A few years after my first Model United Nations (UN) conference in 2006 I was – on a number of occasions – tasked with the training of my juniors, and during my National Service stint I had the chance to facilitate trainings in different schools. But these sessions were largely ad hoc, and it was not until UNASMUN in 2011 when we developed a more coherent pedagogy. Since then we have improved on our training materials and approaches, taking on board feedback from trainers and participants, and over these five years sharpened our preparations and execution.
Oftentimes such programmes are perceived to be monotonous, and while the interest of participants matters facilitators cannot take their responsibilities for granted. Having confidence as well as adequate rehearsals are givens (even better with an awesome team), and experience through multiple iterations is useful too, though there are five strategies which could be adopted from the get-go:
1. Be backed by good materials and plan the session to the minute. Good training materials form the base for your instruction, and should be a mix of information and participant activity. The former ensures that participants understand the contents – even if they were not actually present, or if they reference the documents in the future – and the latter, such as group discussion, provides the value-add through collective wisdom. In this vein materials are always a work-in-progress. At UNASMUN training sessions are anchored by these documents, and they are planned to the minute. Time discipline and management then provides the structure.
2. Know your participants and tailor the session to their needs, not yours. Besides making the session more engaging, participant activities allow trainers to gauge the proficiency of their participants. This is especially important if the profiles of the participants are not known before the session, or if there are vast disparities between participants. In the Model UN context training programmes would therefore be different for first-timers and those with experience at conferences. Good lesson plans are flexible to these needs. There are many who adhere pedantically to scripts prepared beforehand without taking into account whether the content connects with their participants.
3. Check for understanding and summarise big thematic ideas at regular intervals. In this vein the trainer has to remain cognisant of how the participants respond to the points presented. Right from the start for the introductory course to the Model UN we present a big-picture overview of the seven modules, and at the end of each segment participants are reminded of the main perspectives. A common mistake is also to overwhelm participants with too much data and information during the session (this function should be fulfilled by the materials). Structure remains central. At the very least if the participants do not comprehend the intricacies of the modules they should take away key points from each, so that revision can be done with the materials after the session.
4. Complement training materials with visual aids (the whiteboard and PowerPoint slides, for instance). There is aversion to the use of PowerPoint for training sessions, yet I reckon it has become a convenient scapegoat for poor facilitation. I prefer the use of the whiteboard, but have also observed the effective use of slides at UNASMUN. Two things should follow regardless of the visual aid: first, clear instructions bridge the materials read by the participants and what is presented at the front (with strong board and slide management); and second, make sure participants are writing down insights or notes. To ensure this the facilitator cannot be rooted at the front, and should be pacing around the room.
5. Embrace criticisms. In the first few years my focus was always to conclude sessions as soon as possible and to log them as completions thereafter. Yet they gave a false sense of achievement. Increasingly we have collected feedback from facilitators, teachers, and students more actively to shape training materials and to adapt to more circumstances. In feedback forms and debriefs we ask not for arbitrary scores of “how effective” or “how adequate”, but for three positive and three negative points about the session. With so much hard work criticisms may be hard to swallow, since with more experience nitpicks are commonplace, though they provide the oft-neglected impetus to look beyond and better ourselves.