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 РConsult Р Delegate РFacilitate РNeglect

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]

4 thoughts on “The mediocrity of facilitation”

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful and challenging post. I think part of the problem is the false dichotomy presented in the act of choosing to identify with either the role of the facilitator or the teacher. Your observations of those learning moments come across as very sound, and the attention you draw to facilitating practice rather than learning is a very important one.

    However, I do think it is possible to ask skilful questions in the role of facilitation which can prompt learners to think to the next step. Not always, and that is the trouble with identifying with these roles in an either/or manner. Sometimes facilitation questions can work for learning, other times teaching is a better fit. Sometimes either will work and teaching is the more effective way to approach it.

    The danger with a lot of progressive teaching approaches such as ‘facilitation’ I think is the huge potential for ‘opt out’ or the wooly approach… It’s hard to weedle out of whether direct ‘teaching’ was effective or not- it’s pretty black and white. When facilitation is done effectively it can work wonders, but when it isn’t it can be dressed up as learning when it is actually ineffective questioning.

    Not to imply that practice or rehearsal isn’t of value of course ;).

    1. I think the problem I have with facilitation, aside from the words of my old lecturer hanging over me, is that it stems from the idea that children already have the knowledge inside them and it just needs to be teased out. This can’t be true. Children come into the world as the ultimate consumer and need to be taught to be contributors.

      I appreciate that a ‘facilitatory approach’ can be helpful at times, especially with older students who already have a considerable store of knowledge at their disposal and might need to be helped to use it in a productive way. However the problem with being a facilitator primarily is that it can reduce you to education by chance – if you’re lucky then between the students they may well have the body of knowledge needed to share with each other, but if you’re unlucky no education happens. I suppose we could call this felicitatory facilitation, to coin a phrase.

    1. Not being a very well read chap – remember my degree was in Electrical Engineering, not Philosophy – I had to resort to Wikipedia to find out what you meant by this. I’m a bit confused between Socratic Dialogue and Socratic Method, did you mean the latter?

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