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Download Breaking the Ice: Using Ice- breakers and Re-energizers ... the Ice: Using Ice-breakers and Re-energizers with Adult Learners Over the past several years, a number of researchers have

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  • By Dominique T. ChlupTracy E. Collins

    Dominique T. Chlup, Ed.D. is anAssistant Professor of Adult Educationat Texas A&M University. Her interestsinclude methods of teaching, women'searning, corrections education, and thehistory of education.(Email:

    Tracy E. Collins, Ed.D. is an AssistantProfessor of Early Childhood Educationat Texas A&M University. Her interestsinclude pre-service teacher education,reflective practice and issues of childcarequality.(Email:

    Breaking the Ice: Using Ice-breakers and Re-energizerswith Adult Learners

    Over the past several years, anumber of researchers havetheorized that students vary signifi-cantly in how they approach classroomleaming and that each leamer has adistinct and definable way of engagingin the leaming process (Conrad &Donaldson, 2004; Dunn and Dunn,1978; Gardner, 1983; Gregore, 1986;Kolb, 1984; Merriam, Caffarella, &Baumgartner, 2007; Palmer, 2007;Vella, 2002). Adult leamers oftenarrive in our classrooms with precon-ceived notions of leaming that arehard for them to let go. Additionally,teachers can and often do fall into thiscategory as well, allowing a dynamicof opposition to develop. Almost allof us have faced the reluctant leamerwho refuses to participate in class,where nothing helps to draw him orher out of a protective shell. Educatorswill often seek out instructional strat-egies designed to build rapport, helpstudents get to know one another, andcreate safe classrooms for leamingwhere everyone feels comfortableparticipating. Individuals facilitat-ing adult leaming need a medleyof teaching methods to be effective(Galbraith, 2004). This is when theinstructional strategies of icebreak-ers and re-energizers can enter theleaming environment.

    While much of the strategies forusing icebreakers and re-energizerseffectively focus on children, severaltechniques are applicable to adultleamers as well (Collins, 2010;Ukens, 1997; Zike, 1992;). Icebreakeractivities, as the name implies help"break the ice" in various ways. They

    help group members get acquaintedand begin conversations, relieve in-hibitions or tension between people,allowing those involved to buildtrust with and feel more open toone another. Icebreakers encourageparticipation by all, helping a senseof connection and shared focus todevelop. Re-energizers can be used astransitions or a time to "elear the mind"encouraging vitality and enthusiasm(Boatman, 1991). Both activities alsolead to a free exchange of informa-tion and enhanced communicationbetween group members (Zwaagstra,1997). In addition to simply helping toleam students' names, we have foundusing ieebreakers brings humor intothe class, establishes rapport, fostersa safe leaming environment, andoverall assists with content learning.Therefore, it would follow thatimplementation of icebreakers andre-energizers in the classroom mightwell eontribute to improved studentparticipation, increased student per-sistence, and ultimately enhancedstudent leaming.

    This article centers on theoriesof adult leaming methods and howthey relate to the practice of usingicebreakers in the adult classroom.While our language is geared towardthe adult learning world, our experi-ence has been that these practices alsowork well in a variety of classroomand group settings, both traditionaland non-traditional, including profes-sional development sessions, staffand faculty meetings or retreats, andwith non-professional groups. Thispaper aims to support adult educators

    A 34 Adult Leaming

  • by developing their theoretical understanding of ef-fectively implementing icebreakers and re-encrgizers intheir classroom. While edueators may inherently knowthe benefits of using icebreakers, this article is intendedas a guide to assist praetitioners in applying them to theirdaily instmctional activities. We also hope this artielewill fill a gap as there is a laek of recent work on thistopic in the adult edueation literature. A keyword searchoften library databases for artieles published in the pastfive years revealed only three artieles on the topie oficebreakers. One was a three paragraph book review of abook published in 2000, another was a list of icebreakersnot to use, and the third was a relevant one page articleon icebreakers appropriate for training and development

    scmmars.It is our eontention that ieebreakers are not one-time

    events to be used solely on the first day of class. In fact,we use both ieebreakers and re-energizers as needed atvarious times throughout a course. Re-energizers ean beused when energy is low and elass morale is lagging, wheneveryone is not participating, or after a break to re-focus agroup. Our use of ieebreakers is guided by our understand-ing of adult leaming and teaching principles. This artieleconneets the methods of using ieebreakers as instruetionalstrategies to the literature on teaehing adults.

    Perspectives on Teaching AdultsPalmer (2007) in the tenth anniversary edition of

    his book. The Courage to Teach, reminds educators thatteaching cannot be redueed to a singular technique:

    Good teaehers possess a capacity for conneeted-ness. They are able to weave a eomplex web ofconnections among themselves, their subjeets,and their students so that students ean leam toweave a world for themselves. The methods usedby these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socraticdialogues, laboratory experiments, eoUaborativeproblem solving, ereative ehaos. (p. 11)It is the same with icebreakers. Icebreakers are not

    relegated to a single type or a "best method." Rather havingan arsenal of icebreakers and re-energizers designed tomeet a variety of needs serves adult educators well.

    Similarly, Pratt and assoeiates (1998) offerfive perspectives on teaching adults. The authorsargue for a "plurality of perspectives on teachingadults that recognize diversity within teachers,leamers, content, eontext, ideals, and purposes"(p. 4). Based on data from over two thousandteaehers, they caution that what is to be avoidedis the one-size-ts-all notion of good teaching(Pratt, 2002). Pratt and his associates developed

    five eategories to qualitatively describe what it means "toteach" (p. xii). Described as perspectives as opposed tomethods of teaehing, eaeh represents "a unique constella-tion of aetions, intentions, and beliefs" (p. xiv) (see Table1 ). Eaeh one of these perspeetives offers the opportunityfor unique ieebreaker and re-energizer aetivities.

    Table I: Teaching Perspectives

    Transmission: Effective delivery of eontent

    Apprenticeship: Modeling ways of being

    Developmental: eultivating ways of thinking

    Nurturing: Facilitating self-efieaey

    Social Refonn: Seeing a better soeiety

    Regardless of the perspeetive one's own teaching fallsunder, effective teaching needs to have clear and signifi-eant intentions that are respectful of leamers. Ieebreakersallow instructors to plan and implement a teaching methodthat is related to a teacher's intentions and beliefs whilealso considering learning outcomes that arc relevant andconsiderate of adult leamers. Sinee types and strategiesof ieebreakers are flexible in nature, the one-size modelis easily avoided.

    Additional research also supports avoiding a one-sizemodel. Thistlethwaite ( 1960) looked at critical variables ofpositive leaming experiences reported by students. Strongknowledge of a subjeet, commonly associated with goodteaching, was outweighed by all of the following faetorsfound in positive professor evaluations (Jordan, 1982, inWeisz, 1990):

    Enthusiasm Personal elements Good eommunication skills Enjoyment of teaehing

    If the effective teaching of adults involves an un-derstanding of intentionality, plurality, and knowing that

    It would follow that implementation of icebreakersand re-energizers in the classroom might weilcontribute to improved student participation,increased student persistence, and ultimatelyenhanced student learning.

    35 A

  • both leamers and teachers are diverse, how then eanone go about deciding which type of icebreakers and re-energizers to use?

    Vella (2002) in her book. Learning to Listen, Learningto Teach, outlines numerous prineiples for effective adultleaming including safety, sound relationships, respect forleamers as decisions makers, teamwork, engagement, andaccountability. Research paralleling Vella's is found in thesocial interaction method by which students are encour-aged to participate in "creating a more open classroomclimate" (Eblc, 1976; Good & Brophy, 1987; Purkey& Novak, 1984). Social interaction teaching methodsare instructional strategies used by teachers to facilitatestudent-centered group work. Students help their peers toconstmct meaning through group projects, group discus-sion, and cooperative leaming (Burden & Byrd, 2007).

    Table 2: Group Dynamic Curative Factors


    Didactic Learning



    Peer Learning

    Group Cohesiveness

    Connections with others,common concems &problems

    Information giving, sharingknowledge

    Helping others, can raise one'sself esteem

    Benefits from interactions withothers

    People often leam better fi-omone another

    Acceptance from others, belong-ing, support

    Research on teacher as facilitator in higher edueationsupports strong communication and problem solving skills(Delozier, 1979; Rubin, 1985; Schon, 1983, in Weisz,1990). Additionally, cooperative leaming strategies aidin teaching small-group skills, effective communica-tion, and critical thinking skills. Elements of cooperativeleaming can have profound effects in a leaming environ-mentehanging a classroom from an environment wherestudents are passive recipients of knowledge, to one inwhieh they become active participants in their edueation.Concepts of empowerment, in