Guiding Your Group: A Participant-Centered Approach to Group Facilitation and Teaching

Excerpt from the Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner
Experiential Education Workshop Nashville
The basic tenet of experiential education is the idea of facilitators (e.g., teachers, leaders) approaching their work as guides in the process of discovery, rather than as all-knowing teachers and centers of knowledge and direction. When I work with educators and group leaders, I often find myself encouraging them to reflect on the idea of a “learner-centered” view of teaching and group facilitation. Using this approach, the educator aims to gradually shift responsibility for the success of the learning experience from him/herself to the learner. As learners progress, the teacher or group facilitator fades more and more into the background, allowing learners to take more ownership and control over their learning.

This balance has to be discovered and maintained with each learning situation and group of learners. In the learner-centered approach, educators pay attention to the progress of their groups. They are willing to step back and put forward as many questions as answers. They learn to be comfortable with the “messiness” or frustration that is necessary in some group-learning situations, and they are willing to carve out time for a meaningful, participant-centered resolution to come to fruition. They carefully observe and facilitate opportunities for ongoing reflection and feedback so they know when they need to adjust their role to fit the needs of their group.

For interesting reading on this subject of allowing for struggle and labor in learning, see Plato’s Theatetus. One of Plato’s dialogues focuses on the nature of knowledge, using the metaphor of the teacher as the “midwife” of ideas. This dialogue between Socrates and Theatetus, compares Socrates’ role as a teacher to that of a midwife. The midwife acts as a guide and support. She cannot go through the labor for the mother-to-be; she can only help, encourage, and guide the woman through the process. She only intervenes with the labor when the situation becomes dangerous or too painful. An effective teacher similarly practices the art of the guide, coach, and supporter in the delivery of learning, but knowledge and understanding are the labor of the student. Socrates states: “The many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within. But the delivery is heaven’s work and mine (Cornford, 1934).”

When learners feel responsible for their learning and have achieved a challenge through their work, they are empowered to take ownership for future learning, growth, and change. Knowledge gained through such meaningful experience becomes lasting knowledge. When participants are given more responsibility for learning and group development, they gain a stronger sense of personal accomplishment for their successes.
The Value of Reflection
When a leader’s best work is done, the people say “we did it ourselves! Lao-Tzu

Principles of Participant-Centered Facilitation
Create opportunities for participants to take leadership and responsibility for decision-making within group experiences. Remember that the learner is a participant in learning rather than just a receiver of information.
Participant choice and control are essential. Empowering learners to set reasonable parameters and make decisions about their level of participation creates an atmosphere of healthy trust and increases involvement from reluctant participants.
Encourage spontaneous learning; when possible, “go with the flow” and move with the lessons the group is creating.
Structure appropriate experiences but remain flexible, acting as guide and role model. Facilitators initiate learning; participants take it from there.
Show learners they are fully valued, respected, and supported.
Encourage group members to share rather than calling on them. Allow participants to pass during group discussions – especially at first. This empowers them to have control over their learning and practice sharing at their own pace. When people are given the power to pass, they learn to trust the facilitator and group and often end up offering a great deal to the group when they are ready.

Be prepared for unexpected learning opportunities, and welcome teachable moments that arise when the group takes a lesson somewhere different from what you had in mind. Be open to learning something new! Be aware that you might have to artfully help them navigate back to the present moment in order to meet the group needs.
Direct questions back to the group. Encourage participants to help each other.
Design activities that do not directly involve you as the leader, for example, dividing the group the group into partners or small groups for reflection discussions. The group leader doesn’t have to hear everything said in a group processing discussion for it to be effective. Trust the learning process.
Welcome the opportunities that arise when group work goes differently than planned. Be willing to let go of your agenda to meet the needs of the group. Participants might discover ways to reach group goals that are new to you.
Carefully plan and structure lessons and experiences but remain flexible and allow learners to take activities lessons somewhere different than they had in mind if it benefits the group. Participant-centered facilitators are always prepared to learn something new themselves.

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