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Teacher as Facilitator: What 21st Century Classrooms Need

When you hear the word “facilitator,” what do you think of? Do you remember that corny, out of touch person who led your last professional development? Do you think of cringe-worthy team building exercises? Or an outdoor educator leading fun and games? Is it a businessperson leading a dry training session that springs or mind? Or a teacher in a classroom, at a parent-teacher conference, or in a team meeting?

All of these people are, to some degree, a facilitator. As in any profession, some are better at it than others, and the role of the facilitator fits in some situations better than others. I have seen many references to the teacher as facilitator recently. So what does it mean for a teacher to be a facilitator? Should they be? Can they be? And how do you learn to facilitate anyway?

Teaching v Facilitation

To answer these questions, let’s first define what we mean by facilitation. Webster defines the verb “to facilitate” as “to make easier, to bring about.” So isn’t a teacher automatically a facilitator? They facilitate learning, right? If we look to Webster once again, and think about how teachers are trained to teach, they might not be.

Webster defines “to teach” as

  • To show or explain to (someone) how to do something.

  • give information about or instruction in (a subject or skill).

  • encourage someone to accept (something) as a fact or principle.

  • cause (someone) to learn or understand something by example or experience.

  • make (someone) less inclined to do something. “That’ll teach ya!”

Photo credit Meester & Vormgever

Bloom’s Taxonomy is used to categorize educational goals, or to assess the levels of learning we ask of our students. If we use it to evaluate this definition of teaching, we see that it doesn’t ask much of our students. If we are showing or explaining, giving information, or encouraging them to accept facts, what are our students doing? They might be responding, recognizing, recalling or identifying, but they probably aren’t creating, judging or determining anything. By this definition, it looks like teaching encourages lower level thinking skills, rather than the more complex skills required by modern life and work. Does this count as "facilitating" learning? And yikes! If we teach by making our students less inclined to do things, as in the last definition, they leave our classrooms thinking “I’m never doing that again!” perhaps not the lesson we would want them to learn.

Facilitation in the Classroom

The only one of these definitions of teaching that comes close to the definition of facilitation is the fourth one. “To cause to learn or understand something by example or experience.” If we are providing our students with examples or experiences for them to learn from, especially if students have choice and autonomy during the experience, there is a much greater chance for them to use higher level thinking skills, like determining, judging, designing and creating. In this case, teachers take a more indirect approach. Rather than showing, explaining or giving information, we are shepherding our students through experiences and making sure learning is the result. I think of this as “creating and leveraging teachable moments,” intentionally creating a collaborative learning environment and making the most of those magical moments when students are curious and ready to learn.

This is what teachers are currently being asked to do. More and more, the curriculum and the needs of our students are demanding that students learn through literature circles, science or math talk, project based learning, inquiry, social emotional learning and other experience based methods. These are techniques for learning that go far beyond the traditional methods of teaching. They require learning through social interaction, a much more complex task, and they all require facilitation skills.

Can Facilitation be taught?

In a previous blog post, I talked about 6 facilitation skills every teacher should have. These six skills differentiate the traditional teacher from the facilitative teacher. The question is, how does a teacher learn these skills? If you’re like me, you learned them through trial by fire. When I was trained to be a teacher (and a facilitator), I was told “You’ll have to learn that [facilitation and classroom management] in the classroom. We can’t really teach you how to do it.” Now, after thirty years as a teacher and facilitator, making my own mistakes and sometimes causing harm to my students, I know there is a better way.

These skills most definitely can be taught! Before we set foot in a classroom of our own, we should learn models and theory of group development, experiential learning, learning styles, conflict styles and models of leadership. We should also practice facilitation skills with each other, and with small groups of students in short sessions. And most importantly, we need to give and receive feedback and establish a reflective teaching practice. The skills of facilitation for us, just as any skill we teach our students, must be learned in a continuous cycle of practice, reflection and planning. We need this practice before we cause harm by inflicting our inexperience on our students. Not only that, it sets us up for success in the most rewarding and effective aspect of teaching: relationship building.

Each summer, I train facilitators in the University of Michigan’s Adventure Leadership program. We have developed a program for teaching undergraduate and graduate students the skills of facilitation. It involves practical experiential learning, theoretical study, the guidance of mentors, regular feedback and a culminating project. Whereas I had to learn facilitation skills by trial and error over a very long period of time, these students learn these skills very quickly. After four months, some of these students are better facilitators than I am! Every fall, I proudly watch them "graduate" to solo facilitation and often see them go on to successful careers in business, education, social work and other professions, some with salaries ten times what I make! And the relationships we forge continue years after the program is finished.

It’s time for professional development and university teacher training programs to catch up with the demands placed on teachers today. Our teachers need facilitation skills from the minute they set foot in their first classroom. Novice and experienced teachers alike need to be equipped with the facilitation skills to manage their students and facilitate learning for the sake of their students, themselves and the profession.


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