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Breakthrough Facilitation

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How can we help students become breakthrough facilitators?

Cathy began her office hour visit with some hesitation, “Dr. Sperios, I didn’t want to sound like I’m grade-grubbing, but I don’t understand my latest discussion facilitation grade. You wrote on the evaluation sheet that I did much better, but my grade was lower than the first time.”

“Cathy, do you have your syllabus? Let’s take a look, so I can explain,” responded Sperios. “See the grade section. I made a point that your facilitation grades will be progressive. Notice that the round one facilitation is based on what I refer to as facilitation mechanics. You’ll see those listed as:

  • Note taking
  • Involving everyone
  • Managing the discussion time
  • Managing the flow

“You did much better on these aspects of facilitation this time.

“Now look at the round two criteria:

  • Framing the discussion questions
  • Elevating the discussion through your discussion interactions
  • Having a discussion strategy that goes beyond the obvious
  • Helping the group achieve breakthrough insights

“You’re a gymnast. What kind of score would you get if you were perfect on a low difficulty routine?”

Cathy nodded in recognition of the point.

Discussion facilitation is a progressive skill. You begin by mastering the mechanics and basic principles of facilitation. Many facilitators stop their progression at this level. They are fine at moderating a discussion. Truly great facilitators are able to get a group to go well beyond the obvious to achieve real breakthroughs. (Chapter 5 of IF’s Guidebook for Online Courses offers some guidance about how instructors might use evaluation feedback to encourage progressive skill development).

Breakthrough facilitation requires personal abilities that some people may find challenging. They need to be creative and have the ability to transfer their creativity to the discussion group. They must also be good at thinking on their feet.

Essentially facilitators need to think fluidly in different time frames: the present, the future, and the past. The present means managing what the group is saying now. The future means that the facilitator is thinking of where the discussion might go in the next 5-10 minutes—and where it might need to go by the end of the session. Oddly enough, that’s where the past comes in. To open up the future of where a group might go, the facilitator needs to hold onto the past of what the group has already said. Linking back to earlier discussion points, perhaps those that have been underexplored, can help a group make new connections or see new directions to explore.  

Breakthrough facilitators help create a discussion environment where the practical can be replaced by the possible to achieve real innovation. Breakthrough facilitators help their groups become hopeful.

Breakthrough facilitation is one of those phenomena that is hard to define but obvious to everyone involved in the discussion. Dr. Sperios was challenging his class to go beyond the commonplace and become breakthrough facilitators. What would you say it takes to facilitate discussion breakthroughs?

* * *

“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” – Confucius


This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.