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Teachers as Facilitators

January 29, 2020


Recently in a conversation with colleagues, one of our writers overheard a seasoned educator say, “Children can’t learn on their own. It’s obvious! Otherwise, there would be no need for teachers.” 

And there was a time - fairly recently, even - when that was true.

However, now any child who can access the microphone on any electronic device to ask an artificially intelligent search engine a question can learn virtually (no pun intended) anything they could ever dream of learning. For the most part, they’ll not only find the information in a mere matter of seconds, but they will find the right answer. 

Making the switch from being the center of the classroom to being the facilitator is now vital, not only because students learn more, but because there is an ever-growing teacher shortage across all 50 states in the U.S. right now. 

The truth is, with the growing number of responsibilities teachers have been “gifted” with in recent years, we do not have time to be the sole source of facts and information anymore. We must learn how to create and cultivate an environment of rich independent learning by teaching children how to find information for themselves. 

Children must be given the opportunity to control and affect their own learning. 

As much as we hate to admit it, doling out information and drilling kids with worksheets isn’t facilitating. 

If Not Worksheets… Then What?

Okay, let’s not be idealistic… this writer loves a good worksheet.

And here’s another valid point: there are many skills that can’t be “discovered”, per se. Handwriting, reading, and math facts are a few of those. They have to be practiced and said practice often involves worksheets.

Worksheets are not the enemy. However, when we stop to evaluate our reasons for using them along with other options, we may recognize that there are so many other ways to accomplish the same goals. 

Let’s be real, though - being that creative and coming up with a new way to do the same old things can be really overwhelming and time-consuming, especially in the beginning.

So here’s our professional advice: start with replacing one worksheet per week. Then two. And keep advancing in that goal until you reach about 75%. Then you can probably keep your worksheets and still have students learning authentically. 

Facilitating - What Does It mean? 

(And Do I Still Have to Turn in Lesson Plans?)

Students DO NOT want to “sit and get”, and they don’t want to do worksheets all the time. They want to interact. They want to communicate. They want to share what they know, build connections, and learn from each other and the world around them. 

They want to be immersed in experiences and come away filled with new knowledge. 

And much more than wanting, they NEED that. Studies show that traditional means of lecturing and teacher-led classrooms do not work, and yet, the majority of our classrooms are seen by teachers as “my room”. The rules are “my rules”. The learning is what the teacher wants to learn about, not what the student does.

Facilitating learning doesn’t mean a lack of structure, though. It means combining several well-thought-out plans and situations in which students can look for and discover information for themselves. 

Imagine you are going on a hike. You know the place you are going to is known for its natural beauty and splendor. You’ve been looking forward to this hike for years.

The day you show up for the hike, you’re paired with a guide unexpectedly. You’d planned to do this with friends or on your own, and suddenly this person is leading you.

Along the way, the guide is very strict about how you can move along the path. Sometimes you have to walk sideways, like a crab, even though there’s no obvious reason for doing so. Sometimes your guide, who is very tall, commands you to stoop very low to the ground, even though you are not nearly as tall as they are. 

And if you don’t do it, you get punished! If you complain about getting punished, you get punished even more! 

Wouldn’t this situation be infuriating, especially when you know you could’ve just read the posted maps along the way and gone without the guide? 

What if, instead of a guide, there were stations or outposts along the way that either had an expert you could consult, equipment to answer your questions, or very clear and detailed signs?

Which way do you think would be more enjoyable?

Students definitely need you - that is the truth. They need you to walk the trail before they get to it and hang the signs, put out and inspect the equipment, and man the stations as the resident expert.

There are so many questions that can be answered by facts and information, and we know those answers are easily accessible. 

The actual process and relating of experiences can only truly be done by a human who has walked the same trail before.

We don’t need to hold students back to help them succeed. We need to give them the tools they need to learn and watch them do that. 

And yes, you do have to turn in lesson plans (Sorry! We’re still trying to find a way to work around that one, too!)

6 Steps to Facilitation

Always Start with Assessment

One of the biggest mistakes overly-busy teachers make is teaching too much.

Yes, that’s what we mean to say - teaching too much.

Teachers start at point A and think they have to teach straight through to point Z when the truth is you truly need to teach what your students need to know. Not every student needs to be taught everything from point A to point Z.

Sometimes students do need every point (and a little pre-alphabet information or post-alphabet information if you know what we mean). Generally, though, most students have acquired a scattered skill set somewhere between none, some, and all of the information on any given topic.

You have to assess and plan based on that assessment. 

Shoot for the Average

Whole-group instruction needs to be offered on the information the largest group of students needs. Pull-out instruction is for students who need more or less than that. 

Using our A to Z example above, let’s say the majority of your students need to learn C-G, S, V, and X-Z. Those are the skills you build into whole group lessons. 

Students who need the other letters (and pre-alphabet “foundational” information) can get that instruction in one-on-one instruction with you, in pull-out groups, or in push-in groups. 

It’s much more efficient to meet the needs of students in this focused way.

And let’s talk for a moment about those who have already mastered the skillset you’re teaching. What do you do with those precocious people? The answer is NOT to give them twice the work of what you require of everyone else. 

The answer is to go deeper. Give them more specific information, require them to find the details everyone else will miss, or give them the opportunity to do a few advanced activities while the others are skimming the surface.  

But most importantly, when teaching whole group give those advanced learners the opportunity to shine whenever possible! This is where the true facilitation comes in. Let them help you teach whenever and however possible. 

You might place them in small groups and ask them to “up” the level of understanding of that whole group. Let THEM convey all the information you usually would.

Or give them an assignment before introducing the subject to everyone else and have their participation be creating a poster, an anchor chart, a slideshow, or some other interactive way to introduce and share the information. 

Inquire Further

This will probably come as a huge surprise (note sarcasm), but sometimes formal assessments don’t work - especially if you’re using standardized testing for your jumping-off point. Who among us hasn’t been tempted by bubbling in all “C”s on a scantron, right?

As you’re instructing, confirm the information you’ve attained through assessment. Add details where needed, and shave off a few where you see your students really do grasp the concepts. 

Keep Everyone Focused

With all this newfound time and freedom, you may think this is an excellent time to put up your feet and eat a few bon-bons, but being a facilitator is not a vacation.

Your job may not to be the center of attention all the time, but an enforcer is needed. You’re still the main motivator, rule-reminder, and individual with the most advanced, mature brain. You’ve got the executive functioning skill set, and you can still use it without having to do all the talking and thinking yourself.

Keeping students focused on the task, moving throughout the room, offering advice, handling any unforeseen bursts of creativity and understanding that may cause the need for craft supplies, and manning that one tablet that NEVER wants to get online - you know, all the same things that would probably be consuming much of your lecture time if you were still the center of the three-ringed circus -  are still your responsibility. 

You just don’t have to be the only act going while doing all those other things.

And you may have time for one bon-bon. ONE! 

Establish, Define, and Enforce Rules

This is another place that structure is needed. Classroom management is still a thing, even if you’re a facilitator. Keep everyone involved, keep them learning, and keep everyone safe. Truly, isn’t that a job all on its own? 

Help Students Evaluate Their Learning

As students learn, they need to solidify their new knowledge by showing it in some way.

You know your students are learning. Be sure THEY know. 

Take breaks and provide sharing times so they can do some metacognition (thinking about their own thinking). Stopping to acknowledge what they’ve learned will create signposts along their mental journey toward their knowledge and skills goals so they’ll be able to remember, “Oh, yeah! I learned that when we _____.” 


There is so much more! If you’re new to facilitating learning, don’t stop here. Keep researching! If you’ve read this and thought, “OK, this is nothing new,” you’re probably already a facilitation rockstar. Share your knowledge-wealth! 

Finally, if you still aren’t convinced that students can and will learn without you leading the way, we encourage you to try it three times.

Not just once, because doing anything once is a great way to decide you are bad at something new and give yourself an excuse never to try it again. If you commit to trying something at least three times, maybe you’ll have an “aha!” moment and see what we mean about this being worth your time.

Finally, we just want to acknowledge that this is a brave new journey for some, and a very big step. For example, if all your worksheets were once copied off with carbon paper in between them and you STILL bring those out every year at the exact same time, you know we’re looking at you, friend!

Change can be unpleasant for all of us, but just like we go to work every day for our students, we can do this for them, too. 

And that once-a-day bon-bon break sure will bring joy to your life, too (note sarcasm!). 

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