Turning instructors into facilitators

After my travels, I’m now back in the UK, working through the pile of stuff that seems to have accumulated in my absence. But before the moment gets too lost, it’s worth reflecting on some of the key lessons from TLC and the INOTLES workshop.

Apparently, Georgia is the cradle of wine. Not that we got to see any of it. This is a stock photo. Honest.

For me, the big point that I had underlined was the need to shift attitudes when pursuing active learning. This was particularly striking with our INOTLES session in Tbilisi, where we were wrapping up the training-trainers phase of our project.

As part of that, we had a group session for the people who have been learning about simulations. I wanted to get a sense of what they had got from the process and where they still saw difficulties.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we talked about many of the same topics that got covered at TLC: assessment strategy, learning from failure, the balance of knowledge acquisition and skills development. This reflects the rather different nature of simulations and the need to step out of conventional practice.

In particular, it was apparent that the overarching challenge was this aspect of changing attitudes, on the part of both students and staff.

For students, there has to be a explicit mechanism to reinforce the message that a simulation can be both enjoyable and academically valuable. Giving students licence to step out of themselves and speak more freely is central in making the most of this pedagogy: we shouldn’t be surprised if that takes some getting used to.

For me, I like to use some small exercises to limber up and set this frame, before moving to the more involved stuff, but it is important to keep on showing students that the more they get into it, the more they will get out of it.

However, this also requires adaptation by staff too.

Simulations are intrinsically uncertain, in the sense that they might point in a general direction, but the precise path taken will not be known until you are on it. One of my colleagues in Tbilisi got a bit worried about this, probably because I overstated this point: it’s not that you have no idea at all what will happen, only that you have some uncertainty.

That uncertainty requires staff to be willing to let go from the conventional model of controlling the classroom. In a lecture, you are in charge, the students are mute and you are the conduit for all that is ‘important’. In a simulation, you set out a framework, but then students take the driving seat and do… well, they do something, which so-of matches what you intended. Then you have to debrief them to see how that matches up with your ideas.

In short, you co-create with the students.

Now, that can be a tough step; indeed, it’s often the toughest step. It imposes an additional burden on you to be responsive and adaptable to what happens, just as it imposes a burden on students to produce action. Your facilitation requires some different skills to those needed for classical instruction.

The reward is a much more engaging learning environment for all involved. Students get to see the value of their contributions more clearly, and get to make more active use of their knowledge and skills, while staff get a much more grounded space in which learning occurs, since it has to build on what students actually know, rather than what they supposedly know.