Posted tagged ‘facilitation’

The learnification of education

30 September 2014

I start this post by thanking Angela Towndrow, a fellow Aussie whom I met virtually via a mooc, and from whom I continue to draw insights on things related to education.

After reading my previous post Let’s get rid of the instructors!, Angela pointed me to the journal article Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher by Gert Biesta. And I’m glad she did.

Professor Biesta’s article is a response to the marginalisation of teaching in modern society, and a call for teachers to teach, to be allowed to teach, and to have the courage to teach.

The premise of the professor’s argument is that there is a difference between “education” and “learning”:

“…the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships. Yet it is in relation to these dimensions, so I wish to suggest, that teaching matters and that teachers should teach and should be allowed to teach. And it is also in relation to these dimensions that the language of learning has eroded a meaningful understanding of teaching and the teacher.”

It is this learnification of educational discourse that has rendered the words I cited in my previous post – “training”, “lecture”, “course” and “teaching” – dirty. And I must confess it gives me heart to find someone of Professor Biesta’s calibre in my corner (or more accurately, to find myself in his).

Student using an iPad

In describing our general mindshift from teaching to learning, Biesta tells the story of two English schools that, upon merging, no longer wanted to call themselves a “school”. So they named their merged entity Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning. Beyond the deliciously Waughian nature of this name, Biesta objects to its semantics:

“…the language of learning, particularly in its constructivist form, has repositioned the teacher from someone who is at the heart of the educational process to one who literally stands at the sideline in order to facilitate the learning of his or her ‘learners.’

Some of the arguments that have contributed to the rise of the language of learning are not without reason – there is indeed a need to challenge authoritarian forms of education; the rise of the internet does raise the question as to what makes schools special; and, to a certain extent, it cannot be denied that people can only learn for themselves and others cannot do this for them (although this does not mean that there are no limits to constructivism).

However, the language of learning falls short as an educational language, precisely because, as mentioned, the point of education is never that students learn but that they learn something, for particular purposes and that they learn it from someone. The language of learning is unable to capture these dimensions partly because learning denotes a process that, in itself, is empty with regard to content and direction; and partly because learning, at least in the English language, is an individualistic and individualising term whereas the educational question – if, for the moment we want to phrase it in terms of learning – is always a matter of learning something from someone.

From this angle it is just remarkable, if not shocking, how much policy – but increasingly also research and practice – has adopted the empty language of learning to speak about education. Yet if this is indeed the only language available, then teachers end up being a kind of process-managers of empty and in themselves directionless learning processes.”


I certainly agree that the language of learning pushes the sage off the stage and recasts them as a guide on the side. But I feel compelled to point out that this does not in itself render the art of facilitation devoid of educational purpose. On the contrary, I see facilitation as a means of education. Assuming the teacher has in mind a certain something for his or her children to learn, then to “teach” may mean to stage the encounter indirectly – that is, to seed, scaffold, clarify and validate – as opposed to direct instruction.

Indeed, Biesta offers the most eminent of examples in Socrates:

“…when we look more carefully at Socrates we can already see that he is not just there to facilitate any kind of learning but that, through an extremely skilful process, he is trying to bring his students to very specific insights and understandings. Seen in this way, Socrates is actually an extremely skilful didactician, because he knows all too well that to just ‘rub it in’ is unlikely to convince his students about the things he wants to convince them of.”

Biesta goes on to suggest that that Socrates was a manipulative teacher, and I whole-heartedly agree. If there were no manipulation underpinning the Socratic method, then I dare say that sales people wouldn’t use it! Yet while facilitative teaching is by definition manipulative, I implore that it need not be deemed so in the negative sense. It is rather a manifestation of the teacher exercising his or her judgement in the context of the given situation.

Students in class with teacher reading

To Biesta, it is teaching (not learning) that makes the school special. He sees teaching as a gift, and the giving of this gift as the raison d’être of the institution. So instead of thinking of a school as a place for learning, he prefers to think of it as a place for teaching.

But does this swing the pendulum too far back the other way?

Indeed I agree that we should think of a school as a place for teaching. As my rambling in Let’s get rid of the instructors! will attest, I very much advocate teaching under the right circumstances. However, just as the learnification of educational discourse devalues teaching, I believe the teacherfication of educational discourse devalues learning.

Notwithstanding the importance of our students learning something for particular purposes from someone, sometimes that “something” can not be taught because it hails from the future; which is a round-about way of saying that we need to teach our children how to learn so that we can future proof their education.

My understanding of “learning” in this sense is not empty and directionless because the teacher is there to guide and support the process. I contend that the role of the teacher can find the middle ground between the ultra-conservative view of teaching – whereby the curriculum is transmitted from state to child – and the neo-liberal view that would have us throw the curriculum out the window (except where it furthers its own agenda, of course). On this middle ground the teacher is empowered to work with the curriculum as he or she sees fit; whether that be via direct instruction, or facilitation, or perhaps even – sometimes – rhizomatic exploration.

So I advocate neither Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning nor Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Teaching. If learning skills are to be incorporated into the education that our schools give our children, then let’s call a spade a spade: Watercliffe School: A Place for Teaching and Learning.


Effective virtual facilitation

14 October 2009

As virtual classes rapidly become de rigueur, the need for an effective virtual facilitation framework accelerates.

I propose the 5-stage model of e-moderation developed by world-renowned networked learning guru, Gilly Salmon.

While Salmon’s model primarily supports asynchronous networked learning, I contend that it supports synchronous networked learning just as well.

The Model

Salmon’s 5-stage model of e-moderation is based on, umm, 5 stages:

Salmon's 5-stage model of e-moderation

All 5 stages contribute to the learning process.

Here’s my take on each one, based on my reading of E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching & Learning Online and of course my own two-cent’s worth…

Stage 1: Access & motivation

This stage is about getting your remote participants up and running.

Inform your participants very early that the virtual class will be happening, when and where. Book the time out in their calendar, and let them know that they will be receiving an email to provide them with the access details. Also let them know that they won’t need any special equipment, just a phone (or headset) and an internet connection.

Provide them with any documents they will need beforehand.

Encourage the participants to enter the virtual class 30 minutes early so they can iron out any technical glitches. It’s a good idea to provide them with the contact details of someone for troubleshooting, and to explain if it all goes belly up, it’s not a disaster: just let it go and you can work out something later. (You might consider running a trial session, but that might be overkill – afterall, virtual platforms are fairly straightforward these days.)

Click Me!, courtesy of wagg66, stock.xchng.

On the motivation side, it’s a good idea to explain to the participants up front why they should attend the class. As previously noted, adult learners are problem-oriented, so you need to explain how spending this hour or so will help them in their job. You should also explain why they should do it in virtual format (eg so they don’t waste time traveling into the office).

I’d also suggest encouraging the participants to text chat as soon as they enter the virtual space, to introduce themselves and get to know each other. Not only does this initiate socialisation (see Stage 2), but it also checks that they know how to use the technology. Of course, the facilitator should greet everyone as they enter.

Stage 2: Online socialisation

Smiley, courtesy of ctr, stock.xchng.Socialising would have already gotten started on an ad hoc basis as the participants entered the virtual space and waited for official kickoff.

I’d suggest following this up with some sort of ice breaker – with a lot of people, you might want to keep it reined in. For example, it could be a simple question like Have you ever met anyone famous?

Following this, the facilitator should emphasise the collaborative nature of the session, and reinforce how it’s all about sharing ideas & experiences and learning from each other. Ask them what they personally want to achieve from the session. Cultivate a warm, friendly environment.

Stage 3: Information exchange

This is where the “serious” class begins. The facilitator should define the learning outcomes of the session (and tailor them according to the audience’s expectations), then refer to the information that was previously provided.

If there’s more information to disseminate (in instructivist format), then this is where it’s done.

Real-life examples should be used wherever possible.

Stage 4: Knowledge construction

Digger, courtesy of mzacha, stock.xchng.This is arguably the most important stage for learning.

Everyone’s at the same place at the same time, the ice is broken and they’re familiar with the information that’s been provided to them. Now it’s time to figure out what it all means.

The facilitator should actively invite the participants to discuss the key concepts, raise ideas and ask questions. It’s very important to ask them to share their experiences, and to suggest how they might apply the new learnings to their own role.

At this point, the participants are actually learning from each other. The facilitator guides, prompts, prods, questions, challenges and clarifies.

Close up of The Thinker, courtesy of marttj under Creative Commons, Flickr.Stage 5: Development

This stage is all about reflection, and it can be done after the actual session. A post-session worksheet might prove useful for this purpose.

The facilitator should also raise awareness of other resources that the participants can continue to use after the session. Perhaps other courses, websites, discussion forums, podcasts, blogs etc.

Evolving e-learning in the workplace

Using Salmon’s 5-stage model of e-moderation as a framework, SMEs can transform from sage on the stage to guide on the side.

And isn’t that what adult learning is all about?