Every teacher training I have ever attended begins with an icebreaker. Despite being an extrovert, I hate icebreakers, as do many teachers and we are long overdue for a change. An examination of icebreakers as they are currently used in coaching is essential to build a strong foundation for ISTE standard 3a, which states that coaches must “Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies” (ISTE). Icebreakers as they are most commonly used have the potential to impede the foundation “trusting and respectful” relationships because they can cause ill will and frustration among participants in teacher trainings.
There are hundreds of websites with icebreakers on them, and “icebreaking activities can play important roles, such as lightening the mood, building energy, improving team dynamics” (Vu, 2014). However, the genuine animosity many trainees feel toward icebreakers and the way in which the dynamic of icebreakers can negatively affect the group structure means they deserve reconsideration. This is my list of why icebreakers are the worst, and what trainers can do instead.
They Frequently Waste Time
Icebreakers have become such a common starting point for meetings that trainers often use them without consideration of the value of the specific icebreaker they are using to the individuals attending the training. Doing so reduces engagement and feels like a waste of time. Temkin explains: “people value their time. And they’ll respect you more when they believe you value their time as well. If an icebreaker is executed just for the sake of having an icebreaker at your meeting, it feels pointless and like a waste of time” (Temkin, 2016).
They Get in the Way of Real-life Relationship Building
People frequently sit in groups chatting at the beginning of a meeting, until the trainer halts this unstructured socializing in order to introduce rigidly structured socializing in the form of an icebreaker. The rigidity and false structure of the icebreaker impedes genuine connections. In her article “Icebreaker Alternatives for People who Hate Icebreakers,” Kate Chapman explains that sharing deeply personal information at the beginning of a work relationship is “outside of the usual norms that we all tend to comply with when we meet new people, norms that help us feel comfortable and encourage us to begin to open up” (2018). Allowing conversation to flourish at the beginning of meetings helps these relationships grow organically.
They Obligate Risk-Taking Artificially Early
I remember being asked to share “one thing no one knows” in an icebreaker at my current school. I opted for the relatively safe fact that I was published online because I wrote for a parenting blog that had thousands of readers. The position had required required an application, and had introduced me to a community of professional writers who had become friends. I was proud of my work, but had not shared it with anyone at the school. Immediately, a colleague scoffed, “really published, (smirk), or a just a blog or something?” There was no response that would not seem defensive, so I said nothing substantive. My relatively “safe” choice of sharing a hobby opened me up to scorn and I would never have risked sharing this information to these acquaintances if I had been given the choice.
Chapman explains this phenomenon, saying “It’s not often clear what connotations people might form from something you share. Instead of getting closer, you open yourself up to the possibility that people will judge you negatively.” (2018). Icebreakers ask participants to share personal information that they would not normally share at this stage in their relationship with their coworkers. When this happens, the icebreaker obligates risk taking with potentially negative results, while simultaneously taking away the agency most people have to choose when, where, and with whom they would normally take that risk.
They Reinforce an Unproductive Power Dynamic
One of the problematic elements of icebreakers is that it requires people to take risks with personal info, and in doing so they cause a power dynamic that centers power on the trainer because he or she has the ability to force this disclosure for the purpose of building community. When a trainer demands (however cheerfully) that teachers participate in risk-taking behaviors outside of our comfort zone, it reinforces that power dynamic. Opting out of activities that are uncomfortable or unwelcome presents its own informal social risk, and therefore many staff find themselves forced into an activity they do not enjoy and are helpless to refuse.
Most of the instructional coaches and trainers I have met would be horrified to realize that this is the case. However, until all activities are optional and there is no social stigma for refusing to participate, then the participants do not have power. It is one thing to tell a room of individuals that they are professionals with decision-making capabilities, and another to require them to relinquish their agency by requiring participation in icebreakers.
We’ve Done Them All Before
Do icebreakers feel omnipresent? That’s because they have been around for at least forty years. The earliest reference to icebreaker activities I found was Rodriguez in 1982 as a reference within a study of icebreaker activities for ESL students. A google Ngram verifies this, with a steep rise in the frequency of the phrase “icebreaker activity” starting in the early 80’s and late 1970’s. All of which means that icebreakers have been a part of trainings and meetings for longer than many teachers have been alive.
Some of the specific icebreakers teachers do in trainings presently have been around almost as long. Two Truths and a Lie appears as a youth activity in the 1988 publication of “Lively Discussions,” which explains why nearly every teacher I know has played it at least once in their career if not several times (Koth, 1988). Jane Bozarth refers to this as “generational icebreaker fatigue,” saying “participants often hate icebreakers unrelated to content or outcomes and see them as pointless and a waste of time. Go over to Twitter and type something like “zoom icebreaker” into the search box. I will warn you – it ain’t pretty. We are now even entering generational icebreaker fatigue” (2020).
What To do Instead
For starters, check out Chapman’s article which explains several options, including: letting people work together naturally, choose lower-risk activities, socialize naturally by engaging in a community service project or going to the pub (Chapman, 2018). Each of these ideas has clear benefits. Letting people work together and reveal themselves over time may take longer than an icebreaker, but it produces genuine team growth. Lower risk social activities are more inclusive in general and allow better participation. Socializing naturally is productive and allows people to participate at their comfort level in the icebreaking elements of your activity.
Next, determine your goal. Consultant, Nicole Clark explains “ice breakers can help to introduce the content of the workshop, introduce the participants to each other if they don’t know each other, showcase the various learning styles and thinking patterns of participants, highlight your expectations (2015). So, think carefully. What is the purpose of your icebreaker? Is it to ensure everyone knows each other’s expertise? Is it to get everyone moving? Is it to have fun? These are widely different goals, and one wacky icebreaker isn’t going to cover all of those goals, and may run the risk of actively working against them.
If you find no purpose for the icebreaker, then forgo it. If you cannot forgo a purposeless icebreaker, Nancy Dixon provides several options for lower risk, more meaningful activities, to include interviewing each other, generating a group timeline, and storytelling in small groups (Nixon, 2016). Dixon explains “If a group is going to concentrate on a difficult issue, they need to learn who others are, the skills they bring, the experience they represent, and the values they hold” (2016).
If you have a purpose for your icebreaker, I’ve listed below ways to maximize your use of this time based on your goal.
If You Want People to Get to Know Each Other
It turns out that icebreakers may have the opposite effect of your intention to help educators get to know one another. According to Dr. Giuseppe Aragona, “the anxiety that’s paired with these types of games can sometimes make it even harder to remember anyone’s name or fact” (Mather, 2020). So, consider forgoing the icebreaker in favor of a meaningful, low-risk activity that encourages groups to work together on the topic at hand. Working quietly on a low-risk task that benefits the group, such as choosing examples of a student guideline for a training on building rules is less anxiety-producing than passing a ball from foot to foot.
Additionally, give people time to consider how to answer the questions, for example, allow participants to write answers down and give them the option to opt out. Temkin explains the reasoning behind this written responses, saying “When participants write their response first they’re more likely to take their time to come up with a good example and be able to articulate more clearly when asked to share it out loud” (2016).
Finally, if ensuring that participants get to know one another is a genuine goal, then ensure that participants are in small groups of two or three individuals rather than larger groups. Vu at Non Profit AF explains “A common weakness of most icebreakers is that it tries to get everyone to get to know everyone else, which dilutes the interactions. It’s far better for someone to feel more connected to one or two other people than to drive-by meet all participants in the room” (2014).
If you want to get people moving/talking
It is understandable that the trainer might want to encourage conversation and movement as a way to energize staff at the beginning of a training. Dixon explains “If a group member does not speak in the first 15 minutes the group is together, there is a great likelihood that he or she will be silent the whole time” (2016). However, this does not necessarily require a stand-alone icebreaker. Educators who adapt and individualize lessons daily for active learners can provide many examples of ways to make a lesson more active and to incorporate talking and movement. These activities can be organic parts of the training rather than initial activities.
If You Want to Encourage Collaboration and Community
There is a chance that icebreakers build community, but probably not in the way trainers think. Mather explains “You might be miserable sharing two truths and a lie, but everyone else is also miserable saying theirs. Together, you are all miserable, but you have a vague sense of community that wouldn’t have been established otherwise” (2020). To prevent this, it is beneficial to be honest about the goal and capabilities of a given activity.
Nancy Dixon explains “any activity that takes only 10-15 minutes won’t build the kind of connections necessary for members to make use of all the knowledge that exists within the group” (2016). We know as educators that true connections require time and trust to build, but that people benefit from learning a little about one another. So, first be honest about the time you are willing to give to the activity. If it is only 15 minutes long, then changing expectations from community building to collaboration is essential for reducing participant misery.
It is even more effective to build activities that are both collaborative and relevant to the training topic. Bozarth describes one such activity, saying “I ask if the people taking notes anyway. . . would mind taking them using a collaborative document instead of on their own device. This opens the door to a quick lesson on Google spreadsheets, where it makes sense to ask the group a quick, easily answered question. The primary goal of the activity: Learn how to use collaborative documents, specifically a Google spreadsheet” (2020).
If you want to Make People Comfortable
The worst way to do this is to ask them to come up with something important about themselves at 8am on the first day after summer break. A better way to gather input on procedure from those most uncomfortable with icebreakers: participants who deal with anxiety or who self-identify as introverts. On the website “Introvert Daily,” introvert Maggie Hebert suggests that trainers rethink the structure of the training itself in order to make individuals more comfortable. She suggests: “have meetings in smaller groups (whenever possible) so introverts feel more comfortable. If they have to do some sort of activity, don’t make it personal, and always give them the opportunity to work alone or with people they already know. . . It also helps if the activity is work-related, and not just a game for the sake of passing the time and getting people talking. Most people end up mingling anyway, so you don’t really need an icebreaker to accomplish that” (2018).
If You Want To Introduce the Topic in a Fun way
Please reconsider. At the beginning of the year, every second is precious for teachers. What a trainer sees as a fun icebreaker leaves many teachers thinking about how much they’d prefer to be working on their classrooms. To honor teachers’ time, focus on relevance instead of fun. For example, our graduate classes frequently begin with a poll everywhere question that is relevant to the topic of the class. The responses are anonymous, which addresses the concerns of risk taking, and they spark conversation.
In the end, consider just giving socialization time, Strauss says “We should just let our instinctual need for interaction take its course and allow people to talk to one another without the help of icebreakers” (2015).
Bozarth, J. (2020, September 30). Facilitation Tips Series, Part 3: Why are You Using Icebreakers? Insync Training. https://blog.insynctraining.com/facilitation-tips-part-3-why-are-you-using-icebreakers
Chapman, K. (2018, June 13). Icebreaker alternatives for people who hate icebreakers. Zendesk. https://www.zendesk.com/blog/icebreaker-alternatives/
Clark, N. L. (2015, August 5). Why Do Ice Breakers Suck So Much? (And How to Bypass the Awkwardness). Nicole Clark Consulting. http://nicoleclarkconsulting.com/why-do-ice-breakers-suck/
Dixon, N. (2016, October). Please! No more Icebreakers: 5 Ways to Get a Group Connected Without Icebreakers. Conversation Matters. https://www.nancydixonblog.com/2016/10/please-no-more-icebreakers-5-ways-to-get-a-group-connected-without-icebreakers.html
Hebert, M. (2018, August 14). Dear Workplaces, Churches, and Schools, PLEASE Stop Doing Icebreakers. Signed, Introverts. IntrovertDear.Com. https://introvertdear.com/news/icebreakers-introverts-anxious-people/
ISTE Standards for Coaches | ISTE. (2021). ISTE. https://www.iste.org/standards/iste-standards-for-coaches
Korth, R. (1988). Lively Discussions (Revised ed.). Churches Alive Intl.
Mather, K. (2020). Why Are We Still Forcing Each Other To Play Icebreaker Games? In The Know. https://www.intheknow.com/post/why-are-we-still-forcing-each-other-to-play-icebreaker-games/
Straus, C. (2015, August 4). Why we hate icebreakers. The Daily Californian. https://www.dailycal.org/2015/08/03/hate-icebreakers/
Temkin, A. (2017, November 3). Why Everyone Hates Icebreakers. Center for Care Innovations. https://www.careinnovations.org/resources/why-everyone-hates-icebreakers/
Vu, A. (2018, September 13). Icebreakers, do’s and don’ts, and some that don’t suck. Nonprofit AF. https://nonprofitaf.com/2014/08/icebreakers-dos-and-donts-and-some-that-dont-suck/