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Learning from Experience

A couple weeks ago, I facilitated a public discussion on Anticipating Genetic Technology with a group of individuals residing in the borough of Queens in New York City, and I wanted to comment on how different the process was from facilitating (and training student facilitators for) a college course using the IF method. I learned A LOT from the facilitating the public discussion and got new insights into how facilitation is supposed to work. Really, it opened my eyes to how inadequately I prepared students as facilitators in my classroom last semester, as well as things I will do differently the next time I implement the IF process in the classroom or in ‘public’.

Some differences and similarities between the public and classroom discussion processes stood out for me. For example, in the public discussion, it was very difficult to find common understanding of some of the key terms and concepts required for discussion. In the classroom discussion, student groups built common understanding of topic concepts more organically and seamlessly through assigned readings – readings they used to frame questions and possibilities. In contrast, participants in the public discussion, many of them who were not college students, found the written document on Genetic Technologies read prior to discussion “too abstract” or “difficult to understand”. In addition, many struggled to accurately understand certain concepts such as “genetic susceptibility” or interpreted terms participants used in unique ways, making building common discussion ground problematic – especially in comparison to how classroom discussion got going.

One big similarity between the public and student discussion groups was how empowered participants reported they felt from thinking about problems on a conceptual level. Participants in the public discussion really enjoyed talking to fellow citizens and even more liked listening to others’ perspectives. Nobody had ever asked for their opinion or ideas before, they said. I did hear this sentiment from students in the IF course I taught, but not as frequently or with such veracity. At the same time, I am not sure what some of the citizen discussion participants will DO with the ideas they generated, whereas I know that the discussion process that occurred in the course I instructed last semester was a life-changing event for a few students.

What I now know that I didn’t know before is how important the facilitator is to a good discussion, and that to learn how to facilitate, you have to facilitate. Facilitating a public discussion opened my eyes to the value and difficulty of facilitating a good discussion – whether it is in ‘public’ or in the classroom.