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Usable Knowledge

The Right Way to Lead Teacher Learning

The tools and techniques of effective facilitators — and how they make professional development work

Teachers are learners, too. In fact, the United States spends roughly $18 billion a year on teacher professional development. Because these adult learning sessions can represent a huge concentration of valuable resources — money as well as teacher and administrative time — facilitators need to ensure that participants are getting the most out of them. Importantly, these sessions may be one of the few times in the school day when team members have a chance to sit down, talk, and learn from one another.

Practice Protocols to Ensure Effective Facilitation

Being able to facilitate a successful meeting or discussion is not innate; leaders develop skills over time. “Facilitation is creating the conditions for a group to learn from one another, make progress on goals, and accomplish a task. Facilitation is a skill that can be taught and practiced,” says Candice Bocala, lecturer on education, co-author of The Internal Coherence Framework: Supporting Conditions for Continuous Improvement in Schools and an expert on professional development and evaluation.

Commonly used by teachers with their students to foster classroom collaboration, discussion protocols can also help educators spur a more meaningful and efficient kind of adult learning. These activities — with distinctive stages that participants walk through — ensure that goals are met and everyone’s voice is heard, helping develop communal understanding when new material is introduced. A good protocol “provides structure and routine, so when a group is having a meeting or solving a problem, it can take some of the mystery away about what’s supposed to happen and allows facilitator and participants to relax because they know they’ll arrive at a goal,” Bocala says.

Successful Facilitators Employ These Simple Tactics

  • Be intentional about building collaboration into the structure of a meeting. The purpose of a meeting should be to share ideas and engage in dialogue. “As a facilitator, what I’m looking for is this: Is there enough participation within the group so there was a point for us to meet as a group?” Bocala says. “Otherwise, you could have just made announcements or sent out a newsletter. That’s not the point of getting people together. The value is in the time people spent in the room together in order to learn from each other.”
  • Listen for phrases like “You changed my mind when…” or “I did that thing you talked about and here’s what happened.” This shows that collaboration and learning are happening and that people are building off of ideas introduced in these meetings.

    “Facilitation is creating the conditions for a group to learn from one another, make progress on goals, and accomplish a task. Facilitation is a skill that can be taught and practiced.”

    • Pay attention to time. Many protocols have strict time limits and while these can be modified, they do need to be adhered to so that the group does cover the necessary topics and can move on to later steps. Judge the right amount of time based on group characteristics and priorities.
    • Know their group and pay attention to body language and the relatedness of a comment. “As a facilitator, it’s your job to redirect the conversation,” Bocala says. “As you get to know a group, you can also decide, if this is a group that tends to go off topic, then maybe I’ll plan for more time for open discussion to allow for them to do that and then bring them back to the protocol.”
    • Reflect on who they are and who their learners are. The design of the meeting should reflect participants’ different approaches to working in groups. For example, some participants may be big-picture thinkers who keep the end results in mind at all times. Others may be more interested in gauging the interests of other group members and want to check-in more than some. Others might need more structure and detail. Facilitators can use this understanding to design a well-rounded meeting and consider how to incorporate clear objectives, allocated times, actionable steps, check-ins and reflection, and an outcome.

    Protocols to Start Things Off

    Compass Points
    Good for: Figuring out who you and your group members are as participants in a collaborative project setting

    Collaborative Assessment Conference
    Good for: Looking at, analyzing, and wondering about student work. Being curious about student learning leads to better informed instructional decisions.

    Consultancy Protocol
    Good for: Helping people dig deeper into a dilemma or a challenge where there are two possible options of equal value.

    Key Takeaways:

    • Protocols are effective for adults as well as students (some suggestions for possible adaptable student-centered frameworks can be found in this Usable Knowledge article) to solve problems and reflect on work.
    • A good facilitator will adapt and adjust guidelines as needed to ensure the group works together.
    • Protocols and effective facilitation ensure collaboration, not a rigid agenda. 

    Usable Knowledge

    Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

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