Teaching: Have We Got it All Wrong? Unpacking The Power of Group Facilitation
Have you ever zoned out at the back of a classroom?
If you've been at school or university at some point in your life, chances are you have.
Walk into almost any classroom and you'll find students staring out the window, twiddling their thumbs, or on their phones. The fact of the matter is that students are completely disengaged.
The way in which learning is facilitated is still focused on an archaic idea of what teaching is. We shouldn't have the same expectations for teaching as we did years ago.
Learning and teaching are such innately social activities, so why don't we treat them as such?
David Kohler had the same realization during his first teaching job, too.
David holds a doctorate degree in mathematics and has been teaching this discipline with students for the past 15 years. In recent years, he has expanded his education mission and now trains other facilitators, and is a coach for personal training, development, and group facilitation.
David has been training hundreds of educators and facilitators through his learning and training community, Metonomy, and is passionate about empowering people to be their awesome and powerful selves.
David strongly believes that the time is ripe for a revolution in education and he has received several awards for his innovative teaching methods. His secret power? Pushing you just outside of your comfort zone without you even noticing it.
David joined us at a recent inspirEd by Galileo event where he spoke about his own journey of reframing education through facilitation and shared his nuggets of wisdom on what he's learned along the way as an educator and facilitator.
A Paradigm Shift to The nth Degree
While pursuing his Ph.D. in math, David Kholer was teaching calculus at his university. He approached teaching in the same way he had been taught as a student, with the exact same ground rules. He stood up at the blackboard, writing out equations while the students obediently copied down exactly what he had written.
David thought that he was doing a brilliant job as a teacher.
That is until he realized that only the students who had previously taken calculus were doing well in the course.
Those who did not know anything about calculus were totally disengaged, and David felt like he'd failed them.
David decided to do something about it. He enrolled in a teaching workshop at the university and was introduced to the science of learning. David says:
"I discovered that there was actual understanding behind what works and what doesn't work when it comes to learning and that we can create things that are more experiential, that are centered around the learner. This whole business of lectures mostly only works for very advanced people who already have most of the cognitive systems and structures for that."
David had an 'aha' moment in the workshop when one of the other participants gave an experimental workshop about color theory by using oil paints. For the first time in a long time, David felt the child-like joy of learning. From that point on, his idea of teaching completely shifted.
This was the turning point that inspired him to take what he had learned, and to put it into action in the classroom.
"I realized that you could have very advanced, complicated learning happening in an environment that's as engaging and fun as my memories of kindergarten were. I didn't necessarily have to write my course on a blackboard, like all of my university teachers, to teach advanced math."
Practicing What You Preach (Teach)
The following year, David was set to teach another calculus class. At his university, the students were broken up into small groups, so David was assigned a group of about 80 students. It was time to make his newfound ideas a reality.
This time around, David wanted to focus on the facilitation process. So, he stopped lecturing all together. It was time to shake up the ground rules.
And, he didn't touch the blackboard. Instead, he gave the class pre-readings, pre-class quizzes, group work, Q&A sessions, and group discussions between group members.
By the end of the year, all the students in his groups passed calculus with flying colors. Aside from the desired outcomes of achieving well in the course, David said something even more important happened: the students had fun.
David was even nominated by his students for numerous teaching awards at the university, which caught the attention of his colleagues. He says:
"I got a bunch of teaching awards that year, that the students applied me for. That got a buzz. My colleagues started asking what I had done with my students because clearly, something in my group processes had worked. And also, clearly, that's not what we usually do."
David's colleagues were so curious about his methods that he was asked to facilitate a workshop for his department. David shares:
"That got me started on training other teachers to rethink what it is to teach and to challenge the typical norms of education, especially with people who don't have education degrees in universities or out in the private sector. That's how it started, I just couldn't stop."
What is a Facilitator's Role For Group Members?
A facilitator's job takes on many forms, and there is no one right way to be an effective facilitator. Facilitating groups, especially, can be a complex process that requires a facilitator to work with the group dynamics, encourage participation and ensure there is a mutual understanding and shared responsibility for learning amongst all members of the group.
For the last few decades, academics have documented and analyzed the benefits of teachers taking on the role of a facilitator in the classroom. The idea behind a facilitator-based approach is that the focus when learning subject matter is for the facilitator to help and guide, rather than to direct or impose.
When it comes to a learning environment, the main role of a group facilitator is to ensure that each person in the group feels empowered, focused, and invested in their projects and activities.
The approach puts the onus on the group of students to engage in problem-solving, cooperate with one another, have participatory decision making, and choose their own way of approaching different tasks, rather than simply being told what to do.
Facilitation Techniques: Where the Magic Happens
So what has David learned since his eureka moment? David has spent years fine-tuning his facilitation skills and inclusive solutions. He outlined three key insights he's learned about effectively facilitating groups in a way that actually resonates with those doing the learning. While there is no strict set of ground rules, here is what David suggests.
1. Meet the Learner Where They Are
It may seem obvious, but where the learning happens is in the learner.
Many teachers see teaching as a knowledge transfer: they put their own knowledge and skills into the head of those that they are teaching. However, for the most part, students need more than this.
So it becomes a question of 'how can we provide them with the knowledge and tools to encourage people to learn this for themself?'. According to David, the answer can be found in experiential learning.
"People need experiences, they need time to reflect on those experiences, they need time to conceptualize those reflections into meaning. They need to take these concepts into practice by experimenting, which gives them more experiences. What we typically do as teachers is talk at students for a couple of hours, and all of the reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation is supposed to happen by magic somewhere else, in the privacy of student's room."
So, what's the solution here? Less time talking, more time reflecting.
"I think you can be way more effective as a teacher or facilitator if you structure the time you have with your learners to include time to reflect."
2. Learning Should Be Social, Not Individual
Learning is social and should be a group activity. The notion that we all learn individually is, according to David, insane.
In any group or any class, there's a unique atmosphere that encourages learners to engage with each other. This not only makes the learning process quicker and easier for all involved, but also a lot more profound.
"With all my groups, I'll easily spend 15 to 30 minutes at the beginning of the session for each group member to check-in. A lot of people have told me it looks like a huge waste of time. And I'll always disagree. For the group to get a chance to check in with each other and to share where they're at allows them to enter the space of this learning environment. In general, the group's discussions help to move the learning forward and ensure that not just one person speaks."
This group process helps to encourage full participation, helps the group improve energy levels, and ensures good communication for the rest of the session. David says:
"We shouldn't treat groups of learners as consumers of a learning product. A good facilitator helps learners to actively check into the learning environment and invites group members to work with each other. This creates a learning environment that's social, not individual."
3. The Power of Authenticity
If you want someone to learn how to build a house, lecturing them on how to build a house will only go so far. At some point, you'll have to actually build a house.
This is something known as the authenticity of learning activities.
If a facilitator wants their learners to grasp something, they need to do it in a context that is authentic and meaningful to the learner. David says:
"As facilitators, often we fail to do that. We talk about things, rather than give a more authentic activity. The only time these are things really is in the assessments, where there is a judgment component to the learning. The feedback component that supports your training and development is pushed aside by the demands of the assessment."
This also connects to the concept of active learning, also known as experiential learning. It requires learners to experience something, reflect on it, conceptualize and then experiment.
"If I'm in chemistry, and I watch a video of someone putting Mentos in Diet Coke, there's a big explosion and a big reaction. If a student watches this, they would think 'that's really cool, what happened?' Then from that reflection space, they go to conceptualizing to start making sense of it. And then from there, they'll maybe want to experiment. It doesn't mean in order to learn about every chemical reaction that you have to conduct an experiment in a lab, but it's this idea of wanting to think it through and trying something even reality on your head that will give you a new experience."
The mark of a skilled facilitator is a person who can inspire others to learn, and more importantly, develop a lifelong love for learning. David hopes to keep inspiring both those who teach and those who learn.
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