I recently spoke to the International Association of Facilitators – India, having chosen to focus on transfer. My intent was for them to be thinking about ensuring that the skills they facilitate get applied when useful. My preparation was, apparently, insufficient, leaving me to discover something mid-talk. Which leads me to reflecting on facilitating in the dark.
So, I’m not a trained facilitator (nor designer, nor trainer, nor coach). While I’ve done most of this (with generally good results),I’m guided by the learning science behind whatever. So, in this case, I thought they were facilitating learning by either serving as trainers or coaches. Imagine my surprise when I found out that they largely facilitate without knowing the topic!
In general, to create learning experiences, we need good performance objectives. From there, we design the practice, and then align everything else to succeed on the final practice. We also (should) design the extension of the learning to coaching past any formal instruction, and generally ensuring that the impact isn’t undermined.
How, then, do you get models, examples, and provide feedback on practice if you don’t know the domain? What they said was that they were taking it from the learners themselves. They would get the learners together and facilitate them into helping each other, largely. This included creating an appropriate space.
To me, then, there are some additional things that need to be done. (And I’m not arguing they don’t do this.) You need to get the learners to:
- articulate the models
- provide examples
- ensure that they articulate the underlying thinking
- think about how to unpack the nuances
- ensure sufficient coverage of contexts
- provide feedback on others’ experiences
This is in addition to creating a safe space, opening and closing the experience, etc.
So it caused me to think about when this can happen. I really can’t see this happening for novices. They don’t know the frameworks and don’t have the experience. They need formal instruction. Once learners have had some introduction and practice, however, this sort of facilitation could work. It may be a substitute for a community of practice that might naturally provide this context. You’d just be creating the safe space in the facilitation instead of the community.
The necessary skills to do this well, to be agile enough mentally to balance all these tasks, even with a process, is impressive. I did ask whether they ended up working in particular verticals, because it does seem like even if you came in facilitating in the dark, you couldn’t help learn while doing the facilitation. There did seem to be some agreement.
Overall, while I prefer people with domain knowledge doing facilitation, I can see this. At least, if the community can’t do it itself. We don’t share enough about learning to learn, and we could. I do think a role for L&D is to spread the abilities to learn, so that more folks can do it more effectively. The late Jay Cross believed this might be the best investment a company could make!
Nonetheless, while facilitating in the dark may not be optimal, it may be useful. And that, of course, is really the litmus test. So it was another learning opportunity for me, and hopefully for them too!