Most adults learned in teacher-centered classrooms:
teachers talked, students listened, except when called on to ask or
answer questions about what the teacher had said. This traditional model
assumes both the authority of the teacher and the ignorance of the students.
Fortunately these methods are increasingly being
replaced by teaching techniques that relate to the learners' life experiences
and appreciate what they already know. Increasingly the learners, not
the teacher, is at the center of the experience and share "ownership"
for their own learning.
In this collaborative context, the word facilitator
is more appropriate than teacher, for all concerned should be
peers, engaged in a common effort towards a shared goal. Together they
examine their own experiences and seek to come to individual conclusions.
The goal is not some "right answer" or even consensus, but
the collaborative exploration of ideas and issues. However, mastering
the art of facilitation requires both practice and a clear understanding
of the goals and methods involved.
What is a Facilitator?
- establishes a collaborative relationship with
participants, in which the facilitator is "first among equals,"
but responsibility for learning rests with the whole group;
- helps to create and sustain an environment of
trust and openness where everyone feels safe to speak honestly and
where differences of opinion are respected;
- ensures that everyone feels included and has
an opportunity to participate;
- provides a structure for learning, which might
include setting and observing meeting times, opening and closing sessions,
and keeping to an agenda;
- makes sure the "housekeeping" is done,
such as preparing materials, setting up the meeting space, notifying
participants, and seeing that necessary preparations are made.
A facilitator is not
- "the person in charge": The whole
group is responsible for learning. The facilitator's role is to help
that learning happen more effectively. Nor does the facilitator have
sole control of the agenda. Participants should have a voice in determining
the topics to be covered.
- a lecturer: The facilitator is a co-learner,
exploring all subjects as an equal partner and contributing individual
experience to that of others.
- necessarily an expert: Although preparing each
session, the facilitator may not know as much about a subject as some
other members of the group.
- the center of attention: A good facilitator
generally speak less than other participants; instead she or he draws
them into the discussion.
- an arbiter: In collaborative learning, no one,
least of all the facilitator, determines that some opinions are "correct"
or "more valid."
- the maid: While the facilitator takes initial
leadership in coordinating the sessions, she or he should not become
the only person who takes responsibility. In a true collaboration,
no one is "stuck" cleaning up the mess or attending to administrative
details every time.
What Makes a Good Facilitator?
Some qualities of a good facilitator, such as personal
sensitivity and commitment, depend on the individual personality. However,
experience and awareness can improve everyone's skills at facilitating.
- Sensitivity to the feelings of individuals:
Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of trust and respect requires
an awareness of how people are responding to both the topics under
discussion and the opinions and reactions of others. Most people will
not articulate their discomfort, hurt feelings, or even anger; instead
they silently withdraw from the discussion and often from the group.
Sensing how people are feeling and understanding how to respond to
a particular situation is a critical skill of facilitation.
- Sensitivity to the feeling of the group:
In any group, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,
and group "chemistry" generally reflects shared feeling:
eager, restless, angry, bored, enthusiastic, suspicious, or even silly.
Perceiving and responding to the group's dynamic is essential to skillful
- Ability to listen: One way the facilitator
learns to sense the feelings of individuals and the group is by acute
listening, both to the explicit meaning of words and also to their
tone and implicit meaning. In fact, facilitators generally speak less
than anyone in the group. And often the facilitator's comments repeat,
sum up, or respond directly to what others have said.
- Tact: Sometimes the facilitator must
take uncomfortable actions or say awkward things for the good of the
group. The ability to do so carefully and kindly is critical. Furthermore
the subject matter of human rights can evoke strong feelings and painful
memories. The facilitator needs particular tact in dealing with emotional
situations respectfully and sometimes also firmly.
- Commitment to collaboration: Collaborative
learning can occasionally seem frustrating and inefficient, and at
such times every facilitator feels tempted to take on the familiar
role of the traditional teacher and to lead, rather than facilitate.
However, a genuine conviction about the empowering value of cooperative
learning will help the facilitator resist a dominating role. Likewise
the facilitator needs to be willing to share facilitation with others
in the group.
- A sense of timing: The facilitator needs
to develop a "sixth sense" for time: when to bring a discussion
to a close, when to change the topic, when to cut off someone who
has talked too long, when to let the discussion run over the allotted
time, and when to let the silence continue a little longer.
- Flexibility: Facilitators must plan,
but they must also be willing to jettison those plans in response
to the situation. Often the group will take a session in an unforeseen
direction or may demand more time to explore a particular topic. The
facilitator needs to be able to evaluate the group's needs and determine
how to respond to it. Although every session is important, sometimes
a facilitator will decide to omit a topic in favor of giving another
- A sense of humor: As in most human endeavors,
even the most serious, a facilitator's appreciation of life's ironies,
ability to laugh at one's self, and to share the laughter of others
enhances the experience for everyone.
- Resourcefulness and creativity: Each
group is as different as the people who make it up. A good facilitator
needs an overall program and goals but may also adapt it to fit changing
conditions and opportunities. For example, the facilitator may call
on the talents and experiences of people in the group and the community,
or participants may suggest resources.
PERSONAL CHECK LIST FOR FACILITATORS
- Be very clear about your role: your
behavior more than your words will convey that you are not the
teacher but a fellow learner.
- Be aware of your eyes: maintain eye
contact with participants.
- Be aware of your voice: try not to
talk too loudly, too softly, or too much.
- Be aware of your "body language":
consider where you sit or stand and other ways in which you
may unconsciously exercise inappropriate authority.
- Be aware of your responsibility:
make sure everyone has a chance to be heard and be treated equally;
encourage differences of opinion but discourage argument; curb
those who dominate; draw in those who are hesitant.
- Be aware when structure is needed:
explain and summarize when necessary; decide when to extend
a discussion and when to go on to the next topic; remind the
group when they get off the subject.
- Be aware of your power and share it:
ask others to take on responsibilities when ever possible (e.g.,
taking notes, keeping time, and, ideally, leading discussion).