Learning as a Facilitator

Learning is a very delicate idea and helping someone else to learn adds a few new dimensions of challenges to it. To start with, we all assume that we know how to learn. It might be possible for us to pick some of the simple intuitive actions and ideas by just aping our environment, but we need a through grounding to learn with explicit progress. A true adult learner should have three simple capability – to come up with an original idea, connect it with reality and see through its implications.

Let’s test the three aspects with the idea of learning. Can you come up with an original view of the same? Let’s say you do, that would itself place you in an elite group. Connecting it to reality might seem simple as in all likeliness, you reached this idea by processing the “real world facts” you hold. But herein lies a small catch – you might be working on perceptions, alternative facts, or even plain hoax. Much far away from fact – a piece of information “presented” as having objective reality. Finally, looking at implications, we are now treading in the realm of fiction, speculation, conjectures, and comparatives. Future rarely follows the mandated outcomes of the present and past premises. This would possibly get you thinking how challenging the process of facilitation, i.e. helping others to learn, could be.

Why should I be using a less used term like “facilitation” as against the more popular one like teaching? I intend to kick start our own learning process though this. Teaching as a word has a few inherent challenges. Probably more because it is associated with the idea of responsibility, authority, expertise, unidirectionality and to some extent unquestionability (more because of first two points) which undermines the idea of learning. Some of the other words like lecturing, training, professing, and many words associated with the education profession follow the same trend. Facilitation instantly orients the act more effectively with the learner’s interest, capability, ownership, and goals. However, there is a need to elaborate the idea of facilitation and the role a facilitator plays. But before we debate teaching versus facilitation, let’s look at the complexities around the act of learning itself.

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 1: Understand that Learning is a counter-intuitive

Let’s start at a seemingly counter-intuitive aspect of learning. Is learning logical? I have seen most natural response to be – of course. But if we look at the idea a bit deeper, you might begin to doubt your intuition. Learning is a paradox. The famous Meno’s paradox given by Plato explains this beautifully. Simply put it says “you can’t learn anything that you don’t already know”. If this is true, then is the idea of facilitation futile? On the contrary the sooner a learning facilitator recognises this anomaly, more effective are her efforts to help learners. Why so? Because you now have a necessary precondition – start from what is known, to be able to deliver the intended outcomes.

The learning paradox is not the only illogical aspect of learning. It’s an accepted fact that to be the fittest and survive, one needs to evolve, i.e., learn and change continuously. If learning is a continuous process, what motivations can one really hold to learn? Not everyone would get excited like Socrates with an idea like “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”. If one needs to run just to stay at a place, why get on the treadmill at all? Right from the Greek philosophers’ dialogs to modern thinkers like Eckhart Tolle, many have delved into this question. We all know multiple answers to this question; but as a facilitator be ready to face this challenge. Offering the act of learning as a “progressively futile exercise” is not an easy sale.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, the logical dilemma associated with the learning you are trying to facilitate you would:

  1. Appreciate the illogical thoughts and actions of the learner
  2. The resistance and disinterest you might face from the learner
  3. Look deeper than just transferring the thought or idea
  4. Keep the focus on learning process as much as the learning outcomes
  5. Reaffirm the transient nature of learning

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 2: Recognize that Learning is to change

If that made sense, we are ready to move to an abstract level. Have you thought of a metaphor for learning? Some of the common ones include a light bulb, a flame or even a flash of light. They usually represent the visibility associated with the knowledge that learning gives. Another way to understand learning is to think of learning as a metaphor. Why so? because, here we look at learning as an outcome itself rather than it being an intermediary leading to another (possibly more important) outcome. As a learning facilitator, your role is limited to delivering the first outcome. It’s important to realise our own scope of control and the true promise we can make to a learner. So, if we look at learning as a metaphor, what do you think this metaphor represents? There could be multiple answers to this question and some I can offer are evolution, destruction, progress and possibly the simplest one – change. Change is the most fundamental and necessary precursor to learning and hence a powerful idea that learning could be a metaphor for.

One of the biggest proponent of learning being change is – Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience, of University of California, San Francisco. He says “To learn is to change how you think”. He is an authority on brain study and its ability to actively re-wire itself. Before him many philosophers and thinkers have associated learning to change. As a facilitator, it is important to understand and embrace this idea for two critical preconditions – a basis to help a learner assess if learning happened and more importantly to acknowledge that you are working against a belief that needs to change.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, the change associated with the learning outcome you are trying to facilitate you would:

  1. Recognise the current idea held by the learner that you need to change
  2. Build a logic for the learner to accept the change
  3. Design actions that learner needs to undertake for the learning (change) to happen
  4. Help the learner understand the learning outcome achieved
  5. Establish the transient nature of learning

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 3: Recognize that Learning is caused by and causes Questions

The preceding two thoughts aligns one to the idea of facilitation in contrast to teaching. If you are still wearing the teaching hat, you might want to ask yourself one simple question – Do I really have all the answers? Or, more importantly, is it enough to just have answers addressing the current needs? If we know the question, post fact we most certainly know the correct answers. However, if we start with an answer, how certain are we that we will know the question. If you remember Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know 42 doesn’t reveal much. Now ask this question to yourself as a facilitator – To learn, is it more effective to help a learner ask right questions to unravel the future thus enabling each question to lead to a more powerful question digging deeper or just giving them a simple answer of how you see the future to be? This brings us to the next challenge a facilitator needs to overcome – Do I give the answers or build the capability to ask questions?

The idea of learning as a skill is greatly supported by the idea that questions help one learn. While an answer could be right or wrong, it carries the ego of the person giving the answer, it is contextual and laden with assumptions, and most critically it comes with an expiry date. Answers are not poor or unimportant or even marginal in value, just that questions help learners to learn better. As a facilitator, it is important that you make learners dig deep into their own realm of knowledge and understanding and ask questions. Noel Burch of Gordon Training International (GTI) gave us a very powerful framework to understand our learning process – four stages for learning any new skill as depicted in the figure. It is an important idea to recognise that facilitation is primarily a play between levels 2 and 3 – the idea that learning is triggered by getting conscious of an incompetence as a vulnerability. It is also an equally important realization that awareness precedes learning. Embedded in this realization is the fact that, awareness leads to questions.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, the importance of questions in the process of learning you would:

  1. Encourage more questions from your learner
  2. Give the learner the confidence to be vulnerable and identify their triggers
  3. Free yourself from the burden of being the possessor of all answers
  4. Help a learner to dig deeper into their understanding to address their vulnerability
  5. Keep the focus on continuous evolution of learning outcomes for the learners

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 4: Recognize that when a facilitator doesn’t learn, no one else does

You are a learning facilitator and not an expert who is expected to know it all. You don’t help a learner to learn by giving precious pearls of wisdom from your all-encompassing knowledgebase. In the modern context, there are many sources right from google to AI assistants and so on which can act as the knowledge repository with more currency and ease. So, is the age of teaching dead? In the adult learning space, it has been dead for a while now. Our attempts to flog this dead horse has been giving us horrible results in terms of little or no relevancy of the graduates to the modern tasks, roles, and career paths. Unemployable graduates are a hard reality hitting the global job market for a long time now. Being a facilitator is possibly the new avatar every teacher need to transition into. The natural realization of this act would be that no one’s learning is ever complete.

As a facilitator one needs to continuously learn, more so, when they are facilitating others to learn. In my view if the facilitator is not learning, no one in the session is. A simple self-check to assess your own performance as a facilitator is to ask yourself – did I learn in the session today? A 20th century American physicist, Frank Oppenheimer was a true visionary to have recognised that “The best way to learn is to teach (to help others learn).” This way you have more people searching their understanding and asking questions that could trigger your own learning process. The facilitator also needs to keep her own interest and excitement with the context, content, and concepts in a learning session at the highest level, regardless of repetitions. This is possible only if the facilitator actively interacts with the happenings and learns along. The critical need is to pay attention to the questions being asked in the session – by you as well as by the learners. Be more attentive to the questions that make you vulnerable. Once you start experiencing the gaps in your own knowledge and understanding, the energy of your interaction would also rise. The excitement of learning is critical to propel learning and if the facilitator is not herself learning, maintaining the energy is a difficult act. This also gives a facilitator an exit from their worst nightmare – being asked a question in the class that they don’t know the answer of. Instead of trying to find a smart exit or just plead ignorance, celebrate your success in taking the learning of a class beyond themselves. More readily you realise that your key role is to help the learners to learn, the faster you are liberated from the burden of knowing it all and opening your mind to learning.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge the value of learning yourself as a precursor to your learners’ learning, you would:

  1. Recognise yourself as a learner before claiming your place on the learned pedestal
  2. Interact with and shape your ideas and thought as you share them in a session
  3. Have the confidence to challenge your own comfort zone and go beyond your conscious limits
  4. Free yourself from the burden of being the repository of knowledge
  5. Help a learner to be comfortable in exposing and challenging their vulnerability

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 5: Recognize that the eventual goal of facilitation is to enable a learner to facilitate

It is not just that our learning is transient, even our need to learn anything specific is. The only enduring aspect is our motivation to keep learning. For this to happen, it is important that we develop our own basis, synthesis, inferences, and the resulting conviction. YouTube has a piece of a pub scene from the 1997 Gus Van Sant movie “Good Will Hunting”. The dramatization of a poor unsuspecting undergraduate being taken to task by Will Hunting, an MIT janitor, is very entertaining. Will ridicules him for his lack of having original ideas and the victim accepts his limitation. Likely, any A+ ivy league student will have a developed sense of smartness to face such situations more deftly. However, as a facilitator, one needs to wonder whether we prepare the learner to answer such questions? Have we even ventured around making a learner reach such notions and outcomes of learning? This makes learning facilitation a more meaningful place to be.

The Frank Oppenheimer quote, from above, is a very apt way to look at your responsibility to the learner. Our aim is to help a learner to learn and the best way to learn is to help others learn. By logic, we should keep our end goal as enabling the learners to be facilitators themselves. This would be an apt way to not just appreciate the 5 thought points in this note, but to exemplify them in your facilitation style. Take the necessary steps to help a learner develop their own basis, synthesis, inferences, and the resulting conviction. Help them go beyond you and ensure that the learning doesn’t stop for anyone when the session, the course, or the program ends but endures and the learner learns the art of lifelong learning.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, your role as an enabler who prepares a learner to facilitate you would:

  1. Help a learner go beyond the stated outcomes of a session
  2. Enable a learner to synthesise the session and develop their own original ideas
  3. Recognise a facilitator in every one around you
  4. Evaluate your own facilitation effectiveness and keep improving it
  5. Help a learner to be comfortable with the idea of lifelong learning

Take a closer look at the stages of the learning here, the facilitator essentially needs to bring some very basic thoughts to help you learn as a learner. This includes:

  1. Understand that Learning is a counter-intuitive à Going beyond obvious and looking at learning less intuitively
  2. Recognize that Learning is to change à Keeping an open mind to learning and accepting the change
  3. Recognize that Learning is caused by and causes Questions à Looking within your known space and searching for more questions while learning
  4. Recognize that when a facilitator doesn’t learn, no one else does à Accepting and enjoying “not knowing” or your vulnerabilities, and
  5. Recognize that the eventual goal of facilitation is to enable a learner to facilitate à Looking at learning as a lifelong process

Looking at the 5 Learning as a Facilitator Thought Points, you might have recognised a virtuous learning cycle that it creates. You start by recognising learning to be a counter-intuitive. You can only learn things you already know. And you do this by bringing a change, thus be open to giving up what you already know. This is learning to start with. Change is an outcome of recognising vulnerability and asking questions to address it. The more questions you ask the more you learn. When you learn, you can help others to learn. And the cycle repeats infinitely. I call this the “Spiral of learning as a facilitator.”

Taking the idea ahead, one could look at learning as a facilitator as a precursor to making learning a self-facilitated act. The modern era of digital learning rests heavily on the premise of self-learning – that is we can learn by ourselves as methodically as we learn by being taught by others. We see the reports on the promising potential of digital learning. There are parallel reports about its ineffectiveness and low completion rates. Is the failure of digital learning with the current limitations another point against the relevance of traditional regulated teaching, specifically for adults? As we proceed in the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, limiting learning to such regulated and directed approach would be inadequate. Digital learning could ride the “spiral of learning as a facilitator” to find the next orbit of maturity more effectively. While we claim that we are moving at the speed of thought into “the age of learning”, we seem to be ignoring the idea of learning itself. Can we imagine an industrial age without understanding the idea of industrialization? Possibly we are guilty of doing this as the green activists keep pointing to the perils of industrialization. It is then prudent that we learn from such oversights in the past and ensure that when it comes to learning, we learn to learn before we begin to teach.

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