Nowadays, we are often exhorted to facilitate students learning and one of the most talked about skills is the ability to facilitate. This article aims to discuss the meaning and levels of facilitation, and the efforts required to facilitate classroom learning.
Meaning & levels of facilitation
According to the Websters and Random House dictionaries, to facilitate is to make it easier or less difficult, or to help forward. In other words, to facilitate refers to the process of making something easier or less difficult in order to further a goal. Given this meaning, facilitation can be used in any setting, for instance on a one-to-one level in terms of simple academic/personal counselling, or more commonly (in our work as university teachers) at a group levelbe it in meetings or in the classroomto make discussions more fruitful.
The matter is not so simple. For personal counselling work, the facilitation skill by itself is essential but not sufficient. For group facilitation, the role of the facilitator can differ based on what Schwarz (1994) terms as basic or developmental group facilitation. In basic facilitation, a facilitator works with a group at a specific time to solve a substantive problem; the facilitator can temporarily improve the group process in order to solve the problem, but the long-term effectiveness of how the group functions may not be affected. In developmental facilitation, a facilitator consciously works to help the group not only work together to solve the existing substantive problem, but also improve how it manages its own processes for it to function more efficiently and effectively in the future.
Within the teaching context, to facilitate is to conduct the class so that students will be better able to think through and digest the concepts taught. A well-facilitated class will generate a greater volume of discussion or debate so that students not only examine or re-examine their own thoughts and beliefs on the subject, but also are possibly inspired to explore further. Consequently, it is through basic facilitationwhereby students are given opportunities to question and be questioned about the subject matter (rather than merely acquire information via the typical lecture format)that they learn how to understand, analyse and integrate the subject matter into their existing assumptions or body of knowledge. Hence, what is taught (the course content) becomes of less importance than how it is taught (the process of learning). And for individuals to survive in a knowledge economy, it is vital that they learn via facilitation how to share and learn from each others viewpoints.
From my experience, such a learning mindset can be achieved only if the faculty member exercises basic facilitation skills and the lesson is conducted in small groups rather than in large lecture classes. So assuming that the lessons are conducted in small groups of about 30 students over 1½ to 3-hour segments, what basic facilitation skills are required?
Basic facilitation of a small group
From my experience, there are a few key areas to be considered if one is to facilitate well.
Address students current mode of thinking and learning in class
Faculty members may feel that it is hard to facilitate learning during a lesson when students do not speak up in class. However, I have observed that some students are conditioned by their past educational experience, and may believe that he/she is supposed:
- to have the right answers;
- to meet explicit or implicit expectations of authority figures;
- not to ask questions or share information;
- not to experiment or to make mistakes; and/or
- not to challenge the status quo.
With this mindset, it is not surprising that these students do not wish to reveal that they do not have the answers for fear of retribution/ridicule, or of being evaluated as less intelligent/effective than other students.
Hence to facilitate well, such students fears (real or otherwise) need to be addressed. I have found that the first introductory lesson of a semester is the most appropriate time to confront the above issues and set a suitable learning climate for the class. Sharing my expectations with the students at that point in time helps to make them less afraid and to promote greater interaction during future lessons.
Manage class dynamics
As a facilitator, a faculty member will have to balance the following sets of opposing factors that influence how a class should be conducted:
- Structure: How rigidly or flexibly should the lesson be run?
- Pacing: How rapidly or leisurely should the group be pushed to achieve learning?
- Group Interaction: How do group members relate to the facilitator and to each other?
- Focus: Which is more important to impart, all course content as planned or the process of learning?
- Concern: Should energy be directed at individual or group needs?
- Control: To what extent are students empowered to perform in class?
Unfortunately, establishing an ideal set of class dynamics is not simple. However, in my opinion, what will be an acceptable balance of the above factors will depend on the facilitators teaching philosophy (e.g. are you student-centred or teacher-centred?) and perception of the students relative status (e.g. do you treat students as students or as intelligent adults?).
Establish core values
The teacher-as-facilitator should have a set of core values to guide his/her actions (Argyris & Schon, 1974). These core values will prevent the facilitator from behaving defensively when strong differences in views erupt in class or when students conduct themselves in an unacceptable manner. Some of these core values (Schwarz, 1994) could include:
sharing and acquisition of valid information; free and informed choice; and internal commitment to the choice.
By sharing and actively acquiring new information, the faculty member ensures that old content is discarded and new content is shared with the students. When students are not coerced or manipulated to respond in class, their responses will be made out of free and informed choice. To promote group solidarity and cohesion, both the faculty member and students must stand by any decision or choice made collectively in class.
I have found that it is paramount for a facilitator to listen to not only what is said, but also what is not said during a discussion. The facilitator has to be alert and spot when and how individual students within the class express confusion or strong feelings. By practising empathy, the facilitator can quickly respond to any doubts or questions students may have.
Cultivating dialogue skills, as espoused by Senge (1990), is equally important. To encourage dialogue in class, both students and the faculty member have to suspend their own assumptions and show respect for each other in class: individual pride and ego must make way for a sincere interest in learning from one another.
Sculpt students thinking
Pushing for acceptance of ones view should be balanced with a willingness and ability to inquire or question the views of others. Hence for effective facilitation, ones probing or questioning skills, and the ability to integrate or summarise various viewpoints is equally important. In this manner, different viewpoints can be generated and presented, and all in the class can achieve a fuller understanding of what is taught or learned.
In my view, ones learning and thinking can only be sculpted with the use of the various communication skills discussed above, and a compassionate attitude towards acceptance of ones and others mistakes made along the way. After all, the aim of sculpting is not to impose ones view on the students, but to help them mould their new understanding of the concepts learned to their existing body of knowledge and views (if any).
Facilitating students learning in a classroom is a very complex process. Before we are able to successfully shift our pedagogical approach from instruction to facilitation, I believe the academic teacher must question his/her own assumptions or beliefs of what learning and teaching involves before even adopting a different mode of teaching.
Argyris, Chris & Schon, Donald A. (1974). Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Schwarz, Roger M. (1994). The Skilled Facilitator: The Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Senge, Peter M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.