During the last few weeks of my IF course, I have been struggling to understand just how well students are developing discussion and facilitation skills. Even though students have engaged in several weeks of discussion, some members dominate the conversation more than others, sometimes they talk over one another, some facilitators stick to their outline of questions when they should go with the flow, and many students find it difficult to build on and link member comments. But, as messy as the process is, student facilitation/discussion/communication skills are definitely improving. I have been providing group feedback to all groups after every session – mainly urging students to do some things better or differently or more. I have also been reading facilitators’ reflection papers; some respondents approach this task with minimal effort while others pore out their heart about all they learned from the experience and the value of learning how to facilitate well.
It all sort of came to a head at our last session when I just spent some time talking with the entire group about how I felt I was being too hard on them concerning their development of group communication skills, and that I was going to give them more responsibility for assessing their individual and group communication skills. In turn, students commented that they felt they were learning a lot but that learning communication skills to have deep and meaningful discussions was HARD. Students said they enjoyed the challenges of listening to different perspectives, accommodating different discussion styles, asking good questions, and considering ideas and interventions in a considered fashion. But, they said, they had had few opportunities to engage in this type or level of discussion, so it was taking them some time to get good at this. It was a good discussion, affirming for them that they were engaged in a difficult but highly enjoyable communication process, and confirming for me that communication/discussion/facilitation skill development is taking place among most students – for some at a very high level.
My experience teaching this course has shown me that students hunger for experiences where they get to practice good facilitation and rhetorical skills. What makes the development of these skills so meaningful for them, however, is that rather than practicing them in a vacuum, they are developing communication skills to engage in public deliberation of issues they care about. This, I think, is in large part why the process is hard but satisfying for them. A few weeks ago, I had lost sight of this connection, but then the students helped me see this.