Effective Facilitation: A Hallmark of Quality PD

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By Giselle O. Martin-Kniep

Behind a successful learning experience lies its facilitation. Facilitators who promote sustained and improved learning cultivate their skill set and its craft in very specific ways. They relate to the humanity and psychology of people as much as they do to the content they want to transmit. Effective facilitators assume different roles while interacting with learners, including coach, catalyst, counselor, provocateur, dissonance mediator, and advocate, choosing them based on circumstances and the demands imposed by the learning experience and the learners’ relationship to it.

In our world of professional development, effective facilitation requires understanding adult learners and how to assess them on a continuous basis; evaluating the impact of learning experiences on their learners; and using resulting data to support continuous improvement. Effective facilitators attend to all the elements described by the research as they craft malleable experiences that promote a balance of novelty and safety. Novelty is needed to trigger curiosity and engagement. Safety stems from ensuring that new information and experiences are meaningfully connected to what learners already know, believe or do. Effective facilitators trust that if they pay close attention to the learners’ needs, they can lead them where they need to go, even if they do not cover all that they intended to teach or do it in the order they originally planned. This requires a genuine commitment to enabling others’ learning and an awareness of the participants’ social and emotional state, which itself is positioned within a specific time and place.

Where we are and what surrounds us as we get ready to learn can have a deep effect on the learning, before, during, and after it happens. The most successful learning events are comprised of many moving parts, much like the dancers in a dance along with their choreography. At its best, all elements are interconnected into a harmonious whole. But sometimes, an element is missing or out of sync with the rest, creating tensions even before the formal learning begins. Have you ever been in a room that is so cold that you wanted to wear a coat while you taught, or so hot that you had to let people leave early because everyone felt suffocated and lethargic? Frequent interruptions of bells, announcements, and even fire-drills in schools can have a negative impact on everyone, curtailing even the most inspiring narrative. Some mishaps are of greater consequence than others. Having no materials for a program that demands their use can shortchange engagement and lead to hard feelings, whereas not getting breakfast with coffee may be a minor nuisance. ­ A quality facilitator explicitly acknowledges the dissonance or discomfort created by these challenges and helps learners transcend them with humor, empathy, and grace.

While the design elements shape the context and substance of the learning, our interactions with learners shape the impact of that learning. Much like dancers on the stage, our interactions create an energy that impacts every individual. The energy of our audience fuels our motivation and commitment to draw what we need from learners so that we can use it to help them make meaning out of what we want them to know or do. A quality facilitator understands this interdependence and seeks, first and foremost, to establish a close connection with learners. This is accomplished by listening to ascertain needs, uncovering confusions or misunderstandings, validating experiences, and positioning new information in the context of what learners already know to understand. What fuels this listening is a curiosity to learn as much as possible about the learners’ motivations, interests, and questions and to determine the relationship between their needs and the learning experience in front of them.

Even when our learners are predisposed to learn something, new knowledge and skills require attention, effort, and practice. Many of them work for or at schools that offer few dedicated opportunities for structured learning experiences. Their bodies may be in the room but the competition for their attention is grueling and accentuated by their vibrating smartphones or other interruptions.  To sustain their attention, quality facilitators draw learners in, constantly inquiring about and honoring the unique experiences. They provide experiences that build on what learners know and yet are novel enough to engage them, and invite them to reflect on those connections and to share them with others.


Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Related resources: 

LCI’s Checklist for Quality Facilitation highlights attributes of effective facilitators.  Our Checklist for Quality Program Design lists attributes, by category, of quality programs for adult learners.  Both can be used as guides when designing professional learning for adults, or to take stock of an existing program.