Sub-title: What I’ve Learned from Nigel Paine: Lesson 1

I’ve spent the afternoon collating source material for social media posts to promote the next cohort of the Building Learning Culture (BLC) program that I co-facilitate with Nigel. I’ve been poring over some of the content we’ve created together as well as his deeply insightful book Workplace Learning (if you don’t own this book yet wait for the second edition which be released in late 2021).

It’s been such a gift to work alongside Nigel on this program. I’ve learned a lot from him through this along with a range of other interactions. Hence the ‘Lesson 1’ sub-title. I’m sure I will post more lessons to make a series.

Lesson 1 is summarised in the following exchange from my May 2021 conversation with him on Learning Uncut podcast episode 78: Leadership Development in Antarctica. In 2016  Nigel joined an expedition to Antarctica with 40 people from around the world. The purpose of the expedition was to sensitize them to issues of environment and climate change. Nigel’s role was to provide leadership development for the group.

Michelle Ockers: What were your aspirations for where you wanted to leave these people at the end of two weeks?  What was the legacy you wanted them to take away?

Nigel Paine: If I’m completely honest with you, what I started out with and what I ended up with were completely different. I actually started the process with a view,that my job was to deliver content. And I’ve taught thousands of people a program called personal leadership insight which is to kind of beef up people’s awareness of their own leadership and improve it. And it’s largely based in the classroom and content-driven. I’ve done it all over the world. I thought, all right, okay, I’ll just do that in Antarctica. We had a part of the ship, which was the classroom, the projector and the screen, and all of that stuff. So I had the idea that I went there and every day because we use the early evening before dinner as lesson time if you like so people would come in, and I’d have two hours or more with the group. My job was to deliver my content.

I realized very, very quickly that that wasn’t my job. My job was to facilitate the experience that people had already had. People were coming back from the day in some sense traumatized, but certainly, they came back with lots of things going through their head. My job was to turn and focus what was going through their head into an insight that would last. It wouldn’t just be a momentary view of their perspective on the world. It would be an insight that would last. So I turned very rapidly from—my job is to explain about this, and my job is to facilitate, engage, and pull out the learning. So I wasn’t putting learning it in. I was extracting learning from experience, and that changed me. I’ll never see the world again in the same way because I realized I got it 100% wrong.

The allocation of time in our co-facilitated sessions is heavily weighted toward interaction, reflection and sense-making. Nigel constantly challenges me to strip out content, reducing it what is essential to help draw out the experience of the group and support them to prepare to take action. In many sessions the participants do more presentation than we do.  There is always an end of session reflection and process debrief. As I read transcripts of our last BLC session it struck me today that allowing every participant to verbally express their responses to reflective questions (rather than just type them in a chat box) further deepens the insights for others.

I find reducing content in live online sessions a constant challenge. This is essential to create space for reflection, connection, deepening of relationships and learning from experience. Of course, the best balance of content, connection and reflection is not fixed. Relevant factors include the outcomes sought, nature of the subject skills and content and level of group experience. Yet I know that less content would improve many of the sessions I facilitate. I shall strive to apply this lesson from Nigel. Facilitate to extract learning from experience.

Featured image: scene from a BLC workshop I co-facilitated with Nigel in Auckland in 2019


  • Neil Von Heupt

    Interesting that this was a new idea for Nigel given his seniority in our profession. I memorised a quote by John Dewey when I did my teacher training – not all experience is educational. For an experience to be educational we must attend ourselves to the learning it contains. Few teachers would see their role as mere content delivery, more the extraction of learning from experience.


    • Michelle Ockers

      I found that interesting too Neil. From co-facilitating with Nigel since 2019 I figured that he had been facilitating from an experience first perspective for a long, long time. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen Nigel facilitate. It is really heavily process led rather than content led, with getting experience on the table and learning from it as the start point of designing sessions. Perhaps the Antarctic program really amplified the extent to which he emphasises an experience-first approach.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you prepared for Future Ready Learning?

I can help you to achieve your aspirations to transform learning in your organisation in a range of very practical ways. I can help accelerate your learningtransformation regardless of the sector and scale of your organisation, the size of your learning team, or where you are on your modern learning journey. Contact me for a discussion.