170. Asking for feedback that helps

Feedback. How often do you ask for it?
Importantly, how helpful has it been?

Do you have a relative who drops into your house uninvited, sits on your chair, demands mitho-chiya ? And starts commenting on your dress, hair style, and career. Your mom, not to offend the relative, agrees and nods her head.

Feedback is like that relative – unwanted, judgmental, and totally unhelpful.

May be I’ve rarely asked for feedback for the same reasons. Almost all the time, I’ve received either superficial ones, sugarcoated with generality and vagueness, or meaningless blunt criticism which never helped me.

Even in the workshops we’ve organized for teachers or for students, we’ve received piles of feedback which are supportive, positive, negative, but very rarely helpful. We’ve been using a popular feedback format (+) (-) (?) and (!), but I’m not satisfied with the things we get back.

May be we don’t (or can’t) communicate enough on what types of feedback we really wish to see.

Fortunately, I was going through a podcast on Coaching for Leaders Episode 143 with Sheila Heen. The episode consists of amazing insights on the necessity of giving and receiving feedback. And, I really liked a nice little technique on how to ask for a feedback that’s concrete and actionable.

Ask: What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?”

Naturally, I wanted to try it right away. So, this morning while ending my MBA Class, I posted on the board this question:

What is one thing that you see me doing in the class that you feel is helping or not helping you learn better?

I was really curious about what sort of feedback I would get. I imagined there would be a bunch of: good, bad, fun, boring, etc. But, surprisingly, I was reading a lot of concrete ‘action’ words in the feedback slips.

I can’t thank enough to the students who gave me these feedback I can work on right away. I believe, a simple tweak in the question I asked did the trick.



Well, any feedback on this process?


169. Self-reflection: Monologues in my head

workshop reflection

Just about an hour into a workshop session for teachers, we were having the participants write a short reflection on their teaching rituals. Suddenly, out from the last table in the hall, this guy comes walking towards me. He looked like a leaner version of Rajesh Hamal, only a bit shorter, possibly a lot meaner.

He blurts out: “You know I’m also a teacher trainer. What you have been doing is quite boring. In my training sessions, I use a lot of movie clips and motivational clips to motivate the teachers. Why don’t you use such videos?”

I didn’t see that coming at all. I mean, it’s just been an hour.

In the last four years that I’ve been working as a teacher-trainer, I’ve never had a participant come to me and throw such a blunt comment. That too in just the opening hour of a two-day long workshop. And, the workshop we designed was based on their own needs analysis. What went wrong? Where did we go wrong? Stunned, I started fumbling for a response.

Suddenly my thoughts, like dozens of snakes, started hissing and coiling simultaneously in the both sides of my brain.

The nasty ones first.

“Oh so you’re that typical cynical jerk who is going to whine about the workshop because you think you are Mr. Know-it-all.”

“You don’t know anything about our workshop content, methodology, and beliefs. So shut the hell up.”

“Alright. You’ve got the home ground advantage. And you’re trying to make the two days hell for us.”
Then, a bit sensible ones.

“Hang on. Just listen — calm down — just listen — don’t react. Don’t say anything stupid. Smile and thank him for the comment.”

“Oh this guy must be trying to be helpful. And because of my own ego and biases, I might have taken his comment as a personal attack. I should be thankful and that’s all.”

I guess the sensible thoughts saved me eventually.

With each workshops and training sessions, I have somehow learned to keep my cool and delay my reaction. I accept that I can’t make everyone happy. I can’t switch everyone’s “Learning Mode” on easily. Also, I’ve come to understand that people behave only in the way they know how to behave – they might act disruptive, but they aren’t disruptive people. They are simply people. Re-framing such experience and forcing myself to normalize the incidents have really helped me understand that human behavior is utterly complex.

So, I simply acknowledged his comment.

“Thank you for your comment so early in the session. We don’t have tons of videos to show but we do use a few ones. May be we should someday join your training sessions and learn how to use motivational videos.”

I have no idea what he had hoped to achieve with his comment. I did slightly lose my train of thought and it took me a few minutes to gain my momentum back. But I was thankful to that experience. I realized that the lightening could strike anytime from any direction. As workshop facilitators, we just need to anticipate the strike and stay prepared.

After he went back, I also realized, scanning through the participants’ faces and body language, many were still tangled in confusion about the bigger picture of the workshop. If the participants are feeling shaky about the journey, I should be responsible for their feeling.

I made an impromptu attempt to give them a short pep-talk.

“If you trust us enough to be in this hall and if you are willing to spend two days with us, then believe us – this initial confusion is very natural. Imagine that we are all heading towards Pokhara from Kathmandu by bus. And we get stuck at Thankot. We cannot escape this horrible traffic jam until we cross the Thankot check post. I can totally emphatize with you right now. Your confusion and your frustration. But also understand this. Only through this necessary discomfort and initial confusion, will we be able to gain new perspective and knowledge. Just imagine the thrill of reaching our destination Pokhara, and chilling at the lake side.”

168. You ask too many questions !!!

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 5.47.37 PM

This comment by one of the participants of our recent Teachers Empowering Teachers workshop has made me think about what teachers usually expect from the facilitators in such sessions.

Since 2016, we’ve been conducting various workshop sessions for school and college teachers (and also for students, entrepreneurs and professionals), and we have followed certain values and beliefs of adult learning.

A. We don’t have a prescription.
While we are aware that many participants (teachers) prefer easily implementable solutions and quick fixes to their teaching problems, and we do not prescribe any quick fix, ready made solutions, or magic pills to the problems they are facing in teaching. We believe every teaching context is unique and any one-size-fits all prescription may not be relevant in that context.

B. We believe in an inductive approach.
And this means, first, we ask difficult questions to the participants, make them feel uncomfortable, push them into reflection, and help them see their teaching practices and limiting beliefs from a new perspective. Hopefully. Only then do we share research-based teaching methodologies, frameworks, concepts, and activities which they can use to bring the desired changes in their teaching. Hopefully. Again, without us being prescriptive.

C. We guide. That’s it.
We can only help/facilitate/support/guide the participants – but we hold back from giving  specific answers. However, we believe we can empower the participants so that they gain enough confidence, get familiar with tools and activities, and feel capable to seek solution on their own to their problems.

D. We believe in “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”.
About how learning happens, Buddha got it right, years ago. Especially for adult learners. We know we can’t force anyone to learn unless they are ready. As workshop facilitators, we make sure we design the workshop based on their needs analysis, to meet their needs, interests, challenges, and expectations. But we can’t be 100% sure all the time. We will always have participants who are confused, overwhelmed, and lost. And some will be angry or resentful. We can only do so much when we are conducting one-off workshop sessions.

E. Resistance is natural.
We expect resistance from the participants in one form or the other. And we know this is a natural process. We’ve learnt (and still learning), with experience, that participants resist for a lot of reasons – rational and irrational. We’ve learnt (and still learning), with experience, not to take their resistance negatively. Blaming the participant’s resistance is not going to help us or anyone.

F. We try to accommodate every one, and every feeling.
We are also classroom teachers first and foremost. And, thus as workshop facilitators, our primary attempt is to empathize with the teachers. Teachers are the most hardworking professionals and they are constantly in stress due to hundreds of micro-decisions they have to make all day long (and many teachers bring school work to their homes as well).

Heavy work load. Little or no acknowledgement. Impossible expectations from the parents, from the institution, from the students, from colleagues. Challenges beyond one’s control. Complains. Lack of organizational support for personal, emotional, and professional growth. These will easily crush any teacher.

Thus, as teachers, we empathize with them when they resist, or feel skeptic and even resentful of workshops.

So, when we came across the above comment from the participant, we were not surprised. We knew where that teacher was coming from. We could imagine the mountains of personal, professional and institutional challenges she or he must be facing in the classroom and naturally she/he was simply looking for easy answers.

All I want to say to you is: Please hang on. We believe you will figure something out. Let’s stay connected. Let’s share and help each other, and let’s empower each other.
You matter.

167. Handling the Nervousness

Handling my nervousness. Learning.

Empowerment Academy

Reflection by: Umes Shrestha


How would you feel when you are supposed to design and deliver workshops for teachers who have at least 3 times more years of teaching experience?

Nervous, yes. But “nervous” would be a serious understatement.

When I’m starting to feel anxious, I always remind myself of what one of my professors taught me during my M.Ed. program. “Never forget”, he had said, “Adults are just like babies but in bigger bodies.” (I came across a similar advice in Bob Pike’s book). That way, we can visualize the participants as normal human beings who are in the session to learn, enjoy, make mistakes, laugh, move around, and have a great time.

So during a recent needs analysis session for the teachers at a private school in Ktm, when I started to feel nervousness creeping in, I repeated my professor’s mantra one more time.

These are all babies…

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166. A massively underprepared teacher

Prime College

Recently, we held a two-day workshop for the faculty members of Prime College. After the usual ice-breaker, I had this slide up, asked the participants to write them down, and share their responses.

While they were writing down their teaching & learning assumptions, I somehow slipped into my past and thought about my early days as an English language teacher in a private school.

 The first two years of my teaching career were a disaster. With shame and regret, I have to admit that I was nothing but an arrogant teacher who would walk into the class with “Hey, I’m from the capital city, educated in a private English medium school, and I’m going to save you from your miserable English competency” attitude. I mocked at students’ pronunciations. I even joked about other teachers’ pronunciations.

I realize that I was massively underprepared to be a teacher. I probably did more harm than anything good to the students. What made me jump into teaching profession then? Probably, the assumptions I was unconsciously carrying into the profession.

  1. My job is to teach, and students’ job is to learn.
  2. My job is to control, and students’ job is to be in discipline.
    (I have to keep the class under control. If I don’t do this, the students will start dancing on my head. When I lose my authority as a teacher, the students will never want to learn.)
  3. My job is to teach and it’s easy.
    Just go to the class. Teach the content. Get out of the class. That’s it.

How did these assumptions grow and bloat in my head? May be I had thought, “Hey, I’ve been in a class for more than 14 years. I know what it takes to be a teacher. I can easily do what my school teachers used to do.”

Well, I had my worst moments.

(About the workshop:

Becoming a 21st Century Educator
Oct 11 and 12
A two-day workshop for the faculty members of Prime College, Kathmandu
on the theme of Designing Positive Learning Experiences in the classroom.
Conducted by Empowerment Academy)

164. To be, or not to be inspired — is not the question


Let me ask you. If you were to secure your physical property (your house) from any fire related damage, electric short circuit or electric appliance malfunction, what would you do as a precaution?

I’m sure, this is what you would do. You’d make sure that everything’ gets designed and fitted 100% accurate while constructing your house. You’d also get some sort of smart alarm system installed. And you’d probably also get insured.

And, you would probably contact us because we have a company called “Safemandu”.

That was an idea we could bank on.

Well, that’s what we thought during the 4-day workshop on “Inspiration, Iteration and Innovation”. And we were so damn wrong.

The workshop, organized as a part of BUCSBIN project, was a super squeezed 4-day version of what happens in a 4-month semester at the Oamk LABS of Oulu University of Applied Sciences, Finland. Two Lab Masters Janne Karjalainen and Ulla‐Maija Seppänen were facilitating the workshop participated by 30 academicians and practitioners from a wide range of faculties.

The main objective of the workshop was to give us (faculty members) a sneak-preview of how students go through a human centric design process in a lab setting and come up with innovative ideas to solve real problems of the society.

Drawing from the philosophies of Design Thinking and Lean StartUp, the program is designed and conducted to make multi-disciplinary groups of students work in teams, align their personal goals with team goals, and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They explore the problems and issues, get validations, design solutions, get validations, test, fail, test, reiterate, test, refine. Go through the loop. Learn through the process. And at the end of the program, they acquire the skills and attitudes to be self-directed and self-motivated professionals ready for the 21st century.


What happened:

On the first day, Janne and Ulma divided us in 10 teams and assigned each team topics like “Healthy sexual behavior among teenagers”, “Retaining talent in the country”, “Security in the Urban area”, “Financial Independence for Elderly People”, “Promoting Gender Equality”. Very vague. Very broad.

We were to discuss in our team, brainstorm as many ideas as possible, and keep our minds open for more perspectives. Janne and Ulma repeatedly reminded us to go deeper and wider. “Your opinions are the best ones. And they don’t mean anything”, Janne emphasized. We had to therefore go out from the venue, find at least 10 people, empathize and interview them. Then get back with more ideas and understanding of their real needs and desires.

On the second day, we had to pitch our ideas in 3 mins. They call this — Gate 1 presentation. Some ideas get through the gate, and some get thrown away.

Safemandu — our team’s idea didn’t get through. We were crushed, emotionally. And, I got depressed for almost 11 minutes.

What did they say?
Identify your users. Go talk with them. Find more perspectives on the issue. Try to understand their needs, wants. Their beliefs. What they say. What they do.

What did we do?
As soon as we got our topic, we quickly switched into our “analytical” heads and started prescribing solutions. Worse, we got into defensive mode.

What happened?
We got kicked out during the Gate presentation. And we had to attend the funeral session of our idea. That was heartbreaking but a humbling experience.

What did we learn?
Don’t jump into pre-conceived solutions without understanding the real needs and desires of the users. (Also, hear the instructions properly.)

The feedback circle after the presentations was sweet yet brutal.

Anyways, I quickly got assigned with one of the remaining teams. The problem focused on creating a platform for teenagers so that they can have meaningful conversations with their parents about sexual abuse and harassment. And we had to go through the same process. Understand the problem. Understand the user. Understand their needs and wants and beliefs and behaviors. Brainstorm — good ideas, bad ideas. Pick one that seems feasible, viable, and desirable. Go out once again and get validated. For the next day, do more research. And finally, come up with a prototype, along with a business plan.


Next morning, we continued working with our prototype and business model. And also prepared a 4-minute presentation for Gate 2. And, surprise surprise, the judges for Gate 2 were four people who had no idea what was happening in the workshop. Two foreigners. Two Nepalis. More pressure on the presenting teams because we had to make sure the judges understood the context, problem, solution, prototype, and the business model — everything in just four minutes.

After the presentations were over, Janne and Ulma made us sit down in a circle. Two minutes of self-evaluation. Two minutes of our evaluation by another team. And, two minutes of evaluation from the two lab masters. And once again, this was a nerve-wracking experience. Feedback sunney baani chaina ni ta 🙂

On the final day, Janne and Ulma unpacked what happened throughout the previous days. They talked about their belief on learning through the process in a team with members from diverse academic backgrounds and interests. They also stressed on trust and accountability — both on individual and team level.


My reflection:

Inherent in the workshop (and in the four-month program back at the Oamk LABs) is the focus on experiential learning. These guys have figured out how people learn. I could see Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle as the structural backbone of the entire workshop. Experience. Reflection. Conceptualization. Application. Feedback. Over and over again.

My whole teaching methodology (and philosophy) is largely guided by Kolb, and seeing these guys mix the essence of experiential learning, design thinking, and lean startup made me realize the limitless possibilities of fulfilling the gaping holes in our teaching approach and education system at large. Specifically, at business colleges. We could do so much.

Back in December 2017, representing BUCSBIN project, we had a great opportunity to visit Oamk Lab and Oulu University of Applied Sciences in Finland. We got a first-hand experience on how the lab masters there are re-defining teaching methodology and curriculum by focusing more on the learning process than on the outcomes/grades. (May be one of the reasons why Finland’s education system is considered the best in the world at the moment.) This 4-day workshop reinforced my learnings from the Finland visit and my belief on experiential process.

The purpose of this workshop was also to enable the faculty members of the BUCSBIN project run our own versions of Oamk Labs at King’s College and KU School of Management. This has given me (and hopefully to all participants) enough confidence to conduct such workshops, idea incubation and development programs.

A huge respect to Janne, Ulma, and also Kimmo Paajanen for your no-nonsense facilitation and amazing support. You guys are the best.

Lastly, to be or not to be inspired — is not the question.

It’s the only answer.

The workshop was organized by Building University Capacity to Support Business Incubation in Nepal (BUCSBIN) partners: King’s College, Kathmandu University, Idea Studio Nepal, Oulu University of Applied Sciences and YoungInnovations. April 24–27. At Summit Hotel, Lalitpur.

162. To the student, thank you for the reminder

Thank you.001

“I love coming to your class because you let me be me.”

That single sentence from a student made me realize what I was doing wrong and right in the classroom.

But before I go into this, let me share with you this first.

I just finished watching Chris Emdin’s powerful and thought provoking video titled “Reality Pedagogy” in which he insists teachers to first understand students, their culture and their context, and only then teach them the content.

His argument is pretty simple. Even when teachers do have sufficient content knowledge, many still lack the tools necessary to address the cultural divides that render them ineffective in teaching.

Starting right off the bat by teaching the content, teachers miss the opportunity to foster engagement and relationship with the students who come from divergent background. Teachers miss the opportunity to show the students that classroom is in fact an extension of their lives and their communities. Why should the classroom be anything un-real than their realities?

How many times have I done this in the classroom?
How many times have I ignored about engaging the students, and focused simply on teaching the content?
How many times have I forgotten that students have lives outside the classroom too?

Now coming back to this student and what he told me that day.

He’s usually late for the class. Walks in after 30 mins or even 45 mins sometimes. Doesn’t stay quiet. Doesn’t stay still. Quick to answer. Quick to question.

He was talkative but unless he was being interruptive in the class, I was okay with his behavior. He also seemed like a good team player whenever students had group tasks and presentations. And like other students, he enjoyed tea-break.

So after the last class of the session, when he approached me and told me that he loved coming to my class, initially I assumed that he was referring to the tea-break. But he added, “You let me be me. And even though I come late, I feel welcomed and I’m learning stuffs in this class.”

And in saying so, he reminded me – one more time – that teaching is more than simply teaching the content. Thank you.