Methods: refreshing obsession or undeserved fetish?

This article was commissioned by and written for the Estonian Youth Work Magazine «MIHUS».

More than a thousand methods are listed in Europe’s largest toolbox for training and youth work at More than a thousand tools, with new ones being added constantly. More than a thousand!

They stand for a growing dilemma and an increasingly frustrating conflict in our work as youth trainers and youth workers – the demand that methods must always be effective, evidence-based, creative, participatory, empowering, stimulating, exciting, new, crazy, surprising, powerful…

Is there a method in the madness?

Is there a method in the madness?
Photo by Tim Chaborski

Is there a method in the madness?

The more methods you know the better you are. Methods have become a marketing tool, a part of our identities as youth trainers and youth workers. Some of these methods may even become our trademark – when you think of Madzinga, with how many trainers do you associate it? And yet, at the same time, it almost seems as if only a new method is a good method.

We are afraid of repeating ourselves. We don’t want to bore ourselves with what we do. But more importantly: frequent seminar-goers might recognise a method and consider us boring as well… Oh no!

Are we afraid of the medicine?

Are we afraid of the medicine?
Photo by Winona Wilhelm

Why are we so afraid of repeating ourselves? Have you ever heard anyone say that you shouldn’t take Aspirin to fight off your headache because, you know, you took it last time already? Nobody gets excited about taking Aspirin twice. Why then are we so often afraid of using the same energiser twice? On the other hand, when in need of more complex medical treatments nobody receives the exact same dose and mix of medication, operation and/or therapy – too much depends on the situation, its circumstances, possible side-effects… It’s too complex to be simplistically repeated. Why then are we so often afraid of adapting a complex simulation exercise to our needs?

The comparison is both far-fetched and lopsided – after all, we are not trying to cure a disease through our youth work and youth training. But both the Methods Fatigue Syndrome (MFS) and the Methods Obsession Syndrome (MOS) appear to be growing stronger among youth trainers and youth workers across Europe.

In the wake of these two syndromes, methods are often fetishized and given fancy names and undeserved status. Over time, their original contexts, meanings and purposes get lost and are replaced by common beliefs and shallow clichés.

Open Space and World Café, Appreciative Inquiry and The Art of Hosting have not only become synonyms of processes for discussions that matter, they have also become catchwords with an almost exclusive focus on their possibilities, power and potential and little to no awareness of their preconditions, limits and weaknesses.

Peter Senge, in his afterword to the World Café Community‘s book “The World Café. Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter,” observed that

“the World Café is not a technique. It is an invitation into a way of being with one another that is already part of our nature.”

And yet, a technique is what the World Café is often downgraded to. We like the atmosphere, we like the idea, we like the potential of the approach – but we do not spend enough time on considering context and contents, on developing excellent questions and connecting diverse perspectives. And so, instead of discovering collective wisdom, we discover how boring and uninspiring the mechanical process of people talking and moving and reporting back can be, even when arranged in a café setting.

The World Café is only one of many examples of potentially great approaches, which require plenty of hard work to make them powerful, being reduced to a technique of seven quick steps. It’s a symptom of a spreading weakness in youth work and youth training; a widening gap between our ambitions and claims, on the one hand, and our practice and authenticity, on the other hand. Strongly overshadowed by the much-demanded efforts to document and validate learning outcomes, we are increasingly reverting to fixed curricula and reproducible sequences, to known recipes and documented techniques.

On the pathway to the recognition of youth work and non-formal learning, the pressure grows to make our work recognisable. We are writing down what we do more than ever before, and the resulting wealth of material available fuels our temptation to revert to what is already there. In doing so, we quietly open the doors for myths about training and learning to take hold.

The most prominent example is quite likely the learning style myth. Ruth Clark summarises this in her book “Evidence-based training methods: a guide for training professionals:”

“Learning styles represent one of the more wasteful and misleading pervasive learning myths of the past 20 years. From audio learners to visual learners or from ‘sensors’ to ‘intuitive,’ learning styles come in many flavors. (…) For some reason, the idea of a learning style has a kind of cosmic intuitive appeal that is very compelling. (…) The learning style myth leads to some very unproductive training ap-proaches (…) The time and energy spent perpetuating the various learning style myths can be more wisely invested in supporting individual differences that are proven to make a difference—namely, prior knowledge of the learner.”

Ruth Clark makes, beyond her efforts to debunk learning styles as a myth, a fundamentally important observation: what makes most difference to the impact of learning – and should, therefore, make most difference to our design of learning processes – is the prior knowledge of learners.

What is the prior knowledge of our learners?

What is the prior knowledge of our learners?
Photo by Tobias Mittmann

We know this, of course – there is a reason why we are, often intuitively, a little afraid of people joining our workshops, seminars and training courses who (believe to) know a lot about what we do and what we talk about. And indeed, this often complicates our work tremendously, because those participants are way beyond the reasonable variety of levels of prior knowledge that our methodology usually caters for.

This observation – that there is a limit to the deviation of prior knowledge that our methodology can typically handle – is also not exactly new. There are reasons why we normally publish a profile of participants with the announcement of a seminar or training course. One of those reasons is to limit the heterogeneity of the group, also in terms of prior knowledge and experience.

But the connection of cause and action usually stops one step too early in our educational practice as youth trainers and youth workers: if we know that prior experience plays such an important role, why do we still assume that methods, tools and techniques can be universally effective?

They never are. Methods are developed for a specific reason, in a specific context, for a specific group of people and a specific purpose. Within limits, they can be transferred and applied elsewhere. With creativity, their usefulness can be extended by mashing and remixing them. But none is ever universally effective.

Here are the good news: methods are usually not even developed to be universally effective. Their feverish transformation into half religion, half occult happens much after they have proven to be powerful tools. Methods are usually developed in response to a set of questions such as:

  • What are our political and educational aims and objectives?
  • Who are our learners, what are their needs and their experiences?
  • What are our, and their, expected and desired learning outcomes?

These questions stand representatively for the fourfold, progressive sequence of planning and delivering educational experiences: (1) shared learning aims and objectives (2) learners’ needs and prior experiences (3) expected and desired learning outcomes (4) methodology and methods.

Will the cake become stale?

Will the cake become stale?
Photo by Livia Kpunkt

There is no reason to be afraid of devising your own method, whether or not it has been used and written down elsewhere: we know what makes a good ice-breaker or energiser; we have learnt how do develop and run a simulation exercise; we are familiar with theatre methods in their various forms… Our collective knowledge, even in small teams of two or three youth workers and youth trainers, is amazing. Let’s use it! And let’s put methods back to where they belong: at the end of our learning design process.

Only a method that serves an objective, responds to a need, takes into account prior experience and works towards a learning outcome can be what it should be: the jewel in our crown of non-formal education, the dot in the i, the icing on the cake. If methods become all there is to our cake, it will start tasting mouldy and stale in no time at all.





One response to “Methods: refreshing obsession or undeserved fetish?”

  1. Bastian Avatar

    A great article – thanks Andreas. While I was reading it, I was struck by one thought. What if this targeted at another profession. Let’s say carpentry? Would there be a need to write about why people seem to not think enough about when to use a hammer and when a screwdriver is much better? To adapt the tools to build a beautiful piece of furniture? That yes, you need to be a master of your tools to be a good carpenter, but first and foremost you need to understand esthetics and develop a sense of taste for quality?

    I think at the core of this – at the core of why we need such a debate in our field – is a fear of professionalism. I’ve been in too many team-meetings, where my need to discuss in how far a proposed method was the perfect fit for content, context and purpose of that particular session within the flow of a larger course, was not met with enthusiasm. Because, quite frankly, it’s exhausting.

    Also, and this is a challenge and a bliss, do we work in a field that is mixing volunteerism and professionalism. Many professional trainers today have started as volunteers. On the one hand, it’s probably hard to find a field of work where people are so enthusiastic (and self-exploiting) as in non-formal education. However, just as a hobby-chef that has worked in a restaurant kitchen might be put off by the pressure, need for precision, planning, logistics and discipline, a hobby-youth-leader might be put off when required to question their beloved energizer, whether it is the most suitable one for a certain moment and time of a training course or seminar.

    So my question is – rather than becoming better in all what you wrote about above, how can our field foster the necessary attitude of professionalism that will necessarily result in contextual and purposeful design of learning environments and processes?