Enhancing understanding through Teaching and Facilitation


Although teaching and facilitation share some skills, becoming a good teacher or a good facilitator requires two different sets of skills.

When teaching  a workshop or facilitating a session the classroom or meeting room becomes a space for thinking, discussing and understanding. Lately, the concept of teaching has changed from a more traditional approach associated with teachers-students power dynamic in which teacher delivers content and students receive it to a more participatory dynamics in which students are active learners. Among these changes, the facilitation approach (although not a new approach) is increasingly emerging as another form of teaching based on collaborative techniques in which people get familiar with content by their own hands. However, these two activities should not be confused as the same one. Although teaching and facilitation do have commonalities, they are two activities which address different challenges and needs, and therefore require different skills and role responsibilities.

The Role of Facilitator

Goals: A facilitator assists colleagues during a meeting or session to work together more effectively, and supports them to ‘do their best thinking’. Facilitators are needed when a group of people is struggling to address complex challenges (e.g. clarify roles and responsibilities for new projects, introduce new technology into a workplace, long-term planning), often involving a varied range of professionals or professionals from different backgrounds (e.g. administrators, leaders, project managers) working together to find a solution. In these cases, people’s frames of reference (e.g. past experiences, skills, use of words, understanding of concepts) are most likely to be different. When people working together towards a same goal have diverse frames of reference, communication and understanding problems are common, and agreeing on simple things (e.g. what each person should be doing) or identifying possible solutions becomes very challenging.

Content. Facilitators are a ‘content neutral party’. This means that they do no have to deliver specific content or be content experts on the topic or subject matter of the session. They don’t take sides, express or support a point of view during a session, rather they encourage open and inclusive procedures to take further the group’s work. Facilitators don’t need to respond content-related questions, but help participants respond these questions through discussion and sharing thoughts with the group.

Skills: The facilitator’s toolkit includes ways to help people ‘build a shared framework of understanding’, determine a common language and bring structure to various ways of thinking and solving problems. Some of these techniques and methods are focused on managing behaviours, encouraging full participation, promoting mutual understanding, connecting dots while diverging on ideas and searching for inclusive solutions, and introducing new thinking skills to reverse assumptions, remove constraints, and recenter causes.

Methods: Frequent methods used in facilitated sessions are open discussion, working in small groups, debriefing, brainstorming, intentional silence, questions and answers, and structured thinking activities like categorising, dote voting, listing (e.g. ideas, priorities, pros and cons), analysis of case studies, describing walk-through examples, and creating scenarios. Paraphrasing, mirroring and stacking are techniques often used to make sure that everyone is on the same page and shares a same understanding.

Responsibilities: The facilitator and the person in charge (who is not the facilitator, but, e.g. the project manager or owner) need to meet and agree in advance the aims of the session. The person in charge should identify and provide in advance to the facilitator possible topics for discussion, clarify goals and set specific outcomes for each of the topics, and present the agenda of the meeting during the session.

The Role of Teacher

Goals: A teacher facilitates people’s (students) learning journeys on a particular subject matter or field of study by imparting theoretical and practical content on that area, and providing guidance and support. Teachers are needed when one or more people have a need for learning a new subject matter or skill. This need can arise at different levels and contexts: e.g. teenagers in high school and adults in graduate programmes in the education context, or professionals in the business context. In both contexts, and regardless of the topic being taught, teachers should present a set of achievable, observable, and measurable assessment criteria that will be used during that particular session/course/workshop to evaluate participants/students’ learning journeys and outcomes. Depending on the context in which a class is delivered, assessment can be more or less demanding. However, assessing students’ journeys should be a key part of teaching to ensure that the needed content is being delivered and understood.

Content: Teachers must be content experts as they should be able to deliver key concepts and theories. The level of expertise needed depends on the level of instruction required: teaching high school students demands very different content expertise than providing training to professionals. While teachers don’t take sides, they do respond content-related questions, and should have enough knowledge to realise when a student is misunderstanding a concept, needs additional support, or when an idea could be improved.

Skills: Teaching is more than understanding and delivering content; it involves pedagogic skills. Teachers need to learn how to articulate content in a way that students can engage with, understand, remember and apply that content to solve future related problem-situations. Teachers need to provide a holistic approach (emphasize problem-solving, encourage reflection, give time to discovery) while helping students think conceptually, critically, and creatively. They also need management skills to organise the flow of a class and students’ behaviours, and tailor content according to students’ needs.

Methods: Classes can be theory-based (e.g. lectures), practice-based (e.g. studio practices), or problem-based learning focused (e.g. bridge theory and practice). Lectures, class discussions, case study analysis, individual and group assignments, independent work (homework), research exercises, visual thinking, drawing, field trips are some frequent methods used to deliver content and ensure that students’ learning is evolving.

Responsibilities: Teachers define the goals and aims of a course or session based on the overall aims of a programme or needs for a workshop. They determine the topics to be discussed and design the activities to be accomplished during each session.

Learning from each other

Both, teachers and facilitators, deal with improving understanding, but while the former are facilitators of learning and knowledge construction, the latter are supporters of discussions and shared frameworks of knowledge. Teachers should learn from facilitators (e.g. how to better manage discussions) and vice a versa (e.g. how to better organise a session). But, to get the most of each of these activities, their essence and required skills should be clearly understood. This will help make decisions when:

  • Teaching a class/workshop or facilitating a session
  • Identifying key requirements to hire a teacher or a facilitator
  • Knowing key requirements to offer a service
  • Determining which professional expertise is needed in each situation.

In both cases, professionals with the above skills are in high demand as their services can greatly enhance understanding in various contexts. I could also argue that having information design skills can significantly improve the performance of teachers and facilitators (regardless of the topic being taught or the type of session being facilitated). But this analysis will be discussed in the next post.

This post is inspired by: Kaner, Sam. (2002) Facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making. USA: New Society Publishers

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