Facilitating learning is now expected of modern teachers, but what does that actually mean?

Facilitating learning is now expected of modern teachers, but what does that actually mean? What are the key features of being an effective facilitator and what do we learn from our students by teaching in this way? How can we use our students to help us become better teachers?

After deciding to answer it, I looked-up how the dictionary specifically defines the word "facilitation" and found it means "to make easier or less difficult."

In my mind, though, it means the exact opposite. Let me explain...

During my nineteen-year community organizing career (prior to becoming a high school teacher eleven years ago), we applied Saul Alinsky's Iron Rule to our work: "Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Never."

Applying this concept to schools, I think, means that we teachers need to be less the "sage on the stage" and more the "guide on the side."

So, my view of "facilitation" is one of more creating the conditions for students to learn more on their own with my encouragement and guidance instead viewing their minds as empty vessels to be filled.

What does this look like in my classroom?

One of the main strategies I use is to teach by using what some researchers call "enhanced discovery learning" and which has been found to be much more effective than direct instruction. One of the key specific ways to implement this kind of teaching is through inductive learning. In the inductive process, students seek patterns and use them to identify their broader meanings and significance, as opposed to a deductive one, where meanings or rules are given and students have to then apply them.

Here are a few specific inductive instructional strategies I use with my English Language Learner students:

The Picture Word Inductive Model

The Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM) is a literacy instructional strategy that was designed for early literacy instruction and has also been found to be exceptionally effective with both younger and older second language learners. In the PWIM, an enlarged photo with white space around it (ideally laminated so it can be used again) is first placed in the classroom. Students and the teacher together label objects in the picture; students categorize and add words to their categories; students then use the words in sentences that are provided as clozes (gap-fills). You can read a more detailed sequence of the PWIM in this previous post I wrote for The British Council and in this post I wrote for The New York Times.

Picture Data Sets

A related reinforcing lesson to the PWIM is having students create "Picture Data Sets," which are particularly easy to create online (though can also be used with "hard copy" photos). Again, you can read more details about this strategy in a previous British Council post.

Text Data Sets

Text Data Sets are very similar to the Picture Word Inductive Model cloze sentences and students use the same kind of categorization process done in that activity. Text Data Sets, however, are composed of sentences or short paragraphs. You can see examples of these for English Language Learners in these two New York Times posts. Students first classify them (individually or with partners), being sure to highlight or underline their evidence for determining that the example belonged in that specific category. They might use categories given to them by the teacher or ones they determine themselves. Then they might add new pieces of data they find and/or they may convert their categories into paragraphs and a simple essay. They might also just stop at the categorization process. These data sets are another scaffolding tool in the inductive teaching and learning process that can be used by students to develop increasing sophisticated writing skills.

Concept Attainment

Concept attainment, originally developed by Jerome Bruner and his colleagues is a form of inductive learning where the teacher identifies both "good" and "bad" examples (ideally, taken from student work -- with the names removed, of course) of the intended learning objective. After developing a sheet sharing both kinds of examples in two columns, the teacher would place it on a document camera or overhead projector. At first, everything would be covered except for the "yes" and "no" titles, and the teacher would explain that he/she is going to give various examples, and he/she wants students to identify why certain ones are under "yes" and others are under "no."

After the first "yes" and "no" examples are shown, students are asked to think about them, and share with a partner why they think one is a "yes" and one is a "no." After the teacher calls on people, if no one can identify the reason, he/she continues uncovering one example at a time and continues the "think-pair-share" process with students until they identify the reasons. Then students are asked to correct the "no" examples and write their own "yes" ones. Lastly, students can be asked to generate their own "yes" examples and share them with a partner or the class. This inductive learning strategy can be used effectively to teach countless lessons, including ones on grammar, spelling, composition, and even speaking (using recorded audio). Here are two links to learn more about concept attainment.

What are other "enhanced discovery learning" strategies that you have successfully used in the classroom?

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.  He has written six books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes a monthly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.

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