The F Word: Facilitating or Felicitating?

Posted on September 14, 2013

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What is it about the word ‘Facilitator’ that pushes people’s buttons? Some seem to love it. Some seem to hate it. I was somewhere in the middle, using it fairly infrequently but also fairly glibly and (if I’m frank about it) pretty much thoughtlessly.

To be honest I’ve never used it particularly to describe myself as a teacher: I love the word ‘teacher’ way too much to ever replace it with something as bland sounding as ‘facilitator’. But I had used it on a number of occasions as a substitute for the word ‘leader’, mainly because the whole leader/follower thing still sticks in my prole throat and because the main alternative to ‘leader’ appears to be ‘manager’ and that just won’t do, oh no!! As a result ‘facilitator’ popped out every once in a while as a way of describing my commitment to a bottom-up, distributive (I’ll skim quickly over that one), teacher-centred and surplus-model approach to school leadership.

Or at least it did, until the fateful day I made the mistake of using the F word with Hélène Galdin-O’Shea! Her response generated in me a feeling that can only be equated with that childhood experience of needing a three to win at ‘Snakes and Ladders’ but rolling a two and finding yourself face-to-face with the head of snake whose rattling tail deposits you – stung, squeezed and poisoned – all the way to the bottom row of the board. Any props I had received and any admiration I had cultivated for my leadership approach were suddenly called into question (for me more than her I suspect) as the dark clouds of a “did you REALLY just say that?” outlook passed across her face.

From that moment on I studiously avoided all effing mention of the word, other than to blindly blind others with my witticisms about facilitation. In truth I was still in that centre ground of being neither for nor against the term.

And then something happened that has forced me to think a bit more deeply about the F word; I was chosen to become a facilitator for the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) middle and senior leader development programmes. In the past few weeks this has led to me being sent some academic literature on the nature of facilitation, some self-evaluation materials about the role of facilitator and, on Thursday this week, attending some facilitator training apropos of working with cohorts of school leaders undertaking professional qualifications (the NPQML and NPQSL). This post is not a commentary on this reading, self-evaluation and training. Instead it is a reflection on where my more-informed thinking now lies with regard to the F word. Those of you who have read previous posts will recognise my approach of using dictionary definitions, synonyms and etymological roots (all derived from the Merriam-Webster online tools) to try and make sense of the word’s underpinning linguistic and cultural baggage.

Facilitator: One that facilitates; especially: one that helps to bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance or supervision.

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No synonyms available.

Ahead of my application for this training, an application borne out of a desire to support effective school leadership beyond my own school, I was sent the ‘National College Facilitator Competency Framework’ from 2010. It is a rubric for self-assessment against no fewer than 14 (or as the football scores on Grandstand would have had it ‘FOURTEEN’) strands of facilitator skills. Each of these strands has four different descriptors, ranging from ‘foundation’ to ‘effective’ to ‘highly effective’ to ‘outstanding’, giving a total of 56 (‘FIFTY SIX’) descriptors. Furthermore, these 56 descriptors each had two statements within them, one a ‘level descriptor’ and the other an ‘example of behaviour(s)’, giving a total of 112 (‘ONE HUNDRED AND TWELVE’) statements about what it takes to be a facilitator. On the day, it was pointed out that the self-assessment rubric had been quartered (though not hung or drawn) by the removal of the foundation level descriptors: the less said about the removal of foundations (however euphemistically intended) the better, I think.

The strands themselves ranged from the simply phrased, such as ‘accurate self-assessment’ to the wonderfully and curiously named, such as ‘non-possessive warmth’. Some are a trifle jargonistic, such as ‘achievement orientation’ and ‘enquiry strategies’ but all are relevant, at times, to the roles we play as teachers and leaders. None, as far as I can see, is unique to the role of a facilitator.

There are no synonyms for the F word in the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus, but their dictionary provides a fairly fulsome definition which includes the following: “helps to bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance or supervision”. Now I have no problem with the words ‘indirect’ and ‘unobtrusive’ here. Some of my best achievements as a teacher and leader have come about as a result of using a ‘light touch’. But here’s the thing: what if the ‘light touch’ doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t help to bring about an outcome? Does one maintain one’s role of a facilitator in this instance?

If the answer to this last question is yes then surely this renders the title of facilitator inappropriate, because you haven’t actually facilitated anything. And if the answer to the question is no then this too renders the title of facilitator inappropriate because you have stepped out of the role in order to effect meaningful change. In other words the noun ‘facilitator’ can only apply when the process of facilitation is successful.

My roles as teacher and leaders however apply all the time, whether I am successful or not. They are not dependent upon success to give meaning to what I do. If I try to see myself as a facilitator of student learning, say of a sociological theory, then when they don’t come to learn (or come to muddled conclusions) then I either have to step out of the facilitation mode or fail to facilitate. If I see myself as a facilitator when a Head of Year is meeting with a family and it starts to go pear-shaped because of a difficult parent then I have to abandon my role or abandon my colleague: either way I’m no longer a facilitator.

And this is the problem of using the word as a noun. Because facilitation is entirely context-dependent it is a problematic (impossible) label to apply to individuals (or effers) as a summary of their role. In applying the label we are, perhaps, forcing ‘facilitators’ to abandon their usual levels of professional judgement and discretion. We are inviting them to see facilitation as an outcome in and of itself, forgetting about what it is supposed to lead to. If the ‘facilitator’ label can only apply when the outcome is success then I also wonder whether we are building into the label a willingness to see success even when the outcomes fall below what we would ordinarily, as teachers and leaders, deem to be successful: Self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than informed professional judgment.

Facilitate: To make (something) easier: to help cause (something): to help (something) run more smoothly and effectively.

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Synonyms:
1. Accelerate, expedite, quicken.
2. Abet, aid, assist, help, improve.
3. Disentangle, simplify, streamline.

One of the pre-training tasks for the NCTL course I was on this week was some reading of academic literature on facilitation. We were given four pieces and asked to read one, which we were then asked to discuss as a group and then précis during the day. Mine was on heutagogy and the main argument was that we needed, as facilitators, to move from a pedagogical approach, through an androgogical approach (self-directed learning) to an heutagogical approach (self-determined learning). The literature focused particularly on utilising the advantages of ‘adult learning’ styles and Web 2.0 technologies for professional learning.

What struck me most in this reading was the certainty of ‘adult learning’ styles as being different to ‘non-adult learning’ styles, the faith placed in Web 2.0 technologies and the belief that coupling the two would, of itself, generate professional learning which the experienced facilitator needs to somehow bring together.

I’m not so sure. As a devotee of Web 2.0 I wonder whether the faith placed in it as a learning tool is sometimes misplaced. Or rather, I think that boundaries need to be placed around the use of these tools for adult and non-adult learners alike. When I completed my NPQH five years ago much was made of an ‘online community of learning’ as one of the three strands of professional learning within the programme. I never used it and not did any of the other participants I met on the face-to-face days where I genuinely felt I learnt most.

The other element of the heutagogy article that struck me was the fact that it appeared to be describing an approach to entirely voluntary learning, of the kind we do when we want to take up an instrument or learn a new language. The piece itself questioned the ‘scaling up’ of self-determined learning from a personal level to an institutional one and queried the possibility or efficacy of an entirely self-determined assessment process that necessarily must follow a formal programme of learning.

Looking at the synonyms for the verb ‘facilitate’ shown above, they fall into three categories. The first group suggest a hastening of the learning process. The second convey a notion of supporting, rather than enabling, learning. The third suggest an approach that reduces the complexity of learning. Each of these are very noble and well-intended aspects of a teacher’s or leader’s role, but I would argue that this heutagogical attitude of “getting out of the way of” or “making oneself invisible to” the learning of students and colleagues only goes so far. Of course there are times when students are entirely self-motivated within lessons and can be entrusted to get on with it to good effect, but there are many other times when this self-motivation is missing, or is entirely unfocused or is partial to only certain elements of the task involved. Amongst those I ‘lead’ (note the self-conscious inverted commas: still gives me an icky feeling using that word) their self-motivation to improving the staff and children for which they have responsibility is unerring and utterly unquestioned by me. Their self-motivation to complete a team improvement plan, let alone add more detail to one on the basis of my feedback, is quite possibly (and perfectly understandably) less likely to be, well, self-motivating.

None of which is a criticism. Sometimes, when motivation doesn’t come from the self it is still needed and has to be prompted, prodded or poked at by an external source because sometimes self-motivation runs out of steam. In preparing for this training I was determined to read all four pieces on effective facilitation, even though I was only required to read the one I had been assigned to. I got a short way through the third when my motivation became depleted. And if that is true for me, then why would I expect it to be any different for anyone else, and why would I expect an non-directive approach such as facilitation to work better than the more directive strategies within my teaching and leadership armoury?

Facile: Too simple: not showing enough thought or effort: done or achieved in a way that is too easy: working, moving, or performing well and very easily.

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Synonyms:
1. Cursory, hasty, oversimple, sketchy.
2. Aimless, haphazard, random.
3. Limited, narrow, restricted.
4. Effortless, fluent, simple, soft.

One of the things that struck me on the facilitator training day, initially as funny and then afterwords as serendipitously appropriate, was the fact that participants used the word ‘felicitation’ mistakenly in place of the otherwise ubiquitous F word. The etymology of ‘felicitation’ is the Latin verb ‘felicitare’ meaning “to make happy”, and it worries me that facilitation, drawn from the word facile, has the potential to be about appeasement rather than about development.

The list of synonyms for the word facile falls into four categories. The first suggests a lack of rigour, the second a lack of focus, the third a lack of depth and the fourth a lack of challenge. Put together under the definition for facile, the concern I have about seeing oneself as a facilitator is that it appears to prioritise simplification or putting others at ease above all else: Making people happy, felicitating them, is trumps.

In my teaching and leadership roles rarely do I look to simplify things or make things easier for those I work with and often the opposite is true. When students come out of an exam telling me that it was easy then I worry, because it usually means that they haven’t experienced cognitive dissonance in there and that their answers are likely to be shallow because they haven’t comprehended the full difficulty of the question they have been asked. Similarly, I was pleased when a colleague told me this week that they were struggling to respond to the school improvement plan because they weren’t sure how it could be related to their area of responsibility: the resultant discussion, in which I was also challenged to make sense of the plan, was developmental for us both. Facilitation it wasn’t.

Too often in education we worry about making people happy, as if this were an end in itself. As a result we sometimes plan lessons with an emphasis upon engagement and relevance without considering whether or not our students are actually going to be learning anything new. With staff we sometimes put together training days where the only metric of success is the evaluation forms that measure if colleagues left the session impressed, rather than whether they left better equipped to improve their practice in the classroom. Learning, whether it takes place in classrooms or in the staff room, is often hard, not easy. It challenges us and forces us to examine our convictions, our misunderstandings or our current wrong-headed practices. It isn’t often felicitous because, guess what, it’s easier to drink from the well of confirmation than it is to swallow a bitter pill, however much we understand the medicinal benefits of the pill.

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Summary
And so, in closing, let me nail my colours to the mast. In future I am going to be at ease with the terms ‘teacher’ and ‘leader’ (maybe even ‘manager’) to describe the work that I do in school and out of it with students and with school staff, because these are very specific roles with some clearly defined (if much disagreed upon) elements to them. Within these roles I can see when a facilitative approach might well be the best course of action to take. For example, helping a confused student make sense of a new word by helping them relate it to etymologically related concepts with which they are familiar. Or, for example, actively listening to a Head of Department verbalise their thinking about a strategy that isn’t working for their team knowing that they are getting to something good without needing input from me.

I can even, I think, accept that there are some very specific occasions when teachers or leaders may need to briefly adopt the role of ‘facilitator’. For example to intervene when dynamics of group work are going badly but when all of the components of that group are potentially excellent for the given task, or for when a group of middle leaders are sharing what works within their departments or year teams in an effort to learn from one another.

But even in these highly specific examples, the role of a ‘facilitator’ is subsumed within the dominant role of ‘teacher’ or ‘leader’ and does not have parity with them. And this is because a good teacher or good leader needs to know when to switch out from a facilitative role to a directive one or to a coaching one or to a mentoring one, or to any one of countless roles that are, over time, mastered by effective teachers or leaders.

Ultimately the noun ‘facilitator’, in spite of all the attempts to redefine and reinvigorate it with boatloads of academic research and promotional literature can not, for me, achieve the escape velocity to resist the gravitational pull of its etymological roots: the French verb ‘faciliter’ meaning “to render easy” and the Latin adjective “easy”. Making things easy is one of many component parts of being a teacher or leader but it is not, nor ought it to be, the raison d’être of teachers or leaders. Most of the time, if we want our students and colleagues to learn and improve, we want to make things manageably harder for them (Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” if you will), and no amount of facilitation by a facilitator is going to make the facile profound.

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