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.

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6 thoughts on “Educational tensions? teacher, facilitator, moderator

  1. Hilary

    Hi Stephen
    I picked up on Dale Hunters descriptions too, and was interested in her use of “facilitator” and being “facilitative” where the facilitator’s primary role is to guide the process of the group. A teacher’s role is defined by Hunter to impart knowledge and evaluate that the individual learners are in fact learning but there is a recognition that a teacher could be “facilitative” as a secondary role monitoring the group process.

    Does this suggest that perhaps the term “teacher” embraces several roles that are primary and secondary depending on the direction of the learning? Which is why I like the statement you quoted about every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher(Gramski).

  2. DebraM

    Thanks for some more absorbing reading,Stephen (and for the post on my blog). I really like the thought that you too consider that a blog is about sharing first thoughts and not supposed to be that formal- in my mind I always think I’ll write some more, but often get sidetracked. So I am going to explore some of the links and debates here and get back to my thoughts, and yes, Nancy White is one to investigate/follow….

  3. Sarah Stewart

    Great post! I am interested, though, to see what you think when you read the posts of the educators in the course who see much more of an overlap between the three roles.

  4. Stephen Blyth

    There’s something about being not being a content or subject matter expert (ie to some degree ‘objective’) and allowing participants to shape the learning process that is at the heart of a facilitator role. Teaching, with the emphasis on imparting knowledge and, secondarily, assessment rubs up against this.

    I can’t quite reconcile these two things. But I definitely think teachers can be facilitative as Hilary points out (eg draw out knowledge, flexible learning design, handing over tasks to learners to create responses), and I also think teachers can be facilitators (though I struggle to see how someone could be successful at both roles simultaneously as they call for different qualities and skills).

    Teachers must have to juggle lots of different situations, particularly with adult students, so I can see facilitation may be drawn on one day with a lecture required the next. Thinking about this, it’s probably the approach I take with running training courses. Mixing it up.

  5. willie campbell

    Mixing it up is about what I think all educators and developers do, unless they have been “formed” (and I supsect we can all recognise distinct periods of formation in our personal/professional development journey) so strongly in aparticulr mode, pgilosophy etc and struggle to allow alternative views. In any event, this will remain (or become) their default position when in a tight spot.

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