The word facilitation comes from the Latin facilis, which means to make easy. While normally, facilitation is used in organizations and companies trying to figure out solutions to their problems, it is alos a skill, if applied correctly in a classroom environment will help students learn through self-discovery using techniques that encourage sharing group’s knowledge and experience. It is a learner-centered method of teaching. You share control with students and let them decide, with you, on the path the class should take.
Process vs. Content
The facilitator is the process expert, and not necessarily the master of knowledge; the one who’s responsible for keeping track of logistics, timing, idea flow, and group development.I say not the master of knowledge because he or she normally would not concern themselves with providing information directly, but rather the group members’ involvement in learning all the data themselves. This position of neutrality must be understood and practiced by the teacher if the students’ potential is to be fully reached. And with a position title as “Instructor, Lecturer, or professor”, this is not always easy.
In an ideal classroom that uses the facilitative method, the content would be the subject matter, the facts, data, and background information are the responsibility of the students who have the freedom to decide to get more information, continue to work with what they have, or choose a different area to focus on. It will be their job to bring and study the material, put their thoughts in it, and make decisions on the subject matter. The teacher in such a class simply leads the process, guides the students through it, and brings to their attetion where to locate the information and which is the most important.
Teaching studends about the principles of design and ordering in the Architecture Design Studios at the undergraudate level fits the profile of the environment that requires a facilitative teacher. The students were given a suggestion of a book that taught the basics, but they were free to bring other material. They learned about the subject and experimented in class on their new findings. There were no lectures per se, it was more like bringing all the information to the same table and sharing it. Every class had different information, material, and pictures to share. The basics were always visible to all. My role was certainly just to help them go through the design process, from understanding the situation, researching the facts, sketching out initial ideas, developing the promising ones, and finaly making decisions, all the while continuing on prototyping their solution to perfection. As you imagine, in such a studio, it’s easy to apply such a role, but what about “theory” classes?
With some imagination, one might be able to pull out a facilitator mode every now and then. By definition, these classes require an “expert” giving the informaiton and explaining the theories. But what if the students were required to pre-read before class? then perhaps the instructor can offer exercises for them to experiment with their newfound information straight away. What if they could be given contrasting or un-true facts? This might be a good job for them to debate it in class and find the right answer.
Designing your course
Many educators make the mistake of thinking that their extensive knowledge makes them good at helping others learn. Although what you teach is a cornerstone for students at college, it will make little difference if you do not know how to engage the minds of your audience effectively. Words alone will not ensure transfer of knowledge to others. To really take advantage of student-led methods in teaching, be careful not to assume the role of “expert” automatically and continuously during the course. For active learning to happen, use activities that will force students to use their knowledge, skills, and abilities in passing their grades. With all the resources available at your fingertips, there is little reason for you to do all the work in stimulating learning. You want your students to think, discuss, feel, and act using as many senses as they can engage. Rather than giving them answers, provide the theory, tools, support, and an opportunity for them to resolve issues.
Anne Davidson writes in The Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook about three levels of the process. First, process designs structure the whole facilitation or a major portion of it. This addresses the students’ purpose for taking the course, their goals after completing it, assignments and projects to assess their knowledge, etc. Methods are more specific processes used to move the group through a series of steps (for example using the Design Thinking or the Creative Problem Solving models). At the most micro level, tools represent discrete activities used within a method. To emphasize divergent and convergent tools for example, one can use brainstorming or card sorting, consecutively.
If you’re thinking of changing the format of your next class, try one of these methods:
Open ended questions: encourage input and feedback
Small group learning: form small groups to address parts of the problem
Teacher-led discussions: Use dialog to draw from the collective knowledge of students.
Group learning: When you need to get consensus or teach a theory
Team activities: Exercises, Games, Role plays all enhance class time
Peer Coaching: out-of-class practice or rehearsal can provide feedback.
Individual learning: out-of-class work to ensure the full value of the course is met
Participant teaching: Presetations are an excellent method of a practiced skill.
The above were examples adapted from Robert Lucas’s The Creative Training Idea Book. Take the time to choose appropriate learning techniques as you design your course. Mix up the format to provide variety, contrast, and stimulation for yourself and your learners. Most importantly, have fun with it.