The role of a facilitator

Definition of a facilitator

Wikipedia defines a facilitator as
  • someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan to achieve them without taking a particular position in the discussion. The facilitator will try to assist the group in achieving a consensus on any disagreements that preexist or emerge in the meeting so that it has a strong basis for future action. The role has been likened to that of a midwife who assists in the process of birth but is not the producer of the end result.

They also have a sub-definition for a training facilitator who works in the area of adult education.
  • These facilitators are usually subject experts, however draw on the knowledge of the participants and then fill in any gaps. Training facilitators focus on the foundations of adult education: establish existing knowledge, build on it and keep it relevant.

Wikipedia also notes that the role of training facilitator is different from the formal trainer who will take a more leading role and take the group through an agenda designed to transmit a body of knowledge or a set of skills to be acquired.

Task: Examine your role
In the poll below, indicate which kind of facilitation you do within your cluster or school (polls are anonymous).

There are discussion points that can be found in the 'Discussion' tab for this wiki page about our role as facilitators. Please visit these and add your perspectives.

Key skills for facilitators

This YouTube video talks about the role of a facilitator. While it may have been created with business in mind, much of it is equally valid for facilitators working in education. The focus of facilitation in this video is when working with groups during a workshop or meeting. Some people may be unable to view this video at work due to school filtering so you may need to able to access it from home in this situation.

Task: Response to the video
Here are some focus questions relating to the video that you are invited to respond to below. You can do this by click edit and typing your thoughts under each question on the wiki. Use a new line (A: ) for each person answering. Add more as needed. Click save once completed.
Thanks to Indira, Deb and Pam for their contributions below. We would love to hear from others as well.
Q: How would your prioritise the seven key skills outlined in the video? Briefly explain your reasoning.
O.K here goes...I think first comes the point Trust the group. You have to have this attitude in your head before you even arrive at the place/point of facilitation. A very nice reminder ot keep your own ego in check! After this come Listening and Creating a safe environment. These kind of work together for me; a safe environment is partially created by listening and also encourages listening. It seems to me that it's only by listening within a safe environment that you can begin to contemplate and work towards those other key skills; Supporting, summarizing, challenging (especially challenging!) and leading the process.
For me the support is the most important. This generates a trustful environment which gives the group confidence and then you need to let go - trust the group. So, I would rank it 1) support, 2) create a safe environment and 3) trust the group.
A: Having a safe and supportive environment are important for me, I feel this helps to encourage participation of the group/s. I know from my own experience at workshops I have attended that the best sessions have been when groups (who often don't know each other) feel able to work together. Listening and challenging ideas also works for me.Trish
How would I prioritise the skills needed for effective facilitation of an ictpd cluster?
Sometimes I suspect that the technique of facilitation of an ictpd cluster is a little like technique in lovemaking
My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity. — John Barth
But sometimes I suspect that facilitation it is more akin to a ritualised rain dance
'A good deal of corporate planning ... is like a ritual rain dance. It has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think that it does.... Moreover, much of the advice related to corporate planning is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather. ' Dartmouth's Brian Quinn
A good example of this comes from start up claims in the video – the video re-iterates that much favoured classroom myth that group brainstorming is a creativity tool – that it increases the quality and quantity of ideas generated.
Brainstorming is so common in New Zealand that it ranks as a foundational pedagogy in primary schools . Osborn’s brainstorming has such iconic status in education – none would speak against it?
Yet Osborn’s Produce as many ideas as possible; Produce ideas as wild as possible; Build upon each others ideas; Avoid passing judgement of ideas, just doesn’t work.
Facilitating brainstorming is a classic example of “ritual rain dance” stuff. It has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think that it does....
In The Medici Effect” by Johansson we read that in experiments from across the world
“real groups have never once been shown to be more productive than virtual groups. In fact real groups that engage in brainstorming consistently generate about half the number of ideas they would have produced if the group’s individuals had pondered the problem on their own. In addition, in the studies where the quality of ideas was measured, researchers found that the total number of good ideas was much higher in virtual groups than in real groups.”p111
Why do we persevere with a facilitating a practice that limits the quantitative and qualitative creativity of individuals? Possibly because we are a profession based on anecdote rather than evidence.
Rather alarmingly the video moves on to align creativity with the need for outcomes that make money - “... change products to make them more profitable ..” Brutally honest perhaps in business but I’d rather frame creativity as something we need to help us learn to live in a better ways.
Still I guess I need to look at the seven lessons for facilitation – and attempt to prioritise them - now seven is a very cool number - it has been used for everything from dwarves to wonders of the ancient world, to years of plenty and years of famine.
It would be churlish to deny seven skills for facilitation ... to insist on eight ... to suggest ten ... and foolish as well given that human short-term memory is often times claimed to have a forward memory span of approximately seven items
However, when I listen to what is claimed for each skill (Listening, Support, Summarise, Challenge, Lead Process, Create safe environment and Trust ) I hear one claim on repeat play
Is kind of like that “One ring to rule them all” stuff
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
It seems that none of the seven facilitation skills will work without clear Achievement objectives, Learning Intentions and Success Criteria
Just like our kids in NZ classrooms, participants in sessions we facilitate need to be able to tell
1. What is going on
2. How well it is going
3. What they should do next
So being an effective facilitator means planning, monitoring and evaluating clear achievement objectives, learning intentions and success criteria with participants.
What I heard on the tape that persuaded me ..
“Objectives to be achieved” [Need: Achievement Objective]
“You are not the focus of the workshop – you are not the star – rather it is work objectives the workshop is achieving” [Need: Achievement Objective]
“Summarise what has been said so far so everyone understands what has been happening so far” [Need success criteria of learning intentions of achievement objectives so people understand what has been happening so far]
“Tease out a bit more of what has been said – how does this apply to our objective? [Need success criteria of learning intentions of achievement objectives so people can see how what has been said applies to success criteria]
“Focus on how the w/s agenda is achieved – everything is done within the time frame set.” [Need: assessment against success criteria of learning intentions of achievement objectives.
“Everyone should .... contribute to the achievement of the objective” [Need: Achievement objective , learning intentions, success criteria]
“You just need to make sure they do what they need to do with the time that is allocated.” [Need: Achievement objective , learning intentions, success criteria]
Creating a safe and supportive environment to me is the most important. Without this people won't share and out of this comes the ways in which you as a facilitator are going to achieve this through: listening, summarising, supporting, challenging and leading the process. The second thing is to trust the group - believe and convey to them the objectives are the group's responsibility but the process is the facilitators job.
Q: What key skills would you add to the seven as being important in your role?
A; I have been particularly nerdy and am thinking about the role of facilitator in terms of the Key Competencies. I am kinda obsessed by these and have not yet found a context in which I cannot apply them with a reasonable sense of satisfaction. Anyway all the skills discussed in the videa can be attributed to different contexts -Listening, creating a safe environment, leading the process all fall under Participating and Contributing (but not just there). Supporting, summarizing, challenging are methods of Relating to Others, and Trusting the group definitely requires you Manage Yourself. Thinking is the process through which you decide when and how to make any of these things happen. Using Language, Symbols and Text is about your own professional contextual knowledge I guess, something not mentioned in the movie...
A: Empathy and understanding, a
n effective communicator, knowledgeable and able to impart this knowledge to others,
able to understand androgogy and pedagogy, alife-long learner and critical and reflective thinker, able to be challenged themselves- Tessa
A: Great ideas above - the only other thing I can think of is being well organised and clear about what the objectives are.

Q: What differences do you see between the role of the facilitator as outlined in the video and your own role in clusters and schools?
A: For me the dual role of Principal and Facilitator is challenging. Even when I try really really hard to keep my mouth shut, to leave my ego behind, to 'trust the group' I still have an actual working school that undermines me. That is my Mulberry Grove School, visible to everyone on Great Barrier, is a living, functioning, evolving, day-to-day illustration of what I think, my philosophical approach and teaching and learning systems. I wonder sometimes if this inhibits those I work with as 'facilitator'...oh man this just sounds all ego...
A: At the moment we are at the beginning of our cluster and so we are working on upskilling staff (formal trainer) but the discussions and staff meetings are starting to focus on core beliefs and pedigogy behind ICT - In the video the role of the facilitator is to support, not giving opinions, perhaps based on this my role is more as a 'training facilitator - filling the gaps, which does require some level of opinion based comment. -Deb
A: I have moved from working as an ICTPD cluster facilitator to working in the private sector and facilitating a group of schools on a project sponsored by NZ Trade and Enterprise to embed enterprise into the curriculum. I think the main differences in working with a cluster of schools and the role on the video is that it is more than just one meeting and the meetings are sometimes with the group and sometimes with individuals - so the dynamic is different. Some meetings are about PD and some are about facilitating discussions.
Q: What main messages do you take away after viewing the video?
A: The best, most important thing I take is that it's not a facilitator's job to tell anyone what to do! This is encouraging because in NZ it is Principals who are mandated to Lead Learning within their schools -not any facilitator of any description from any contract. Yes a facilitator can question, critique, challenge but if they do all that and a principal still retains their particular, justified poition, a facilitator should roll with it...I guess this is meaningful to me because I'm very wary of facilitators pushing the agenda of the organisation they represent and/or whatever happens to be currently in vogue in education. The use of Learning Intentions is one thing that springs to mind; yes these can sometimes be a useful tool but they are by no means the only way of doing things and can be very problematic in some contexts and it is not up to a facilitator to foist them (or anything) onto a Principal or a school.
A: I agree that one form of facilitation is about 'not telling people what to do' (as in the video) but there are times that facilitators are working in other roles such as the ones outlined above where their role is a training facilitator to help schools and teachers to learn about approaches that have been endorsed by the MoE and are backed up by research. Most people who have voted above have said they are involved in a mix of all three types of facilitator role. The example you have used of learning intentions is an interesting one as this is an approach that has been widely and internationally researched in education (as shown in the Best Evidence Synthesis) and has local research to back up the its effectiveness ( I would consider a facilitator that endorses this approach is not pushing a personal agenda but would be reflecting the current thinking within the MoE and internationally. Still, I agree that a facilitator shouldn't be foisting things on anyone - they can simply provide the exposure and resources to challenge and move thinking forward. At the end of the day, it is the actions and beliefs of staff within a school that will decide the outcome of the facilitation. - Suzie Vesper
A: Thank you Indira and Suzie for these comments, great debate here with loads to think about. Thank you. There is much research emerging now about the role of the facilitator and as Timperley writes in Teacher Professional Learning and Development, “Expertise external to the group of participating teachers is necessary to challenge existing assumptions and develop the kinds of new knowledge and skills associated with positive outcomes for students” (p16). Therefore a facilitator or knowledgeable expert needs to know, “…content of the relevant curricula and what teaching practices make a difference for students.” They also need to be able to, “…challenge assumptions and present teachers with new possibilities; challenge the social norms by which collegial groups operate, wherever these norms constrain professional learning; and keep the focus on students and their learning” (p16).
The ICT PD contract (like any other professional development project) is about affirming those beliefs/practices that align with effective practice research and also about challenging existing beliefs and practice – while supporting new ways of thinking and new ways of working. Sometimes this means challenges current positions which do not align with effective practice research, in a nurturing and supportive way. If the facilitator still comes across as “telling people what to do” or imposing a position, then it is more about the manner by which they are facilitating, which is not reflective of the key skills for effective facilitation as mentioned above.
In terms of the reference to ‘learning intentions’, some would view, they become a rationale for teaching. They are the goals set, which identifies improved outcomes, based on identified needs (collected through effective data gathering processes). They are primarily designed to provide students with learning experiences that enhance specific learning outcomes. Reflective practice becomes part of this cycle. While there is scope to recognise incidental and accidental learning, a focus on valued student outcomes is the basis for effective teaching and learning. These goals can and are negotiated with learners. This aligns with national and international research in education - Best Evidence Synthesis documents, Timperley, Robinson and Guskey. In terms of the national ICT PD contract goals, "Increased capability of teachers and principals to improve students’ learning and achievement through e-learning" is a fundamental component of the ICT PD contract and one in which schools and school leaders are obligated to address, with appropriate support.
A: The main thing I come away from this clip with, is the fact that being a facilitator of the group is about people - encouraging everyone to be a part of the outcome and having the right approach to challanging strong individuals in the group. Being focused on creating a safe, positive enviroment that is inclusive, and not being so focused on the content. -Deb
A: My thoughts from the clip are that as a facilitator you need to be aware of your audience, ensure that the environment creates a space were people feel supported and secure. Listen to and challenge your audience while remembering to achieve the desired outcome. One important idea I will remember is to add the personal touch. Trish

Qualities of a successful facilitator

These were the words that the Twitter community contributed when asked what important qualities an effective facilitator needs.

Task: Finding out expectations
Think about what you believe are important attributes for yourself as a facilitator and what your key role is within your school or cluster. Ask the group that you work with what attributes they value for someone in your role and what they think your role entails. Do the two align? It is important that all stakeholders have a shared understanding of your role.