Teacher or Facilitator: Is it just semantics?
What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone uses the word, “facilitator”? Perhaps you think of words like planner, coordinator, promoter, developer, or designer. All of these definitions lead us to think of a facilitator as someone who sets up, designs, and oversees an environment that is conducive to the goal at hand but they are not at the center of the scene.
Now what is the first thing that comes to mind when someone uses the word, “teacher”? Words like coach, disciplinarian, faculty, instructor, lecturer, and trainer come to mind. All of these associations make the word “teacher” feel like a central part of the environment and the goal.
Let’s bring this around to the classroom and look more closely at the role of a teacher or facilitator in education. In a classroom with a traditional teacher, the students are relying on the educator to feed them the proper instruction, principles, and training. In a classroom with a facilitator, he or she sets up a learning environment and largely gives the students the ability to learn on their own. Facilitators are often used more in adult settings where it’s thought that adults can handle independent learning more readily. But is this really true?
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A Stunning Experiment in Ethiopia
An article in the MIT Technology Review in October discussed a bold experiment conducted by the One Laptop Per Child Organization. Imagine the scene…
Children in a remote Ethiopian village wake up one morning and find a large set of boxes outside. They’ve never seen a written word anywhere- no street signs, printed books, or even cardboard packaging. Now there are boxes with something completely foreign inside.
Would they even open the boxes? The officials weren’t sure. There were no written instructions with the delivery (not that they could have read it anyway). According to the article, it took one child 5 minutes to open the box, grab the tablet inside, find the on/off switch, and power it up.
With no prior experience using technology, the English language, or any printed materials, within days these children were actively playing on average 47 apps a day. Two weeks later they were able to sing the ABC song. And five months later? Some children hacked the tablet to customize the look and feel of the computer.
In this experiment, the children taught the OLPC officials that even without a teacher, as long as they had a tool, they could educate themselves. Traditional educators can learn from this- we must move out of the way and give students the opportunity to learn on their own.
The benefits of self-learning are well documented. Just look at all the advantages an independent learner takes away from their own education.
1. Learn how to learn.
There is a difference between regurgitating materials on an exam vs. understanding the process of learning. Students who aren’t given the opportunity for independent learning don’t acquire the skill of HOW to learn and how to examine a principle from multiple angles. The teacher stands in the way of the student’s natural curiosity.
2. Independent learning focuses on the process and not simply the goal.
The process of learning is an exciting adventure that can be interrupted when the primary focus of the classroom is on the goal. We can learn from famous inventors whose failure in the process became the seed for amazing success down the road.
3. Flexibility for different levels of intelligence.
Not every student is going to work at the same pace. A facilitator in the classroom can oversee the environment so that each student can work at their own pace and timing.
4. Independent learning includes time management and other life skills.
Traditional classroom environments can hamper a child’s ability to function in the real world where deadlines, distractions, and other obstacles are in the way. Bosses on the job don’t act like teachers.
Office areas are not like pristine classrooms where everything is methodical and routine. Independent learning requires the student to develop other secondary skills like planning and making priority lists and deadlines to achieve their goals. They must also learn how to deal with distraction effectively.
5. Passion and curiosity cement learning.
Can you imagine the difference in motivation if you allowed a student to research a topic that truly piqued his or her interest? Motivation to climb over obstacles is far easier to muster when the student is allowed to choose what educational mountain to tackle first.
6. Internal satisfaction.
The world isn’t going to cheer us all on always. When things get tough, those who don’t quit are the ones who are determined to rely on their own sense of satisfaction and not someone patting them on the back. Students who have a facilitator rather than a teacher will come to depend on themselves for a job well done.
7. Independent learners are more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.
A weakness is only as dangerous as the level of ignorance the person has about it. Independent learning forces students to grapple with both their strengths and weaknesses through the educational process.
8. Students learn how to educate others.
If a facilitator invites the student to plan the lesson, then he or she is also learning about how to teach someone else. What good is genius locked up inside of someone who has no idea how to communicate to others?
9. Students can self-critique more effectively.
When the process is part of the goal, failure isn’t quite so scary. When the fear of failure disappears, it is much easier to learn the art of self-critique. Traditional teachers and classrooms make little room for failure as everything is based on grades and exams.
Learning is not always a straight path. Oftentimes it is a messy walk in the woods with a lot of detours. Independent learners are ready and capable of navigating the process whereas pupils that are fed information from the teacher will get discouraged when they venture out on their own.
What Stands In The Way of Independent Learning?
Unfortunately, money often drives many of the current educational trends. Standardized testing is the benchmark for funding, and teachers are instructed to teach “to the test” to ensure good marks. Failure is not an option for many of the students who are terrified of a less than perfect report card.
The children in Ethiopia may have many many more disadvantages than our wealthy school systems, but they do have one advantage: There was no fear of failure, an abundance of innate curiosity, and a serious drive to learn and teach themselves for their own sense of satisfaction and pleasure.
That is what we need to bring back into the classroom. The question is, how do we make our teachers excellent facilitators that promote independent learning?