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How to Make your Art Discussions Engaging On Zoom (Part 2)

How to Make your Art Discussions Engaging On Zoom (Part 2))

Once you’ve done you’ve got to know the tech, prepared yourself and practised with a test group as we talked about in Part 1, the next step is to design and develop your session, so that it’s as interactive and engaging as an in-person art discussion would be.

This is more than just presenting content or narrating a lecture. Remember that when using my method, the focus is on the participants rather than on the educator or teacher. The key to achieving engagement in a virtual art discussion is to design a process that is interactive, varied and tailored to different groups.
Pay attention to the structure of the session, setting expectations, encouraging collaborative learning, questioning & listening strategies and choosing appropriate activities, just as you would in an in-person workshop setting.

Structure of session

  • Every session you design will need a structure in order for it to be meaningful and effective. This allows my virtual session to be a rounded whole rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions.
  • Structure also allows your participants to know what to expect and to get warmed up and to get acquainted with their environment, the other participants and with you so that they feel comfortable taking part. Asking a BIG question right at the start is only going to guarantee you silence.
  • I always follow the basic structure outlined by the Peeling the Fruit thinking routine (see my post here for more on structure). I always start with observation & describing questions first, as they are easy access and create a level playing-field. I then move on to different forms of interpretation, encouraging reasoning with evidence and wondering/puzzling throughout. I finish with a summary that either captures the heart of the discussion or allows the group to form conclusions. 

Setting the scene

  • Create an atmosphere that encourages participation. As you would do in-person, you want to make sure that all participants feel happy to contribute – you want to create an atmosphere that encourages participation and involvement from the start. You want to make sure that all participants feel that their contributions are valued and understood by the facilitator.
  • Discover. The first few moments of the session should be about finding out something about the participants. Not just who they are and where they come from but what they already know about the subject at hand. I often find that my classes contain a mix of beginning, middle and experienced VTMers. It’s good to know this so that you can tailor your content accordingly to the mix of experience.
  • Set expectations at the start – tell participants what the schedule for the session is, what the protocol will be (cameras on/off, muted/unmuted). Tell them that it will be an interactive class and explain how you will be asking people to participate. Don’t forget that there are an awful lot of passive webinars out there, so let people know from the start that yours will be an active session!
  • Use names – if people aren’t using their names as their Zoom account names, encourage them to change this at the start of the session so that you can refer to people by name throughout – there is nothing worse than having to refer to someone as JKD2020 for a session! There are easy instructions for this here. When someone makes a comment in the chat for example, read this out using their name. This helps to establish rapport and makes people pay attention too.

Learning is a collaborative process

  • Remember, your role as virtual facilitator is centred around guiding processes and creating participation while staying neutral. (Read ‘Quick Guide to Facilitation Skills’ for more information on this).
    • You create the environment for learning to take place
    • You structure conversations and use group facilitation techniques to keep discussions effective (ie thinking routines).
    • You remain neutral and impartial
    • You encourage participation: get people to come up with ideas, thoughts and perspectives that add value.
  • You want to encourage that same culture of group discussion and dialogue that you would be aiming for in-person. You want to encourage reasoning together, the putting forward of new ideas, participants responding to and building on the ideas of others and the generation of further questions.
  • You can encourage this by using the various features of video conferencing software you’re using (I prefer Zoom and you can find out why in Part 1 of this post). For example, you can create a poll that asks participants to share experiences or you can put participants into pairs, trios or small groups in breakout rooms. Breakout rooms are particularly good for quickly reinforcing a sense of community as the group can discuss and relate together.
  • You can create a sense of shared experience by the way you respond to people.So, judge all comments as neither good nor bad, as this sets the tone of fairness within the group. All virtual facilitators should develop their own response system to participant’s comments. Have a few standard neutral phrases that work for you and are ready to use in any situation.
Questioning Strategies
Facilitators need to adopt questioning techniques that encourage participants to respond and contribute.
  • Open-ended and Closed Questions. As mentioned in Part 1, you need to use a combination of closed and open-ended questions. Closed questions can be used at the start to find out more about your participants. You can also use them throughout your session to check in with your participants and to remind yourself of information about your group. However, use sparingly as too many closed questions in a row can make participants feel like they are being grilled. You have been warned! Open-ended questions promote longer answers that originate from knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. They don’t put people on the spot, instead they allow participants to reveal more or less about themselves, depending on how comfortable they are feeling. They have no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or predictable answers.To remind yourself about how you can perfect your questioning techniques, please read my post on How to Ask Brilliant Questions that Get Results.
  • Use thinking routines for ease and structure. Thinking routines provide a loose, flexible structure around which to base the discussion of an artwork or object in your virtual session. Their flexible structure organises thoughts and serves as the backbone for the discussion and helps both facilitator and participants to know what to expect. The questions of each thinking routine are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions. The more you use the routines, the more they become second-nature. The more they become second-nature, the easier it is for you to word your questions in the same way. Regular use of thinking routines will help you to phrase brilliant questions and structure your virtual art discussions.
  • Active Learning. No matter what the subject of your virtual session is, art, archaeology, history, science etc. you can foster participation and interaction by asking questions. Encourage your participants to be active rather than passive. You will go to unexpected places and sometimes go off on tangents by asking these sorts of questions – but that’s OK, because in any case we shouldn’t be doing everything according to a script. You can let the objects or artworks you have chosen be the focus and use your questions as catalysts, encouraging your participants to discover, ponder and reflect. You’ll find that both you and your participants will have a more enjoyable, memorable and unique experience.

Listening Strategies

  • Listen actively throughout the session. Active listening involves fully concentrating on what is being ‘said’ rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. This counts for comments made through the chat too. If you’re not sure that you understand what a participant has said, ask for clarification.
  • Convey genuine interest in what is being said: Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by using both verbal and non-verbal messages such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’ or simply ‘Mmm hmm’ to encourage them to continue.  By providing this ‘feedback’ each participant will usually feel more at ease to contribute to the discussion and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. The conversational flow is slower in virtual art discussions so be patient and count slowly in your head before rushing in with a follow-up question. 

Choose Group Appropriate Activities

  • Remember that what might work in an in-person setting may not translate as well to a virtual session. You will need to bear in mind that group size is an important factor in what you can and cannot effectively facilitate during your session. Breaking the group up into breakout rooms is a good way of getting around this, but, as explained in Part 1, you will need to ensure that you have clear instructions on what you want participants to do as breakout rooms can require you to be in more than one place at a time. Asking one person to ‘lead’ the breakout room or allocating a notetaker can help to alleviate this.
  • Be creative with what you can achieve with individual activities – not just answering questions and sharing answers but consider also sketching as an observation exercise or movement (to pose as a figure from an artwork for example) as not everything needs to be completed sitting down. We got quite creative with activities on my VTMO course! As always, give clear instructions and allow enough time to complete any activities as things tend to take longer virtually.


Reflecting allows participants the chance to step back from the session and to analyse what they have learned up to a certain point.In every virtual session I make time to pause and reflect on the discussion up to this point. For example, by asking questions such as ‘Did your interpretation and ideas about the painting change over time? Or by asking participants for some information in return for their ‘Exit Ticket’ – for example to write or share their key takeaway from todays session and to think about how some of the things we have practised today might be applied to their own work.
These simple questions just encourage a brief pause, a moment to slow down and time to look back at the previous discussion and think about it as a whole.

Virtual art facilitation isn’t just something we can do whilst we’re in quarantine: it’s going to be an important part of how we facilitate great learning experiences for some time to come. Learn how to be a better virtual facilitator and your participants will definitely thank you for it!

Have any thoughts to share about virtual art facilitation? Are there any techniques or tools you like to use? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Zoom Confidence for Educators

What’s your Zoom confidence like?
Whether you’re new to Zoom or you’ve already had a go (but are still unsure), it’s important to feel confident when running sessions on Zoom.
In this 90 minute recorded masterclass, I will teach you how to get over your tech fears, how to create and lead engaging and interactive sessions and help you to get your personality across (and feel less camera-shy).
This class is available in my Membership Programme. To find out more, click below.