Alternating between teacher and facilitator

Workshop at the meetings of the International Association of Facilitators, Toronto, Canada, April 27 – 30, 2000

Overview
Participation in a group process or workshop is easily stifled when participants perceive a facilitator to prefer some ideas and outcomes over others. When insights emerge from the participants themselves, they become more invested in the process and the outcomes. But what should teachers who use facilitation techniques some of the time in their classes do to be perceived as facilitating not directing the class. Conversely, what should facilitators of any kind of group do when they see that a crucial insight is not emerging? This article describes the design of a workshop in which the participants — including myself — can learn from each other’s experiences and insights regarding the tension between facilitating and “teaching” and the difficulties alternating between the two roles. The workshop consists of a series of activities for group interaction and intrapersonal reflection that should bring the experience and insight of teacher-facilitators to the surface. References are provided so that readers can explore the activities further in their own work.

An Exploratory Workshop

Participation in a group process or workshop is easily stifled when participants perceive a facilitator to prefer some ideas and outcomes over others. When insights emerge from the participants themselves, they become more invested in the process and the outcomes. But what should teachers who use facilitation techniques some of the time in their classes do to be perceived as facilitating neutrally, not directing the class. Conversely, what should facilitators of any kind of group do when they see that a crucial insight is not emerging?

I have designed my IAF 2000 workshop so that the participants — including myself — can learn from each other’s experiences and insights regarding the tension between facilitating and teaching (broadly construed), and the difficulties alternating between the two roles. The workshop consists of a series of activities for group interaction and intrapersonal reflection that should bring the experience and insight of teacher-facilitators to the surface. (A secondary aim of the workshop is that participants in their own work will explore further the interaction and reflection activities used during the workshop that were new to them.)

There are two phases to the workshop. The first phase is a case in which I alternate between teacher and facilitator. As teacher I present a mini-lecture on the topic of population and environment. This is a topic of general interest selected because I can, in a short time using slides and audience participation, introduce some non-standard perspectives about the role of scientific knowledge in shaping what counts as an environmental problem and for whom it is a problem (Taylor 1999). Then as facilitator I will lead a focused conversation (Stanfield 1997). This is designed so participants learn what other participants have observed and experienced regarding the topic of population and environment and move from separate impressions to a dialogue on implications of the lecture.

The second phase moves the workshop from presentation of a case of alternating between teacher and facilitator to eliciting participants’ insights on that issue. To effect a clear transition between the two phases, I will lead participants in ten minutes guided freewriting (Elbow 1981). Each participant will start writing with the unfinished sentence: “In this case it wasn’t I who tried to shift between teaching and facilitating, but the thoughts/ feelings/ experiences that come to mind about trying to do this in my own work include…” The freewriting should expose thoughts about the topic that had been below the surface of their attention.

Primed by the freewriting, participants will then complete a questionnaire on a) the essence of their own approach to the tensions between facilitating and teaching, plus contextual information (see b-f below). This questionnaire is based on the “Sense-Making” approach to information seeking and use developed by Brenda Dervin, in the Department of Communication at Ohio State (Derwin 1999). One finding from Sense-Making research is that people make much better sense of seminar presentations and other scholarly contributions when these are accompanied by contextual information along the following lines:

b) The reason(s) I took this road is (are)…
c) The best of what I have achieved is…
d) What has been particularly helpful to me in this endeavor has been…
e) What has hindered me, what I have struggled with has been…
f) What would help me now is…
Volunteers will then be invited to speak for two minutes, presenting one or two highlights from their responses and any additions they make while listening to the speakers who go before them.

Finally, as a “closing circle” and a workshop evaluation, every participant in the workshop will be asked to state one thing from the workshop that they plan to explore further in their own work, and one thing that could be developed further or done differently in a future workshop on this issue. A summary of the closing circle responses and of the questionnaires will be sent by email to all participants, to digest and make use of in their own work.

Facilitation Philosophy

The different interaction and reflection activities in the workshop share the same basic premises I see in the various workshop processes developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs. They are intended to keep participants listening actively to each other, to foster mutual respect and elicit more insight. What comes out of a well facilitated group process is very likely to be larger and more durable than what any one person came in with; the more so, the more voices that are brought out by the process. Notwithstanding any initial impressions to the contrary, everyone has insight and everyone’s insight is needed for the wisest result. Moreover, there is insight in every response. When a person is heard, they can better hear others which disturbs decisions made in advance about what the other people are like, what they are and are not capable of. And they can better “hear” themselves — each of us knows more than we are, at first, prepared or able to acknowledge.

Personal Contextualization

A little personal contextualization should help readers appreciate the motivation for this workshop and the activities employed. I have been a college teacher of critical thinking about science and society since 1986. Although I have let myself be stretched into arenas beyond science, the central goal of my teaching and writing is to show that placing developments in science and technology in their social context can enliven and enrich science education, science popularization, and citizen activism. Since about 1994 I have made time to learn from others about writing through the curriculum, designing opportunities for co-operative, experiential, and project-based learning, and fostering students’ different learning preferences (Taylor 1997). In 1997-98 I participated in three ICA facilitation training workshops in Toronto. In 1998 I took up a position in a College of Education. Increasingly, I find myself using ICA facilitation tools in my teaching and training others to use them in their own teaching and other professional work. Feedback from the ICA Canada listserv (enrol c/o melich@fhs.csu.mcmaster.ca) has been invaluable in this endeavor and, in order to continue to learn from more experienced facilitators, I decided to attend IAF 2000.

References

Dervin, B. (1999). “Chaos, order, and sense-making: A proposed theory for information design,” in Robert Jacobson (ed.) Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Also available (as of 21 May 1996) at http://edfu.lis.uiuc.edu/allerton/95/s5/dervin.draft.html.

Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stanfield, B. (Ed.) (1997). The Art of Focused Conversation. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs. Available via www.icacan.ca.

Taylor, P. J. (1997). “Making connections and respecting differences: Reconciling schemas for learning and group process.” Connexions (Newsletter of International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives)(March & July). Also available at http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/connexions.html

Taylor, P. J. (1999). “How do we know we have a population-environment problem?” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/popdialogue.html

Group meetings that are reflective and generative

Meetings in person or by conference call, as short as 30 minutes or as long as an hour, can make space for reflection and be generative of new work, even without a conventional agenda.  The format to follow evolved first in a weekly writing support group, was adapted for monthly conference call meetings to continue interactions initiated in an annual workshop, and continue to be refined with a weekly group of students writing their final Masters papers.

1. Freewriting to: a. get present (clearing away distracting concerns form our busy lives), and b. begin to consider the topic of the day (if there is one, e.g., in the Masters course).

2. Check-in: Short account of news or progress in writing since previous meeting + concern or question about the topic of the day (again, if there is one).  (No responses during the check-in.  Instead, write down any thoughts you have or tips of topics for one-on-one conversations.)

3. Dialogue process, i.e., listening with structured turn taking, that builds on the check-in.  Through inquiry more than advocacy (or rehearsal of previously formulated ideas), including inquiry of one’s own thinking, themes usually emerge.

4.  A few minutes writing to gather thoughts that have emerged as they are meaningful for you.

5.  Closing go-around:  Something you plan to address/get done/think more about before we meet next.  (Having this aired in the group–having it witnessed–makes it more likely to happen.)

Feel free to adopt or adapt this, and to report back on variants that work for your group.

Intersecting processes combined with Historical scan to generate enactable, group-specific praxis

This post describes an activity that addresses the shortcomings and potentialities of i. Intersecting process accounts, ii. Mapping by researchers of “connections” that motivated, facilitated, or constrained their inquiry and action; and iii. Historical Scan to set the scene in which a project is to be undertaken.

Intersecting processes accounts are generally produced by an outside observer and pay attention to developments in the larger political economy, while mapping and historical scans tend to be idiosyncratic, unsystematic with respect to theory, and transient (i.e., differ markedly if the same participant[s] repeated the activity at another time).  Mapping is also individual-centric and not detailed at the level of developments in the larger political economy.  Yet, accounts of the larger political economy often leave an individual wondering what to do short of joining in building a mass movement for revolutionary change, while mapping and historical scans are rich in—often generative of—meaning for the participant[s] and guidance in what to do next.

The activity—an experiment in collective construction of intersecting processes—that took place at the April 2010 meeting of the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change went (as best I can recollect) as follows:

1. Participants had given 15-minute autobiographical introductions that explained how they came to be someone who wanted to participate in a workshop on “Where social theory meets critical engagement with the production of scientific knowledge.”

2. Drawing on these introductions, participants undertook a Historical scan to synthesize and contextualize autobiographical narratives so as to set the scene for the reminader of the workshop.

“As you consider your involvement in this workshop, let’s paint a picture of the context in which we will be operating. Let’s think about this context having a past and a possible future and operating on three levels: “local,” “regional,” and “global.”
The “global” is the largest view relevant to the project, here, the world. The “local” is the personal perspective gained in the immediate unit of family, workplace,and community. The regional is the specific arena in which the project operates, here, study and engagement in the area of science and its social context.

Take a moment to jot down significant events at each of the levels over the past 10-30 years or a future event that you hope will be in the 5 years ahead.

Now choose 5* of them and write them in on the large post-its in as large block letters as will fit.
Select one from early on in this period. [Put them on the wall, consulting the group to keep them in order]
… from the middle… from the later part of the period…. others [including those covering the whole period]

When were you excited?….discouraged?
What do these events remind you of?
When were there transitions?
If this were a book, what name would you give for the “chapters” between the transitions?
…name for the whole “book”?
What have you learned about a diverse group of people coming together to “read this book”? [Remind participants to be telegraphic -- avoid speeches.]
What have you learned about the context in which your planning and action/thinking and learning will take place?
How shall you translate the learning into what you will do?”

3. Thinking of the three levels as strands of an intersecting processes account, identify gaps in each of our understanding of cross-scale linkages.

The activity above did not generate much active involvement of the participants in the synthesis in #2 and I’m not sure we even had time for the forming of questions about cross-sale linkages in #3. Possible modifications to address this shortcoming:
a. Allow for friendly amendments to correct and supplement the post-its on the wall and their placement in time.
b. Make copies of the postits (or photograph and print the wall) and allow each participant to process the items on their own, starting from “When were you excited” and going through to naming for the whole “book.”
c. Follow this with freewriting to allow participants to translate the experience into what they have learned and what they will do on the basis of what they have learned (see the last three questions of the historical scan above).
d. Share something clarified by the process with one partner and then in a whole-group discussion.

The result of such an activity would always be idiosyncratic—or group-specific—and probably time-specific (a year or so later the same group might generate a different picture—just think of December 2008 in the USA versus November 2010!). The cross-scale linkages would not be based on the depth of analysis that some historical political economists are capable of (e.g., Robert Brenner). However, as stated earlier, accounts of the larger political economy often leave an individual wondering what to do short of joining in building a mass movement for revolutionary change. In contrast, this activity, especially if repeated in different groupings, projects, contexts, might be enactable. The idea(l) is to provide meaning for the participants and guidance in what to do next at the same time as developing a deeper understanding of cross-scale linkages.

Post-script: When I prepared the post on the Future Ideal Retrospective, I planned to make the next post on this activity, which I saw as complementary. However, to motivate this activity I ended up having to run through a number of other parts of my thinking and practice, from a critical thinking activity to unruly complexity to heterogeneous construction to mapping, and more. This has been an interesting process of reconstruction.

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