who objects either to the method of voting or Cathy’s explanation of it.

Cathy, unfazed, listens patiently.

“I want to un¬- this,” the man says, though it isn’t clear exactly which part of the process he’d like to deconstruct.

The interruption has refocused attention on the task at hand. The voting procedure is clarified, more or less; people stream to the front of the room. Most of the colored dots cluster around three suggestions: approach the employee with a solution, resample, address the employee’s concerns. Cathy reads them off, and it seems that this part of the UnSession is coming to a close.

Someone mentions that a few red dots have been placed around “food” on the flip chart where the ground rules are listed. There is laughter and good-natured complaint: weren’t we promised food?

Cathy smiles knowingly. We know what she’s going to say: if we want food, we have to stay for the next scenario.

Do you have suggestions for improving the UnSession? Would you like to see it continued at AIHce 2014? Send us your feedback.

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at  (703) 846-0734.