Teachers or ‘facilitators’?

We teachers are quite used to having our professional status challenged; and on occasion, quite justifiably. But in the last ten years or so, there has developed a more insidious threat to it – that has come from within the teaching profession itself. It is the suggestion that our role as ‘teachers’ should be replaced by that of ‘facilitators’.

I understand that the role of the facilitator entails the student rather than the teacher being at the centre of learning, and can see that it is part of the ‘inquiry’ and ‘problem’ based learning agenda.  Its elevation has been accelerated by the role that some believe IT should play in the classroom – or perhaps we should now call it the ‘facilitation’ room.

I have nothing against the student being at the, or rather a, centre of learning in the classroom, and have always argued that students can learn as much there from listening to each other as they can from the text book, guidesheet – or indeed their teacher. I also think it right and proper that students should be trained and motivated to inquire – a skill that will be a vital asset in their future everyday lives, and not just employment.

I am delighted that the IB prioritises these skills; after all, in order to be a ‘lifelong learner’ one needs to know how to solve problems and conduct inquiries.

Where I do become slightly indignant is when someone suggests, first, that these skills have only recently been widely practised, and that they offer us a brave new world in which all our pedagogical problems are solved; and, second, that the two roles of teacher and facilitator are somehow mutually exclusive, that there is no place any longer for the teacher to ‘teach’ – but just ‘facilitate’. Let’s take each of these points in turn.

The ability to problem solve and inquire has, and I suspect always will be, central to any student’s intellectual development. A teacher who fails to recognise the need to develop these skills is not fulfilling one of their many responsibilities. But all good teachers know that they cannot be developed unless their students first have a solid foundation of factual knowledge before they can attempt effectively to inquire or solve a problem.

Here the traditional role of the ‘teacher’ comes in, for to develop that base of knowledge they have a responsibility to – whisper it quietly – ‘instruct’ their students. Here the roles of the teacher as ‘facilitator’ and ‘teacher’ do indeed diverge. Instruction can take many forms, but the most conventional is for teachers to inform their students of a corpus of knowledge which they need to record and learn.

Having fulfilled that responsibility it is then the teacher’s job to create the right conditions in which inquiry based learning can be most productive. Such a climate requires the application of classroom management skills, not least to ensure that when a student contributes to class discussion he or she is not just heard but respectfully listened to by his or her peers. It is the teacher as much as the student who is at the ‘centre’ of this process, and – yes –  is likely to involve the application of their authority.

For a teacher to forego this vitally important role, and retreat into a corner, metaphorically or even literally, to ‘facilitate’, is no less than an abdication of their responsibility. If one accepts that the age of instruction is, after centuries of practice, at an end, the logical end result of this process is that the facilitator soon morphs into an administrator, a distributor of information, a resource not to inform but consult, and a neutral arbiter in the negotiation of differences between students.

The recent threat that the promotion of the role of teacher as facilitator poses to the status of the teaching profession may be just the latest in a long line of fads that have been hoisted on it by ivory-towered educationalists or failed teachers who now work for the civil service or the local education authority. I hope so. Either way, it casts an interesting light on the current state with which our still noble profession is held.

Perhaps I am a little over-sensitive, but if someone described me as a facilitator rather than a teacher I would find it rather demeaning. In the classroom I am privileged to serve our wonderful students as, first and foremost, a ‘teacher’. Any other responsibility I may also fulfil there is really only detail.

Graham Lacey