Facilitating learning is a strange kind of business, from the outside it often looks like an easy thing to do “You just watch folk doing stuff then ask a few questions”, while from the inside it can be one of the most physically and emotionally draining tasks you’ll ever undertake. So what is it about this kind of facilitation that, done well, is so effective and rewarding, but, done badly, leaves everybody feeling so raw?
Last week I read a new paper which made me come back to this question, as usual as part of a RSVP Design routine in which we ask ourselves if there’s more we can do to support facilitators who buy and use our learning tools. The paper in question is:
“Bringing Challenge Course Activities Into the Classroom: Pedagogical Strengths, Obstacles, and Recommendations” by Schary DP, Jenny SE, Morrow GS and Wozniak T: Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership 2018, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 238–252
As the title suggests this is a study of experiments in bringing experiential activities (“specifically socializing games and group cooperatives”) into a college classroom, facilitated by undergraduate college students who, as part of their training for the role, had completed a 13 hour training on facilitation and management (e.g., facilitating activities, debriefing).
The paper offers an interesting insight into the collected experiences of the facilitators and their course instructors who were supervising the interventions, and the results very much echo our own experience of where the use of experiential activities either succeeds or fails.
It’s usually not the activity itself that determines a positive or negative outcome, it’s what precedes it and how it’s subsequently debriefed.
The study highlights the importance of selecting the right activity for the client group, and then getting them to buy-in to the session. The selection part shouldn’t be hard if you follow a set of simple rules like making sure that everybody is actively engaged, ensuring that the activity matches your desired learning outcomes, and (from the study) don’t try activities designed as “introductions’ with groups who already know each other well.
Getting buy-in takes a bit more skill from the facilitator. First of all you’ve really got to believe in what you do, and believe that what you do will deliver for the group. You need to get the balance between professional distance and over-familiarity right so that what you’re going to deliver is recognised as credible, but not too scary. What you’re trying to achieve is the situation where the clients will engage with the activity long enough for them to discover for themselves the rationale and purpose of what you’re trying to do.
At the other end of the activity comes the debrief, and here the study is very pointed in its findings “The facilitators perceived that debriefing was challenging, noting that they felt the debriefing questions were too repetitive and that they struggled to elicit reflective responses.” It seems that the facilitators were working with predetermined questions. This will get you started on the debrief, and maybe give you time to think, but it is vital to be able to formulate questions for the group that will have them reflect and respond to the shared experience they’ve just had.
“Although the debriefing questions were standardized, the facilitators had the freedom to modify and expand on them based on group needs. Although the facilitators received many hours of debriefing training, their inexperience, most likely, prevented them from tailoring the debrief to the group and/or asking more thought-provoking follow-up questions.”
This has to happen in real-time as you can have no prior knowledge of how the group will perform during the activity, as the study points out “Skilled debriefing is more of an art than a science; becoming proficient requires practice because there is no universal formula” (Rohnke, Rogers, Wall, & Tait, 2007).
Facilitation isn’t an easy skill to master, but it’s really important that anybody taking on the role puts in the time and effort to achieve a degree of mastery. At RSVP Design we offer a comprehensive facilitator guide with every activity we create, and the activities themselves are designed in a way that should give the facilitator confidence of a good result. But neither of these facts are a substitute for the practice, observation and reflection that build the requisite skills. We also design and deliver custom facilitation skills training for groups please get in touch if you’d like to to work with your facilitation team, or view the IAF website for resources and ideas during International Facilitation Week.
Dr Geoff Cox
RSVP Design Director