Professional Learning

Creating a Pedagogy of Facilitation: A Facilitator’s Handbook from the Philadelphia Writing Project

Planning Professional Development

Facilitators at the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP) are called on to assist with professional development in increasingly complex situations.

For instance, some schools are using mandated reading programs that do not address the teaching of writing. Some schools are requiring heavily scripted literacy and math programs that exclude any use of literature or writing. Still others are not allowing ELL students to use their home languages in class and have purchased literacy programs that emphasize the use of drills and repetition as the sole approach to teaching and learning.

On top of that, as is true of many sites, PhilWP is beginning to experience turnover as experienced facilitators become less active. In this time of transition, we want to ensure that we sustain an inquiry stance as an essential pillar of our work.

What questions should facilitators ask as they plan professional development? What skills do they need in order to be effective? How, indeed, do they know when professional development is effective? These are some of the questions we pose at our site as we seek to become self-renewing.

To serve that goal, PhilWP has been developing a “pedagogy of facilitation” that honors the gifts of our novice facilitators while building on the repertoire of experienced ones.

Though our professional development facilitation has always been informed by the core beliefs of the National Writing Project, our goal was to articulate what constitutes good facilitation and archive some examples of it. We used grants from NWP’s Urban Sites Network (USN) to support these efforts.

Below are some highlights of how we have collaborated to build a facilitation handbook.

Vignette Writing

Many of our continuity events focus on developing a pedagogy of facilitation that begins with vignette writing. Teacher-consultants are asked to write about a time when, as participants in professional development, their experience was either positive or negative, or when professional development had a great impact on their practice.

After writing, participants join in a pair/share of their personal recollections. From those conversations, we generate an initial list of exemplary practices and draw some tentative commonalities about what does and does not work in professional development programs. Later these practices are grouped into before, during, and after facilitation tips.

Examples include:

  • Develop an awareness of different learning styles and consider them when planning.
  • Be open to offering alternative ways of approaching activities, and be willing to adjust or make adaptations based on responses to the work.
  • Connect what participants know to the unknown. Build on their prior knowledge to get to the unknown.

Protocols and Structures

Another powerful way to unpack our pedagogy of facilitation is to have experienced facilitators model selected structures, protocols, and practices for teacher-consultants interested in facilitating professional development or continuity programs.

The facilitation practices include a wide range of topics: initiating critical conversations, techniques for expanding writing, and writing across the curriculum, to name a few. Attendees view each process in workshop style through at least two lenses: as a participant, focusing on content and process, and as a critical friend, using the list of exemplary practices we generated earlier.

We also explain structures for sharing reading, such as jigsawing one of our favorite articles by Joellen Killion and Lynn Simmons, “The Zen of Facilitation (PDF),” which discusses differences between training and facilitation. The activity described in the article helps to crystallize and expand our list of exemplary facilitation practices, as does the practice of jigsawing as a structure for sharing reading.

A major outcome of the USN minigrant–funded work was the raw data that was compiled into a Facilitators’ Handbook (PDF), which includes descriptions of the exemplary practices, tips for good facilitation, and models of annotated agendas for workshop offerings. Additionally, DVDs of presentations are included with the handbooks. The handbook now provides a concrete product for dissemination to new facilitators as they plan with site leaders to create their own professional development tools.

Learning and Facilitating Styles

Because we seek to affect an inner change through our facilitation development, we utilize a number of activities to help establish trust among Writing Project colleagues who may be called on to work together in the development and implementation of professional development.

One such activity is a variation of Peter Elbow’s “doubting and believing” protocol to unpack beliefs about what good facilitation looks like and what it takes to make it happen. Novice facilitators are asked to read “The Zen of Facilitation” with instruction to not question its credos but accept them as their own. They look to their own vignettes to find evidence of their personal beliefs.

In another activity that calls for trust and collegiality, experienced facilitators gather to create timelines that map highs and lows of their facilitation histories. They reveal deeply painful memories as well as resounding success stories. These memories can then be used as sources for ongoing inquiry about effective ways of sharing this facilitator-made knowledge.

The trust we establish opens the door for teacher-consultants, experienced and novice, to plan professional development based on authentic scenarios that reflect the climate and context of our large urban district. We provide space for discussion around questions such as:

  • What was most difficult to plan?
  • Where did you learn the most in your planning?
  • Where did you use your strengths as a teacher/learner as you planned this?
  • What did you learn about yourself as you planned this?
  • What concerns/issues might arise as you facilitate this?

Finally, we share the medicine wheel (PDF), a popular social process that focuses on natural strengths and inclinations. This activity is helpful as facilitation teams are formed. By looking at how teacher-consultants gravitate to one of the four “directions” on the wheel—representing the roles of visionary, nurturer, analyst, and director—they begin to understand the nuances of how they perceive others and others perceive them.

In the end, these processes unearth the complexity of taking an inquiry stance on professional development facilitation—a stance that continues to inform our site.

Where Is the Pedagogy Today?

What does it take to turn a good teacher into a good facilitator? We certainly subscribe to the NWP tenet that teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. As a site, we value and often experience great professional development in which educators feel nourished, engaged, and intellectually challenged by the work. Our approach differs from traditional notions of pedagogy in that it is not a formula for facilitation but rather a stance we develop over time through reflection, collegiality, and inquiry.

As we think about the next steps for the pedagogy, we have developed a collection of facilitation scenarios (PDF) for our handbook that teams can consider as they prepare to lead professional development or continuity programs for our site. We know that facilitators need to ask themselves what their beliefs are about the work, how they collaborate with others, and what relationship they will form with workshop participants.

As they continue to develop skills and strategies like those in the handbook, facilitators can expand on their practice in order to provide effective workshops. They can assess their own effectiveness using both quantitative measures and reflective processes and close observation.

At our site, we continue to rely on collegiality and reflection as we challenge ourselves to consider the new questions that arise through our inquiry stance. Our quest to become regenerating is ever evolving, and, even as we write this, we feel the very real struggle of this complicated work in our current context. We place our faith in inquiry and in the power it has to move us forward.

Download “Zen of Facilitation” (PDF)
Download “Facilitation Scenarios” (PDF)
Download “Activity Based on Peter Elbow’s Protocol” (PDF)
Download “Facilitator’s Handbook” (PDF)
Download “The Four Directions of the Medicine Wheel (PDF)