Teachers as Facilitators

I was in high school chemistry when I first heard the term “facilitate.” I adored my teacher because he was the first one who ever believed that he was to sit more on the sidelines and less front-and-center. He left the responsibility on me to learn. He taught us that most of our education had involved “spoon-feeding” and “hand-holding” and he wasn’t going to do that. I liked this new approach but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I felt a little bit alone, like I had just been dropped off by my mom at my first day of Kindergarten. By the end of the year, I had studied more chemistry than I knew existed, but I also gained an academic confidence I didn’t have before. I am still grateful to him for his efforts.

I am beginning an exciting new role as the K-12 Technology Integration Specialist at an international school where I live. I will not be in the classroom but will mainly support other teachers in their use of technology. I certainly see my role as a facilitator, which by Merriam-Webster’s definition is “one that helps to bring about an outcome (as learning, productivity, or communication) by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision.” I like that. The keywords to me are help, outcome, indirect, and guidance.

So what are the skills successful facilitators need to have?

Jennifer Tylee (1999) notes that part of facilitating student learning is to create opportunities for students to learn by assessing the students, planning the learning, implementing the plan, and evaluating the process. Teaching is still part of it and instruction is important. But facilitation is often more about the how than the what. Facilitators need to encourage students to take responsibility and delegate tasks, be warm and uplifting, promote consensus during discussion, assist in goal setting, draw conclusions, and generally guide the overall process (Embedded Learning Academy, 2009). Facilitation requires teachers to be more engaged, more involved, and more mindful of how the students are doing than they may be used to in a lecture-type setting. I foresee that some teachers will struggle with facilitating PBL more than others, depending on what type of classroom culture they have.

If given enough support and encouragement, students will develop competencies and skills they need to be successful. They will retain information longer and perform better. If they are new to Project Based Learning, they will likely need more support and scaffolding than if they have been doing PBL projects for awhile. I’m hoping to offer support and encouragement to teachers who want to do more PBL projects but don’t really know how or where to start. I am hoping a few will be motivated enough to give it a try, and will be encouraged to continue because of their successes.

References:
Embedded Learning Academy. (2009). Facilitators. Retrieved from http://www.embeddedlearningacademy.com/pde/facilitators/index.html

Tylee, J. (1999). Teacher as facilitator. Retrieved from http://www.education4skills.com/jtylee/teacher_as_facilitator.html

Giving Project-Based Learning a Chance

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There is no golden ticket to the solid, well-rounded, 21st Century education our students need. While we hope they will become critical thinkers and problem-solvers of the highest order, the truth is that it takes a village to get them there. Instruction, while based on solid pedagogical practices, is still a bit hit and miss and involves a lot of trial and error. Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a certainly start.

When designed well, PBL can be an excellent way to help students acquire not only content knowledge but the practical application behind it. If students see a real-life authentic application of what they are learning, and if they can use what they learn to benefit those around them, they likely will remember it longer. Their learning experience will have positive meaning and they will likely be more motivated to use a similar approach in other content areas.

However, PBL is easy to criticize because it is not widely understood or practiced. It looks different than a standard learning paradigm and it takes an experienced teacher to implement it well. On the surface it looks less organized, less content-driven, and guided by students. A good PBL unit, however, has been planned and organized well and is based on solid content area standards that are communicated and assessed throughout the project. PBL promotes student inquiry and gives them freedom to lead their own learning experience, though they are scaffolded throughout the process and offered many tools to help them.

An obvious downside of PBL is that it takes a significant amount of time to plan and implement well. For this reason, many teachers and schools don’t see it as a practical option, as it takes time and resources they don’t feel they have. However, schools and individual teachers can start somewhere and start small. With a little research and determination, one project can be tried, then another, then another, until teachers and students demonstrate desired outcomes. As success stories spread, others will be more likely to give PBL a try.

The Buck Institute for Education lists three areas for further research on PBL: Synthesis (summaries of research conducted across multiple sites or multiple studies); Outcomes (research that can range from improved attitudes to standardized test scores); and Practices (differences in use of PBL, including tools and professional development designed to improve teaching and learning). There is significant research to show that PBL increases academic test scores, results in more effective learning, contributes to longer retention, improves student 21st Century skills, and is especially helpful for lower-achieving students (BIE, 2009).

If even part of these outcomes prove true, then PBL is worth a shot. Students truly deserve the very best we have to offer.

References:
Buck Institute for Education. (2009). Does PBL work?. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/research/study/does_pbl_work