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What do “Virtual Classroom” and “Racism” have in common?

In the training environment, the words that we use matter. If we don’t clearly define the terms that are central to our topic and which we will be tossing around throughout our presentations, we’ll leave a lot of room for individual interpretation and confusion.

I was struck by this point last Friday when I was participating in a Tweet Chat on the topic of “virtual classrooms.”

When participants were asked what came to mind when they thought of “virtual classrooms,” there were many comments about web conferencing software and multi-tasking and trying to keep people engaged. This led one participant to observe:

At that moment it dawned on me – discussions aren’t constructive if everybody is using their own, personal definition of a term. It’s possible that people were using the terms “virtual classroom” and “webinar” as synonyms. If that’s the case, some of the discussion participants were clearly annoyed.

In the absence of a standard, agreed-to definition preceding this discussion, people shouldn’t be annoyed or surprised that various participants use the term in different ways. Training will always miss the mark unless the facilitator first ensures everyone is on the same page.

The best example I’ve seen of this principle in use was during a cultural competence training that revolved around the concept of “racism.” It’s a loaded word that means many things to many people. Conversations about race can quickly become destructive and feelings can easily be hurt if a facilitator doesn’t do his or her job well.

In Casey Family Programs’ Knowing Who You Are course, a definition of “racism” is given to all participants toward the beginning of the session. Whether or not the participants personally agree with the definition, they are asked to use that particular definition of “racism” inside the classroom so that everyone can be talking about the same thing.

Unless the point of your presentation is to have a debate over the meaning of a word or concept, take a minute or two at the beginning to establish a definition that everyone can agree to. Otherwise, participants and facilitator alike may end up perpetually frustrated as people use the same word to mean many different things.

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