Let’s do it non-formal – Toastmaster Tuesday

In June 2018, I wrote a blog post introducing you to non-formal education. Everyday. I am falling more and more in love with this approach, its methods and setting and its practitioner. So it comes to no one’s surprise that I would dedicate one of my Toastmasters speeches to this topic. Check out below how much passion for education meeting a young hedgehog can evoke.

img_0979‘Let’s do it non-formal – My love for education’

When I was about six years old, my father constructed a glass house in front of our kitchen. One evening, he finished digging the fundament and left it without a cover overnight, so the forecasted rain would condense the soil. The next morning, we found a small surprise in one of the deeper spots of the diggings.

A young hedgehog had fallen into the ditch. It had to have been searching the churned earth for insects and worms. After its fall, it found itself trapped as the walls of the hole were too high for it to find its way out.

I remember how my father took his gloves and carefully picked up the small animal. He told me that I could gently pet the hedgehog if I would only stroke its spines from the front to the back. This way, they would not hurt me.

Dear fellow Toastmasters, guests and friends, this story is not just a charming anecdote from my childhood. In fact, it was a moment of learning.

I learned that hedgehogs search for food at night – that if touched correctly their spines would not hurt – that you should not leave diggings without a cover because you never know who could stumble inside – and most importantly I learned compassion for those smaller than me.

In education science, these occasions of learning are considered as informal education – colloquial known as learning by doing. This form of education occurs unplanned and gets neither assessed nor monitored. It is not restricted to a set environment but happens – like in my story – in everyday life.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is formal education. This happens in a clearly described setting with a person holding the authority over a pre-defined set of knowledge which has to be received by the learner. The learners are kept to an institutional standard and assessed by their ability to reach the criteria of this standard without consideration for individual circumstances. Therefore, formal education focuses on the outcomes, not the process, which makes the participation mandatory.

Does this sound familiar to anybody?

Indeed, we are all familiar with formal education as we all were taught by teachers in subjects, we could not choose, at schools, we were obliged to go to while being evaluated by an educational standard written in curricular that did not consider our individual strengths and needs.

Today, I want to introduce you to a third, lesser-known concept of education, which is really dear to my heart – non-formal education. Many would describe it as a sweet spot where formal and informal education meet. Do you remember the compassion I learnt as a child in contact with the hedgehog? It would be possible to explain compassion in formal education, but only informal education helped me to feel what compassion is. For me, it means liberation of the learner – and liberation of the facilitator of the learning.

So let’s look at some characteristics that make learning non-formal. As in formal education, the process is planned and structured by some kind of facilitator. Even though the content is preselected, participation is voluntary. This means, the learner actively chooses to join the learning process. There is no assessment of the outcomes and the learners’ abilities and knowledge. So non-formal education is clearly process-oriented. Typical occasions for this way of learning are workshops and seminars, especially in youth work – or – this Toastmasters club meeting.

For me, the magic of non-formal education lays in its process. It gives the space to participants to acknowledge their own expertise, connect it to those of fellow learners,  and create together unique solutions, which can only occur at that precise moment with those exact people. The most valuable takeaway is precisely this moment of self-awareness and growth. Non-formal education creates connections beyond the conventional separation of class, race, gender, religion and enables thinking outside the boundaries of fear, logic and the restrictions of the learning environment. Once set in motion, the facilitator becomes part of this ever-changing and evolving learning system and, through the chosen methods, guides the participants to their own, unconscious milestones.

I witnessed this myself as a facilitator on many occasions. I saw it in Fatma, who found the bravery to speak up despite her traditional upbringing – in Carl, who left the limits of his disability behind him and embraced his passions – in Mikael, who saw beyond the playfulness of the methods and understood that his opinions can hurt someone else – and in Lena, who did not say a word in a week-long training but carried something she heard with her, that changed her life a year later. She ran for a national office and got elected.

I acknowledge the value of informal and formal education. Nevertheless, I wish that both would be approached in a more non-formal manner. I firmly believe we are missing out on these moments of actual change.

So, when it comes to education, I say – LET’S DO IT NON-FORMAL! Thank you.


So what do you think? Should we make our education systems more non-formal? Leave your comments below!

Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with our fellow trainer friends!

Love and appreciation,


Photo by Liudmyla Denysiuk on Unsplash


Tell me about yourself – Method of the Month: Parallel Autobiography

How did you become the person you are today? What events played a crucial role during your life? And how do you relate to the world around you?

These questions can stand at the beginning of an educational process. For many topics, it is essential to first understand who the learner is and what shaped the lens through which they approach a subject. Self-awareness marks the start to untangling societal issues.

I first came across today’s method Parallel Autobiography in the form of Parallel Citizenship Image-1Autobiographies as published in ”Under Construction – Citizenship, Youth and Europe – T-Kit on European Citizenship’‘ by Council of Europe (2003). I was searching for methods that would allow participants to reflect on their understanding of their own citizenship. Ever since I have used it in many different contexts reflecting on a diverse range of aspects. To simplify it I developed this base version just looking at the development of one’s identity, which I want to share with you as my Method of the Month for August 2019.



For Parallel Autobiography, the participants create two parallel running timelines Untitled_Artworkstarting from the moment of their birth to the current day. On the top line, they mark moments in their personal life that changed their understanding of themselves. On the bottom, societal or political events are chronologically arranged that affected the vision of their own identity. The participants are given a certain amount of time (usually around 25 minutes) to fill in their individual sheets. After that time, they are invited to share the autobiography if they feel comfortable.



In the debriefing, the trainer guides the group through a reflection of the process by following the experiential learning circle by Kolb. Possible questions could be:

  • How did the exercise make you feel?
  • Did one of the timeline feel different?
  • Was it uncomfortable, and if yes, why was it?
  • Was there a difference between the personal and the societal moments?
  • Was there something that surprised you?
  • Were there things in common within the group, and if yes, why could that be? If no, why not?
  • Does this experience impact you beyond the activity, and if yes, how?
  • How can you use this experience in understanding yourself or others better?
  • How can you use the commonalities with others for building bridges?
  • Is there a use for this experience beyond reflecting on your own identity?
  • How could you go more in-depth with it?
  • How can being aware of the history of your own identity impact the world around you?



As mentioned earlier, this exercise is extremely versatile. You can focus it on any personal aspect. Also, the systemic context of the second timeline can be drafted as narrow or broad as it makes sense. Some examples:

  • political beliefs reflected on the global economy
  • development as educator reflected on the different learning environments encountered
  • relationship to once citizenship reflected on the history of one’s country of residence

It is only essential to incorporate the dichotomy of the individual and the systemic timeline. That will allow the learner to reflect on themselves in the broader context and to find commonalities and differences with others. This last aspect is especially exciting when working with a diverse group.



Whenever it comes to self-reflection, there can be triggering moments. Participants can Image (1)carry past traumas which this exercise can open up. Therefore, a real safe-space must be established beforehand, and enough time must be allocated to address it adequately. One way to lower this risk is to frame the activity more on the surface. Choosing a focus of the reflection that is more general might allow the participants to decide by themselves how deep they go.

Nevertheless, that carries its own risk. Being too superficial might not push the participants enough to actually be challenged. One important thing is not to ”force” them to present their result. Let them choose if they want to open up to the group.



If you want to go even further with Parallel Autobiography, try one of these pro-tips.

  • Shared Autobiography: After the participants created their individual timelines, let them group together and create a common one. That could be done either in the whole group or in logical subgroups. These subgroups could be based on geography, age, or similar aspects related to the object of the reflection. It can help the participants to discover patterns in each other’s stories or find something in common with a stranger.
  • Be vulnerable yourself: In my experience, it helps the participants to open up when I make myself vulnerable first. That is based on the authority I as the facilitator hold. If it is safe for me, it feels safer for the participants. For Parallel Autobiography, I usually do this by presenting my own timeline first and using it to explain the activity. I always make sure to share things that push my comfort zone but do not overwhelm the participants.
  • Give access: If the participants agree, I like to hang all timeline up on the wall. This gallery allows them to discover the stories of the rest of the group during breaks and to approach other participants if they have questions. It can lead to personal connections and more intimate sharing.
  • Use it for yourself: I used this exercise also just for myself when I wanted to work on developing in a certain area. So I took it for the base assessment. The gained understanding of how I came to where I was then gave me insides how to move forward. It allowed me to gain insights on my values and priorities through the moments I chose or left away. It can also be a powerful tool in a coaching setting.


So, what do you think about Parallel Autobiography? Do you use it before? What are other variations you can think of? Do you know a similar activity?

Leave me a comment below. Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with our fellow trainer friends!

You can download the method sheet of Parallel Autobiography here!

Love and appreciation,


Turn on the right light – How to work with an expert

Have you ever been in a workshop and an expert bored you out of your mind? They had important stuff to say, but there was no process behind it? Did you maybe even wondered why they are there in the first place? That happened to all of us at least once.

As a facilitator, we sometimes have to work with experts during a learning event. Most of the time, this decision is not in our hands, but how we work with them definitely is. I am convinced if well prepared the above horror scenario can be absolutely avoided! In this IMG_0104blog post, I will present you with different types of experts you might encounter and walk you through how to work with them in different settings.

I differentiate between three types of experts. First, there is the floodlight expert that loves to be in focus and floods the participants with knowledge like the floodlight the soccer field. On the other end of the spectrum is the living room lamp expert. This expert feels awkward being in the spotlight. They prefer to shine their light from the background like the lamp behind your couch. And finally the flashlight experts. They feel comfortable navigating an educational space and know where to spot their light while leaving other aspects in the dark.


The floodlight

The floodlight expert needs the stage. They will take up space no matter what and will speak and behave like THE expert. That might lead to the expert explaining to the participants by flooding them with facts. It also could establish their views as the only correct IMG_0107ones. This kind of expert can operate from a spot of entitlement and often is pushed on you by your client. There is the risk that this expert will take over control of the session as you might not have the ‘authority’ to set up sharp boundaries.

Working with a floodlight expert can be a challenge and has to be handled with some artfulness. Especially if the client insists on the expert. In this case, I work with the client on a clear framework for the expert’s presence. What do they add to the event? In what role will they participate? What are the power relations? After that is clarified, I would present to the client candid which processes are possible in that frame. I would also speak about what role I can take during the event to not create tensions with the expert. If the expert and their input were the main focus of the session, I would suggest that I either moderate the conversation or step back and conduct a Graphic Recording.

IMG_0101In a one-session-learning-event, there is not much more you can do than the above. It really depends on the frame the client sets. If I take the role of the moderator, I sit down with the expert beforehand to clarify the process and look at the questions I would ask. In the case of the Graphic Recording option, I would only passively participate in the session. Nevertheless, it still could be my responsibility to open and close the overall activity.

IMG_0102For a multi-session-learning-event, I often use the sessions before the expert’s input to prepare it with the participants. For that, I would look at what knowledge or attitude they need to build to interact productively. Sometimes, I even work with the learners to formulate questions, that have the potential to increase the relevancy of the input. After the presentation, I usually would debrief the session. For that, it would be best if the expert leaves after they are done. The group would have the chance to voice their opinion on the expert in a safe space and reflect on the content. That makes it easier to build on it in the remaining time.

IMG_0103I would similarly work in a multi-day-learning-event. The point in the learning journey in which the expert would join is crucial. When does it support and not interrupt the process? How can we build up towards it? If the moment depends on the schedule of the expert, I check if I need to redraft the journey itself. Putting an input at the beginning of the event could lead to the participants adopting the views of the expert. I would try to avoid that on any cost. If the group worked already on the topic, they would feel more comfortable to disagree with or challenge the expert.


The living room lamp

The living room lamp expert blends in just like the actual lamp in your living room. They IMG_0108might even ask you to join the participants throughout the learning event and feel awkward being put into the focus. They often do not establish themselves as an expert and inputs might be diffuse. That opens the risk for a conflict of views if you have a really dominant participant or that the group does not really know what to do with the input. Unfortunately, this kind of expert is often young and/or female. 

I usually aim to work really close together with this kind of expert in the preparation. The more they feel integrated into the development, the more they appreciate the setting. It also helps to gain a clear understanding of their specific expertise to support them to integrate effectively. If they still do not feel comfortable and prefer to be an expert participant, I try to find small group methods with a lot of rotation of the members. This way, as many participants as possible, can have conversations with the expert.

IMG_0101One way, I include a living room lamp expert into a one-session-learning event, is to let them (co-)facilitate one activity. That could be the moderation of a group discussion or guiding a simulation within the specialisation of the expert. To support them and the group, it helps to give them very explicit guidelines regarding the content and the context of it. The earlier they get this briefing, the easier it will go, and both of us have the opportunity for bilateral feedback beforehand.

IMG_0102For a multi-session-learning-event, I would look at the possibility to give the expert a kind of consultant role. Let’s say, part of the sessions is to develop roadmaps for follow-up actions. Let the groups present their first drafts to the expert. They then give feedback and advice, which the groups afterwards have time to consider and integrate into the final draft. Another way is to let the expert follow a simulation up with a reality check. How does the simulated situation look like in real life? What are the options that the different roles actually have? I also sometimes let them simply go around during a group work phase, where they challenge the different groups.

IMG_0103For me, an ideal option for a multi-day-event is to work with this expert throughout the entire time in a co-facilitator relationship. That will allow the participants to build a connection with the expert and feel comfortable to ask them questions and vice versa. It is also convenient for me as I can tap into their knowledge for the preparation. Nevertheless, this option needs some sensitiveness for how the roles are established. The expert needs to remain a resource person than a knowledge authority. 


The flashlight

The flashlight expert only shines their expert-light on specific aspects that will further IMG_0106the process. They often have an educational background or at least are experienced in the setting. They usually are aware of the space they take and incorporate the learners’ discussions into upcoming inputs. So, if that does not happen, the different moments of the expert might seem disconnected. This kind of experts can also stir your process in an unplanned direction.

This expert is a juicy one to work with – so many opportunities! I really love to use this expert like an actual flashlight. Before the event, I would sit down with them and see with them what are crucial moments or aspects they can shine their concentrated light on. That makes it really easy for me to guide the process and for them to focus and challenge the preconceptions of the participants.

IMG_0101Nevertheless, in a one-session-learning-event, this approach is a bit tricky to implement as it takes up some time due to the multiple inputs. Here I would see with the expert if they have one aspect that is really crucial for the topic of the event. They would then focus on that, and I would guide the group into diving deeper.

IMG_0102For multi-session-learning-events, I prefer to have this expert with us for the entire time. This way, I can weave the different inputs really deep into the programme and build them up on each other. The preparation with the expert is hugely crucial here. I need to be sure that they stay on track and do not go off on a tangent. Also, I always have an eye on the time and stop the expert when necessary. After all, it is about the participants, not them.

IMG_0103I would dedicate one specific day for the expert to come in and integrate them similar to above. It is essential to establish an understanding among the participants why the expert joins the group. This way, I can lower barriers and support the group to open up to them. Should the expert participate for more than a day, it is crucial to make sure that they do not take over the educational process. They are joining as an expert, not as a facilitator no matter their experience. That is needed to create clear roles and not disrupt the participants. I usually give them space for feedback and input in the preparation to honour their educational skills and knowledge.


So what do you think? Here are the main takeaways:

  • Get your client into the clear: Check with them what is their expectation for bringing the expert. Sometimes there is a strategic reason behind it, and you do not want to cross them there.
  • Be frank and honest: You must be really precise with both your client and the expert. The better each partner knows what and how it will happen, the smoother the activity will go. And the more they understand the reasons behind it, the less resistance will be there.
  • Preparation is key: When the expert knows, what is expected when from them, the better the cooperation works. Also, a proper groundwork will allow you to get the most educational value out of an expert.
  • Adjust to the type: Use the expert strategic. This way, you make sure they do not accidentally sabotage the activity.
  • And as always, be the advocate of your participants!

What are your tips and tricks to work with experts? Did you have a difficult situation with an expert and no clue what to do?  Let me know in the comments below. 

Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with your fellow trainer friends!


Love and appreciation,