The mediocrity of facilitation

The late, great Frank Zappa

I’m always a little mithered by the word ‘facilitation’ being used in an educational context.

I think it started from way before I ever thought I’d become a teacher. I had an excellent lecturer on my BEng Electrical Engineering course who loathed the word ‘facilitate’. I don’t remember much about him – it’s been twenty years and I’ve not needed much of the content of my electrical engineering degree in my career as a primary school teacher. There was another thing though – he was a keen Frank Zappa fan who wore blue denim every day. On the day Frank Zappa died he changed to black denim and never returned to the blue. And he didn’t like the word ‘facilitate’.

I’ve heard teachers say that they are not actually teachers, but facilitators. They ‘facilitate learning’. This worries me somewhat. I think teachers can facilitate group work – children getting on with each other – they facilitate behaviour. But I don’t think learning can be facilitated. It has to be taught.

Good teachers, who have misnamed themselves ‘facilitators’, must work alongside children until the point where they get stuck. Then they teach something. But that isn’t facilitation. It’s teaching.

I saw this in practice on Tuesday when I interviewed for the post of inclusion leader within my school. As part of the process, the candidates had to teach two children they had never met before, both with statements of special educational need. I’m always wary of forming hard and fast judgements on such a snapshot of an activity – learning doesn’t often happen in snapshots, but over the course of time and in the context of the relationship between teacher and student. However the activity did demonstrate the dangers of facilitation and the great benefit of teaching.

One of the candidates guided the children through an activity where the children formed sentences from pre-printed words on a laminated sentence board. By the end of the activity, both children had both spoken and written a mainly accurate sentence. The children were engaged, but there was no clear evidence that they had definitely learnt something new. It could have been that the children just practised something they could already do quite well.

By contrast, another candidate, who turned out to be the successful one, did a far more uncomfortable activity. They played a game where the task was to make a model of a picture on card out of plasticine. The children then had to guess what the other model was by asking questions. However they got stuck. There was an uncomfortable moment where it was clear that neither of the children had the expressive language to either ask the most appropriate question, or to describe their shapes. At this point the teacher had to step in and teach the children. She modelled some language that the children had clearly not used before and made the children use it. After the teacher’s input, the children were able to try speaking in sentences and using more accurate words – but it took the teacher’s input to get there – no amount of facilitation would have helped.

My belief is that a facilitator can help children practice what they already know and can possibly help children work co-operatively on a project using what they already know, but they cannot teach children knew stuff. Learning is the process where children gain the knowledge of knew stuff. Teaching begets learning.

The final part of facilitation that makes me nervous is its place in the distributed leadership spectrum. This is a blog post for another time, really, but suffice to say that leadership can be distributed not enough, just right or too much. Some words that would help describe this are:

Instruct – Consult –  Delegate – Facilitate – Neglect

Facilitation is just a little too close to neglect for my liking.

Teaching is great. Great teachers make great schools and a great education system. Teachers who think they should facilitate as their top priority only lead to a mediocre education system, and we all know what Frank Zappa said about that:

“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system.”

[Image courtesy of]

The lie of “putting the children first”

It’s one of those arguments that trumps all others.
You can be in the middle of an educational debate about some issue or other when the person you’re trying to convince says: “but you’re not putting the children first.” All your other arguments are suddenly sunk, dead in the water, and you slink off knowing that you were wrong. There are barely any other arguments that are as powerful as that one; that are as strong in your hand; that beat all others. Perhaps the ultimate is the line “but, Health and Safety…” in that it might possibly outdo “but you’re not putting the children first.”

But it’s a lie.

As teachers, we shouldn’t put the children first. I’m not speaking to parents in this, nor social workers, doctors or anyone else who might have a good reason to put children first. I am speaking to teachers, and I’m including myself.

Here’s the reason: children’s learning.

If we put children first, then they will not learn as effectively as they should. Putting children first devalues our own knowledge. It would be like me saying: the child is more important than the knowledge I am going to impart to them. It says that the child is more important than the culture of which they are a part. It raises the child to the top of a pyramid that shouldn’t even exist.

So, I’m not saying that we should put the child second. The phrase “putting the child first” sounds that education is some kind of race. Nor am I saying that children aren’t important. They are. A school without children would be a conference centre. But likewise a school without teachers would be a playground. Both are important places, but not places where learning is maximised and standards are raised.

It’s ironic then that putting the child first will actually disadvantage the child. Teachers who do so will become ‘facilitators’ – desperately trying to allow the children to independently learn the outcomes they themselves have devised.

That’s not what Vygotsky intended when he talked about scaffolding – the appropriate assistance that will give the student the knowledge and confidence to move into their zone of proximal development. No, this assistance is part of the interaction between teacher and child – part of that positive relationship that has teacher as guardian of knowledge within their given socio-cultural context and child as learner of norms, rules, facts, knowledge and attitudes.

This relationship is damaged when children are put first. It is the relationship that should be put first – the nature of the the interaction between teacher and child. Some people call this teaching. Please don’t call it facilitation.