Last Wednesday night was our last official class.  We have a voluntary facilitated discussion this coming Wednesday on “legalizing drugs.”  They’re such sweet kids.  They wanted to know whether they were expected to come up with an IF report out of this one meeting.  I said, “of course.”  Actually, it’s simply to give the Honors students another chance to facilitate, which they must do for Honors credit.

During our last class the “Individual Rights AND Social Responsibility” group facilitated a discussion with the rest of the class on their report.  They learned, dramatically, what I have been warning them about ever since I saw their draft report: The policy possibilities lack focus, direction, and flesh.  At the debriefing after the facilitation, when I keep the facilitating group behind for a discussion, we talked about how they can enliven their possibilities so that the “average reader” (their audience and not just students) could see what life would be like if he/she lived in a country with this policy regarding rights and responsibilities.

This group is like Keally’s strong group: They are almost all energetic and academically talented.  But several are true “big” personalities.  It’s been a struggle for them to work out a format for their report, let alone finding ways to describe effectively each possibility and rub off the rough edges.  They know that they have a lot of revising to do before they submit the final report next Thursday.

The other two groups, “Education” and “Sustainability,” have done really well both devising their possibilities and facilitating discussions on them.  These groups are in great shape, and I’m expecting their reports to reflect their hard work.

So the students have really two projects due.  The first is the group project of writing and facilitating their group’s report.  This gave every student at least two opportunities to facilitate for an hour each time.  The second report is an individual paper, in which each student selects one possibility from his/her report and writes a paper, using independent academic sources, analyzing that possibility.  This permits them to use their academic training, and (I hope) talents, in critiquing that possibility.

I focused my attention on the students’ skills, when they facilitated, at

a)   managing the discussion (keeping it on track, controlling the flow, quelling dominators, encouraging the reticent, and stopping side conversations);

b)   discussion leadership (asking probing questions, asking for clarification, trying to push the thinking beyond the obvious); and

c)    facilitation mechanics (adequate recording of the group’s thinking—which is both writing enough so that members looking back at earlier sheets can recall the content, as well as recording all of the topics or ideas that members bring up—emphasizing and repeating key ideas or phrases, refraining from introducing one’s own ideas). 

These, of course, are categories from IF’s Facilitator Assessment.

Different students displayed different skills and different weaknesses–e.g., not writing down enough of what was said, not writing any narrative and instead making lists, permitting some participants to remain detached and zoned out.  For me, two opportunities for them were not enough to begin to strengthen their facilitating.  In almost all cases, students simply need more opportunities.  There were a few (three, actually) who seemed genetically incapable of restraining themselves from introducing their own ideas and in one case from even leading the group into strange side conversations WAY off topic.  One of these three said to me, after his first facilitation, “I dominated, didn’t I?”  We talked about that.  At this next facilitation, he did exactly the same thing.  Another one had to comment on every contribution anyone made.  He, too, was aware of this and wanted to stop, but couldn’t.

What I liked about having each group facilitate its report to the rest of the class is that the facilitators had gotten comfortable facilitating discussions within their groups.  They came to know one another well.  But when they had to facilitate a discussion with a small group of students from a different group, many of them were nervous, which I liked.  In virtually every case, I couldn’t tell by their facilitation that they were nervous.  I think most of the students gained confidence that they could facilitate a conversation of strangers.

Students were overwhelmed by the amount of assessment that I was demanding, and so, as I said in my last blog, I cut back on what I asked them to do.  When we got to the groups facilitating their own reports with the rest of the class, I asked only for facilitator assessments and, from the facilitators a self-assessment in addition to an assessment of the other person who facilitated with them.  I also continued the practice of permitting them to take the forms home to work on them.  The result has been far more detailed and thoughtful assessments, though not, alas, from everyone.  These assessments prove to be really useful when I give the facilitators feedback.  I could point to specific times and examples of what went right or wrong.  Several times the facilitators themselves would refer to the same time in the conversation or the same examples when talking about his/her own performance.  Specificity is key to good assessments and therefore effective feedback.

On a side note: One of my students in this class, who is working with me on a research project on deliberation, facilitated a discussion one night on campus between a pro-Palestinian student group and a Pro-Israeli student group, two groups with a history of hostile interactions.  It was beautiful to watch, and she did an amazing job, so amazing that the group worked together on possibilities for managing Jerusalem.  This student and several others in the class have asked about future opportunities to facilitate or at least practice their skills.  Another semester with them, and I’m convinced they will be first-rate facilitators.  Of course, I’m the judge of that, so their skill level must be viewed with grave skepticism.