Educational tensions? teacher, facilitator, moderator

With my copy of the “Art of Facilitation” by Dale Hunter buried in storage while we’re house-sitting, I’ve had to scramble around my books and other gray literature to find definitions for this week’s #FO09 blogging assignment. We’ve been asked to look at how different online roles potentially undermine each other.

As I attempt to describe the role of facilitator I’ll turn to my trusty version of a “Resource manual for a living revolution” by Coover, Deecon, et al (1985), something I threatened promised to do in my introduction to my classmates. Here’s the definition:

A facilitator fills a role similar to that of a ‘chairperson’, but never directs the group with its consent. S/he helps the members of a group decide what they want to accomplish in a meeting and helps them carry it out. S/ he takes responsibility for reminding the group of its tasks, tests for consensus, and in general makes sure that the task and maintenance roles discussed earlier.

One assumption underpinning this definition is that groups are formed to take action so must make decisions. This may not apply in a teaching setting, but many online groups or communities are set up to do stuff together. Another assumption is that a facilitator alone is not solely responsible for the proper functioning of the group. The maintenance roles mentioned in the quote suggest that each person must make contributions to the group. This can include things such as information seeking, opinion seeking, clarifying, summarizing or acting as philosopher critic. Roles are not fixed but members apply these types of skills as required (something akin to de Bono’s multicoloured hats).

When it comes down to a more practical perspective you could expect a facilitator to draw out people’s ideas, seek agreement on groundrules, negotiate with group members about goals and decision-making processes (including time limits) and making sure everyone participates. One of the best lists of the attributes of a faciliator can be found in Nancy White’s guide, “Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community” (2004).

It’s hard to preserve the distinctiveness of the moderator role, but if I was forced to summarise I’d say this role is about enforcing rules and intervening between community members when there is a dispute. Stephen Thorpe sums this up precisely in a book chapter from the “Art of Facilitation” (2007) entitled Facilitation Online. He talks about the procedural side to a moderators role and says their role is to:

ensure an online group system is functioning. This may include monitoring discussion boards to ensure all postings meet guidelines and standards of behaviour, and organising discussion material. Moderators are usually responsible for many of the technical tasks required in assisting the group to participate, such as adding new members and fixing bouncing addresses. Moderators may also review posts to ensure they are in alignment with the group purpose before they are approved for the group to see. Small changes are sometimes made, and some postings may be rejected if they do not meet the group’s guidelines.

Suggesting a stereotypical definition of a teacher in a class filled with teachers is fraught with danger. I will do it anyway. If I had to choose a single word I’d limit it to instruction. This implies both directing or exercising authority, and transmission of detailed information about how something should be done, or perhaps imparting received wisdom.

But this is far too reductionist a definition for teaching. For Gramsci, Paulo Freire and other social critics, transforming society to serve everyone’s interests (not just the elite’s) by eliminating exploitation is founded on education. The teacher’s role is pivotal in this. However, teachers are not all seeing and knowing. They can help students find a learning path that suits them most. To do this relies on reconceptualising the role of teacher. Gramsci put it simply this way: “every teacher is always a pupil, and every pupil a teacher”.

This accords with Freire’s view, as described in a Wikipedia article, which states:

Freire however insists that educator and student, though sharing democratic social relations of education, are not on an equal footing, but the educator must be humble enough to be disposed to relearn that which he/she already thinks she knows, through interaction with the learner.

Under this definition of teaching we could expect teachers to let the classroom run riot, or at least let the learners needs to dictate the learning process. In this setting teaching and facilitating are closely allied. But if we conceived of teaching in a more conservative sense, a teacher will be undermined by a facilitator allowing students to assert their preferred and individual processes for learning. This is something that may challenge the very roots of a teacher’s knowledge.

This highly charged philosophical debate leaves little room for the modest pretensions of the moderator. As I primarily conceive of this role as a umpire or referee, I’m struggling to see how their role could be disruptive or undermining.

As this is a blog post not a treatise I’ll stop at this point. Blogging is very much about sharing first thoughts rather than well formed and articulate ideas. This is like a raw, early draft, which will be refined/ expanded/ critiqued through comments below and in other posts. So, I’m going to click “Publish” before I revise these first thoughts. Refinement to come, maybe.