Facilitation and Instruction

I’m in the middle of a two-day workshop on creating space for difficult topics in the classroom, focused on how and when to bring dialogue facilitation techniques into the classroom.

This has naturally raised the question – in directing a class’ learning, what is the difference between taking on the role of facilitator and taking on the role of instructor?

This isn’t just a question of teaching style, but gets at a philosophy of what it means to learn.

Organizer and educator Myles Horton has argues that there’s an important difference between organizing and educating: you organize to achieve a goal; you educate to develop people. He has a great story of a conversation he had with striking workers which illustrates this point:


They said: “Well, you’ve got more experience than we have. You’ve got to tell us what to do. You’re the expert.” I said: “No, let’s talk about it a little bit more. In the first place, I don’t know what to do, and if I did know I wouldn’t tell you, because if I had to tell you today then I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.”

One guy reached in his pocket and pulled out a pistol and says, “Godddamn you, if you don’t tell us I’m going to kill you.” I was tempted to become an instant expert, right on the spot! But I knew that if I did that, all would be lost and then all the rest of them would start asking me what to do.

In Horton’s view, an educator is not an expert; an educator may help people explore the options, but ultimately the people must decide what to do.

I’d be inclined to use somewhat different terminology in a classroom setting, where whoever is standing is front of the classroom is an educator, though they may approach the task with different goals and styles.

Horton’s style of education is one of facilitation. The facilitator is not an expert, but rather supports the development of the people engaged in dialogue.

Instruction, perhaps, maps on to Horton’s view of organizing. An instructor is an expert, who provides valuable facts and strategies to achieve a concrete goal.

Horton argues that these roles cannot co-exist. While he took on both roles throughout his career, on any given campaign he would restrict himself to being either an educator or an organizer.

Teachers have no such luxury.

In most classrooms, they must combine instruction – dispensing relevant facts and concepts – with facilitation – developing students’ ability to think critically, to develop and analyze solutions.

I suppose the appropriate balance is highly context-dependent on the given topic and learning outcomes, but it is worth noting that these are different approaches which may not seamlessly integrate into each other.


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