The art of facilitation
In the school-to-work space, we often use facilitation and training interchangeably when we talk about skill-building programs for youth.
Sometimes, we also look at facilitation as a silver bullet that can solve all problems in the higher education setup.
However, is there a difference between training and facilitation? And is facilitation really the silver bullet we were all looking for as students of a rigid education system?
To understand the difference between teaching, training, and facilitation, I spoke to experienced professionals from each industry. I hoped to get to the core of what we try to achieve in facilitation. Here’s what I learned:
Follow a ‘get what you give’ model.
Shubhra has worked for more than 10 years as a facilitator in the corporate and social sector. When working with youth, she shares how the intent is to let students take charge of their learning, “We can’t train someone on life skills. We can facilitate their learning by creating the right environment and sharing resources.”
As a student, how willing you are to participate, get comfortable failing, and make the most of learning opportunities, determines the quality of your experience. Shubhra reflects, “The learner needs to (more than adopting a skill) observe, experiment, and learn from the environment. He’s very actively involved in the process; he’s not a passive receiver of knowledge here.”
Put yourself in youth’s shoes.
To allow the right environment to develop, a facilitator tries to understand students’ learning motivations. This ‘why’ becomes the ‘premise’ of a session, as Shubhra says, “The first thing a facilitator does is create the why – where will you, the learner, be able to use a skill, what is it that you need to be able to keep using it, and eventually, develop a level of expertise in it.”
Putting yourself in students’ shoes requires innovation. Using experiential learning methods such as role-play, you create a relevant, engaging environment while understanding students’ motivations. Shubhra adds, “If you can stimulate that learning process in the audience, you have won the first half of the battle – you pique their interest, you can understand why it is important for them, and you have reached them in a context that they can relate to.”
Leave little scope for hierarchy and fear.
An enriching facilitation session begins with creating a safe space for learning. Both the facilitator and the participants agree and practice being vulnerable. Shubhra shares, “Unlike most corporate training setups, I started as a facilitator in a very unstructured space. People had to be comfortable with their failures and with their ability to fail.”
The facilitator feels like she belongs to the group of students. She positions himself as less of an expert and more of a peer — someone who has worked through his failures and now has insights to share. Shubhra remarks that it is this relatability that drives change.
Once there’s little scope for hierarchy in the group, a learning exchange begins. Shamim, an experienced facilitator, reflects, “During a session, the students you’re engaging with aren’t any different from you. You organize activities along with them, and in doing so, learn a lot about yourself. It’s not a one-sided affair.”
Shamim comments how by tackling the fear of failure and shame, we encourage learning, “Once there’s no fear, students begin to ask all kinds of questions. They develop a spirit of inquiry and debate in a real sense. They build courage and start to think from a wider perspective. Now, there’s one equal platform for us to teach and learn from, in a manner that sticks with you for long and helps you achieve your goals.”
Build on youth’s current knowledge.
Shivendu, a skilled trainer and a former Teach for India fellow, shares how he doesn’t differentiate between teaching and training. According to him, both are ways of building knowledge. And this is where facilitation differs, “Facilitation is not just about what you know, but also about what your audience knows – and bringing everything together. But the training (that builds knowledge) needs to happen first; you can’t reverse the order.”
Banshidhar, an academic professional of over 15 years experience, shares how teaching – at its core – remains around knowledge dissemination. However, as it orients itself from ‘teaching the syllabus’ to ‘teaching the student,’ facilitation will be helpful, “A fixed timetable, a fixed classroom, its fixed students, one fixed direction and 3 years of a course: this is monotonous. Facilitation can bring activities, novel ideas, and new information – giving students new adventures.”
Most of the professionals I spoke to agree that due to a need for knowledge-building, some amount of teaching or training is necessary before any facilitation occurs. As Shubhra adds, “Sometimes, like in most technical skills, we require structured learning. If you do not build that core content adequately, then learning suffers at the end.”
At the core of what we do as teachers and trainers, is to have sparked a learning. However, as facilitators, we also want to create learners.
In the school-to-work journey, facilitators nurture youth to become lifelong learners through activities and exposure. They develop kinship to build trust, become friends and advocates, and enable youth to reach for their dreams sustainably.
While it may not be a silver bullet, facilitation is a useful technique that is different in its approach and outcome than teaching or training and can aid both. There is something to be said about the unique feeling it leaves learners with – more assured in their capabilities, more independent, and yet community-oriented. Or as Shamim likes to call it – the ‘facilitation-wali feeling.’