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There is an increased desire for conversations around race from students, as well as staff and faculty. Strong facilitation skills from the instructor are important when beginning such conversations in the classroom space. Facilitation is nuanced and individualized. More often than not, any formal instruction on facilitation focuses its time and attention less on how to facilitate and more on what will be facilitated. The tendency toward teaching content rather than the skill of facilitation has a lot to do with its nuance. Each person brings something different to their role as a facilitator. How you facilitate is influenced by your positionality, including your identities, histories, experiences, and biases. As a result, there isn’t any one “right” or “correct” way to facilitate, but rather, a way that feels more appropriate for you. Facilitation will feel authentic the more you intentionally bring your own personality, energy, and interests into it.
Likewise, each participant will also bring something to how they experience your facilitation. Everyone has different expectations of how facilitation will look, who will lead it, how directive it is, and how structured it will be. Part of facilitation is balancing your role as the facilitator and the expectations of your participants in order to create productive learning spaces. This is something that takes time, practice, and care. It may feel challenging so be sure to treat your learning with kindness, notice what you hope to improve upon, and then allow yourself to do so.
The role of the facilitator can be understood in a variety of ways depending on your content, environment, and philosophy. One way of thinking about a facilitator is as the captain of a team. Even without the captain, the team possesses the necessary skill to achieve their goals provided they work together. A captain alone can’t play the entire game in any sport, demonstrating how valuable the team is. The team, however, relies on the captain direction, coordination, strategy, and vision. Similarly, the role of the facilitator is to provide guidance to participants, built connections between content, push participants to engage more deeply, and be mindful of the needs and power dynamics of the group.
A lot of people start facilitating with the feeling that it’s at least a little bit like acting. A facilitator may be emulating people whose facilitation styles felt effective or impactful then or just what they feel like good facilitation should look like. The key to authentically facilitating is to reflect on the self and what you’re bringing to a space.
If you’re not quite sure where to start considering your positionality, check out the Reflecting on Social Justice Foundational Concepts micro-course.
When introducing topics into your classroom, there are a number of different ways to present content, engage with participants, and think about facilitator engagement. The three methods outlined below are lecturing, teaching, and facilitating. Each has different strengths and uses in a classroom setting and comes with different considerations when choosing which will best for your topic and classroom environment. Often, classes use a combination of these tactics in order to create productive learning spaces.
Required content: In a classroom setting, there is always some learning the environment is trying to accomplish. When considering the required content, it’s important to reflect on what the group needs to know. Is there something very specific that the group cannot proceed without? Is there a broad swath of information necessary to continue learning in future classes? Is it unlikely that the participants have the foundational knowledge to proceed in desired direction for classroom discussion? Or is there more flexibility in the required content? It may be something that students have lived experience of or some foundational knowledge gleaned through previous classes or assignments. There may also be times when you have a general sense of what your participants need to know, but have some flexibility in terms of touching on everything.
Time Flexibility: Classes will always operate on a set time limit, so when considering time flexibility, it’s really about the relationship between required content and time constraints. If you have a large amount of specific information that must be covered, there may be less flexibility in terms of how much time you can spend on each topic or idea introduced. If there is an equal balance of content or if you have more flexibility in terms of getting to everything, there may be more flexibility in how you allot time as well.
Facilitator engagement: Generally speaking, facilitators will never be taking a passive role in any of these methods. The work of guiding, building connections, and attending to the needs of participants requires a high level of attention to dynamics as they unfold. The role of the facilitator is one that comes with the responsibility of being aware of how discussions are progressing, how systems of power are being replicated, and whose voices and narratives are being centered and why. The higher the facilitator engagement, the more control the facilitator has in a given situation and the lower the agency of the participant. This is particularly helpful when the facilitator is in possession of specialized knowledge you cannot reasonably assume the participants also possess or if there are a large number of participants in relation to the number of facilitators.
Participant engagement: Participants can experience different levels of engagement to different ends. A low level of engagement may look more passive, such as in a lecture in which the facilitator controls the content presented or a higher level of engagement like in facilitation where participants can control some of the direction and development of content.
Any time a facilitator is speaking directly and uninterrupted to learners.
A co-constructed relationship between learner and facilitator requiring the learner to buy in and the facilitator to maintain an awareness of the needs of the learners.
A decentralized learning experience in which all members of the community are involved in the development or navigation of content.
If you find that teaching or facilitating is a good fit for your classroom, you may also want to consider some different strategies for engaging within the classroom. Not all forms of talking achieve the same purpose. Below are three strategies for integrating participant engagement into your classroom space and considerations for each.
To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question to consider how this content applies to your current or future practice.
Think about a course you’re working with or will be working with: