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Encouraging Productive Discussion: Suggestions for Extra-Classroom Facilitators
Learning from my experiences as an extra-classroom facilitator this semester, I am exploring a process by which we, as facilitators, can determine how best to be of service to our groups, given our specific extra-learning contexts. The following are a series of questions for the facilitator to ask herself, as well as some of insights, experiences, and struggles from my facilitation experiences this spring.
1) Assess your own role as a facilitator. Who are you in this group of people? Are you an expert? What do you bring to the group?
As a teaching assistant, there is little separation between me and my students, because we are all college students. The difference is that I have some degree of expertise because I am a senior in the department and I have taken the course that they are currently taking, and I received a positive assessment in the course.
This raises several issues. First, I have to examine my role in the classroom. My role is really that of an assistant facilitator, or a sub-facilitator. I step in if there is an essential point that people are missing or if the discussion leader is inactive, or if the class is being completely unresponsive, my goal is to purposefully promote discussion. One thing I have to do is try to build a comfortable environment in the group through affirming participation.
What I am most concerned with here is how to ask open questions that promote discussion, even guide discussion, but that are not “leading” in the sense of pushing my own agenda. The discussions for this course center on race, class, and gender. Ideally someone in my position should be level-headed and very well informed, as well as somewhat detached from the situation, because these are not easy issues to discuss.
2) Consider your group of students: from what place do they come to this discussion? What are possible variables which might affect their ability (or willingness) to participate?
In her essay, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt shares words of wisdom on this subject:
Despite whatever conflicts or systematic social differences might be in play, it is assumed that all participants are engaged in the same game and that the game is the same for all players. Often it is. But of course it often is not, as, for example, when speakers are from different classes or cultures, or one party is exercising authority and another is submitting to it or questioning it.
Some variables to consider are age, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, experience with the material, shyness, physical ability, religion, and cultural tradition. Ideally you would have some time to get to know students on this more personal level at the beginning. Often in group discussions, however, little time is allotted for students to get to know each other, despite the fact that a heightened awareness of each other as individuals would almost certainly add depth to discussion. While I would not suggest creating imaginary identities for your students, it may help to reflect on possible reasons why a student might act outside the prescribed norm, and that some topics may be particularly sensitive for certain students.
One example from my experiences is that of a student who never once spoke in discussion. For the most part, she seemed to be following the conversation, but she never took an active part in it. After one session, she approached me. She told me that she has major anxieties about speaking in groups, and had not felt comfortable enough to speak. I was surprised, both by her courage and by the statement itself. After all, I had presumed weeks prior that she either this class was not a priority for her and she hadn’t done the readings, or that she was bored with the material. Had I more thoroughly considered the possibilities of student non-participation, perhaps I could have approached her myself or attempted to make the discussion easier to enter. For example, I might suggest that students intentionally leave a pause after making a point, during which time less outspoken members of the group might feel comfortable speaking.
3) Assess the course realistically. What are the objectives of the course? How important is it to follow the course agenda closely? What structural constraints do you face as an extra-classroom facilitator? What can you expect from the students? Determine the relationship between the explicit agenda for the course and the overall goal(s) of the course. If you are unsure of the supervising teacher's agenda, don't hesitate to ask.
In my case, using the discussion outline and questions to have a discussion of the text is the explicit agenda, while developing a greater understanding of the complexities of race, class and gender in the United States is the general course goal.
I am interested in asking questions which serve the needs of the learners, and which are also relevant to the subject matter at hand. As an extra-classroom teacher, I lack the authority to reject the day’s agenda in favor of completely embracing an “emergent pedagogies” approach to the classroom (Blank et al.). However, I would like to foster a similarly thought-provoking, student-centered atmosphere among the members of my discussion group.
4) Make your priorities and expectations for the class explicit. This can be done either in an "emergent" kind of way, by asking the students for suggestions, or with more authority. With both groups I have facilitated, I have tried to do this, but my preliminary discussion starters have improved over time. Here are some that I have come up with and introduced as the course has progressed:
-Please feel comfortable contributing here. We will have better, more enjoyable discussion if we hear your voice.
I realize that announcing where I'm coming from to the group is not a very emergent kind of approach to the classroom. It may, however, be as divergent from the guidelines provided by my professor as it can be. Ideally, I would prefer to take an emergent pedagogies approach and have the students come up with guidelines and priorities, but it could take up a significant amount of our already brief discussion period. While it might be worth it to me, I am almost positive that it would not be well-received by my professor. I may suggest to her that these kinds of goals and suggestions be put forth or come up with by the class at the start of each semester. As stated previously, as extra classroom teachers we need to work with our supervising teachers to create a course in keeping with the professor’s goals.
5) While facilitating comes more or less easily to each of us, it is important to remember that facilitating is a skill that can be developed over time. When the discussion goes poorly or you feel that your actions negatively affected the group’s experience, take time to reflect on your process. Re-examine your motives. Begin with what evidence you have—analyze students’ reactions, and then work backwards from them. What factors could have contributed to these reactions? Keep in mind that while you do have an influence on the way that discussion happens, there may be times when, despite your best efforts, it will be difficult to elicit meaningful participation.
One experience that made me feel particularly strongly about becoming a more effective facilitator involved a discussion of three texts I have read closely and had facilitated discussion on a year prior to this occasion. When I facilitated the discussion last year, I was also one of the students who constructed a sheet-long summary of the articles and the session’s discussion questions. This year, as the TA, I had no control over the summary information or the discussion that the students received. Were it typical for all students to have done close readings of each text before coming to class, this might not have made a difference. Realistically, though, most students have only read the articles superficially before coming to class, and rely on the summaries created by discussion leaders to fill in the gaps; the student-created summaries and questions play a vital role in shaping each week’s discussion.
As a TA/facilitator, I try to give up the power in the classroom to the discussion leader. Occasionally the discussion becomes one-sided. In this case, students had a pessimistic and oversimplified interpretation of texts I had seen as quite complex and progressive. As student after student reiterated this view, I felt the urge to present my position. The foremost draw that sociology holds for me is that it promotes discussion of critically relevant issues in contemporary society. I was torn then, between not wanting to push my own agenda, and risking the possibility that these students would take away a hopeless interpretation of several formative sociological texts in the study of race and class. Interestingly, the discussion leader for the day seemed relatively satisfied to allow the group to draw its own conclusions. Perhaps I should have been taking my cues from her.
I eventually decided to present my position, but I did make an effort to present it as my reading of the text, emphasizing that it was not the interpretation, but was an alternate view, ending with a question which was supposed to encourage debate. After my comment, the discussion leader noted that it was time to move on to discussion of the next reading. If the object of the session was to cover each of the texts in depth, she had correctly determined to have the group move on. The decision, though, may represent our fundamental disagreement regarding the course goals, or perhaps her own discomfort with my comment. Hopefully I did not make the mistake that the mentor in From Teaching to Mentoring: Principles and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education, made with Kathy--alienating the group by overtly challenging beliefs dear to them (Herman & Mandell 56-57).
I felt defeated. I felt that as a TA, or a sub-facilitator, I had failed to ask the right question. I had failed to say something that would encourage discussion. One possibility is that because of my status as the TA, students who would normally have engaged in a more heated discussion of the text backed down. Another is that they took the point well, but did not feel that a response was necessary. A third possibility is that my question was so leading that students felt embarrassed by it. And of course, it may just have been out of respect for the discussion leader that students moved as a group to the next topic.
6) Learn to ask linking questions. In order to ask guiding questions effectively, it is necessary to have the discussion goals (and the course goals) in mind. When the discussion strays too far from these goals, an effective facilitator can guide discussion without abruptly halting conversation. One way to do this is to think of the goals of the discussion, and compare them to the current discussion. How are the two connected? Without cutting anyone off, ask a question which links the current (tangential) discussion back to the topic at hand.
For example, if the broad topic for discussion is discrimination based on socio-economic class, and the preceding discussion was discrimination based on gender, it would be natural for students to try to make connections between the two. If, however, the discussion becomes a continuation of the previous discussion on gender, and class has been left out of the discussion entirely, it would be a good time for a facilitator to use a linking question. “How are the issues that women face when seeking employment similar to those that people of low socio-economic status face?” one might ask. This type of question both affirms the students’ existing interests and participation, and simultaneously steers the discussion back into the realm of relevance.
7) Only intervene in discussion when necessary. While there are times at which a facilitator’s intervention might be called for, these times may be few and far between. The most obvious intervention point is when a student gets an important point blatantly wrong, and then proceeds to make this point the framework for discussion. At this point it would be appropriate for a facilitator to acknowledge the useful parts of the student’s statement, but set the record straight regarding the erroneous statement. For example, the statement that, “Marxist theory demonstrates that there was little stratification between classes,” might be countered with “While Marx sees class as divided between only a few class-groups, he saw class relationships as clearly hierarchical.”
Each facilitator has her own style. In the preceding hypothetical case, I would most likely wait for the next student to speak to correct the previous student’s error. If this second student instead accepted the first student’s premise, I would then intervene. When we take time to reflect on our roles as facilitators, the amount of intervention that we find appropriate should become increasingly clear.
A second time when intervention is appropriate is in the case that students are attacking each other. Participating in heated discussion can be very healthy and productive, as long as participants remember that ideas (and not individuals) are being deconstructed. Occasionally it can be helpful to remind participants of this key factor in maintaining a respectful dialogue.
As I reflect on the discussion in which I chose to put forth my own reading of the text, I realize two things. First of all, it could have been good for me to step back and remember that my role was that of a facilitator and not a student. Secondly, I did make it clear that this was my own interpretation, and actively tried not to invalidate the students’ readings. As long as a facilitator makes an effort to stay abreast of the situation, an occasional well-timed addition to the discussion can be helpful.
As Gene Thompson-Grove read through participants’ comments on a discussion she had facilitated and noticed that her own role in the discussion was not mentioned by the participants, she had an important revelation. “This is not about me,” she realizes (xiii). An effective facilitator is rarely the center of attention; she affirms and questions, pushing only when necessary.
8) Remember: Group members and facilitator share the responsibility for a productive discussion.
If discussion is going well, the facilitator tends to slide into the background. At other points, it is the facilitator’s job to maintain safe space and to keep the discussion relevant. As members of a discussion group, students have an obligation to engage with their classmates and attempt to explore the material.
As extra-classroom teachers we have a limited right to alter the path of the course. While we might be able to suggest additional, relevant readings, we must encourage students to engage with given course materials. If a person is determined not to participate no matter how much you reach out to them and attempt to engage them, they may remain unresponsive. As teachers, we must be confident that these attempts to reach out can be important in the long run, if not in the short run of the semester.
Our roles as facilitators can be integral to the smooth functioning of a group. It is important that we meet our students where they are, and encourage them to challenge themselves to engage more fully in readings and discussions. We must try to maintain awareness of the backgrounds and needs of our students. We must also take the time to reflect on our own roles in the discussion process. The resulting, heightened awareness of both group dynamics and the implicit purposes of the discussion will enable us to find ways to guide discussion and engage our students more fully.
Blank, D., Cassidy, K., Dalke, A., & Grobstein, P. “Emergent Pedagogy: Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable—and Make it Productive.” Available online at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/emergentpedagogy.html.
Herman, L. & Mandell, A. (2004). From Teaching to Mentoring: Principles and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education (pp.27-92). London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Pratt, M. L. (1998). “Arts of the Contact Zone.” In V. Zamel & R. Spack (Eds.), Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures (pp. 171-185). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Thompson-Grove, G. (2004). “Foreword.” In D. Allen & T. Blythe, The Facilitator’s Book of Questions: Tools for Looking Together at Student and Teacher Work (pp. xi-xiii). New York: Teacher’s College Press.
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