Responsive Facilitation: Setting the Stage

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By Diane Cunningham

“However you do it, discovering what is meaningful to a person, group or organization is your first essential task” -Jane Vella 2002.      

Effective professional development efforts, no matter what form or shape they take, must be meaningful, and learner-centered.  This is why one of the first guiding questions I use when designing for adults is Who are my learners and what do they bring to the work?  This guiding question helps me to think about roles, experiences, strengths, challenges and beliefs within the group.

If I am planning for a group of adults I know well, I may already have a sense of their strengths, experiences and needs.  When I don’t, I try to learn as much of this as I can prior to design. And, if I can’t learn enough before I design (which is often the case), I build an element into the design that allows me to begin to get to know them rather quickly.

The following three strategies help me understand the group I’m facilitating, regardless of where we start, and support a meaningful, learner-centered experience.

Strategy 1: Connected Introductions

When I need to get to know a new group I often use an introduction to surface their knowledge, an aspect of their practice, or their feelings about the focus of the PD.   I appreciate the value of a “fun” activity that breaks the ice, but combine the fun piece with something that will begin to feed my understanding of the group as it relates to the work ahead. For example, I may ask individuals to share a) something personal that will help us to remember them, b) a strength they have related to x, and c) a challenge they have related to x.  (x = the focus of the PD). Or, I might ask them to describe something they already do related to the work we will engage in. Just recently, for example, while working with a group on instructional technology, each participant shared an instructional technology application that they had tried and had success with in their opening introduction.

I have participants share in small groups and sometimes use a round robin approach.  In either case, capturing this baseline data can 1) show all the adults in the room what they as a group understand, practice, and/or feel, 2) inform my decision making within the session, 3) support my planning for the next session or for follow up and 4) help me to find the participant “expertise” that everyone can benefit from. 

Strategy 2: Artifact Selection, Reflection, and Collection

It is one thing to ask an educator about their knowledge or practice - it is quite another to “see” that knowledge or practice.  Artifacts provide a richer glimpse of understanding and practice than simple sharing can and places the adults in the room at the center of the work. For this reason, I sometimes ask groups to bring artifacts that are connected to our work.  For example, if the group will be focused on reading instruction, I may ask participants to bring a reading lesson or reading assessment that they find valuable. Or, if I am supporting curriculum design, I might ask educators to bring any artifact that illustrates a belief about teaching and learning.  These types of tangible samples often provide insight into what the adults do, what they think about what they do and what they value. I sometimes ask participants to bring a sample of student work that evidences what they value for their students or that is connected to the focus of the professional development. Student work samples are the richest of all artifacts, because they can be examined through the lens of teacher practice as well as through the leans of student learning.

Sample student work artifact with teacher context. 


This image illustrates one approach to collecting and reviewing artifacts.  During this session, teachers posted their pre-selected artifacts, along with an explanation of how they came to be (the back story).  We used a gallery walk format to enable participants to provide feedback to each other.  During the gallery walk, post-its were used by other teachers to leave warm and cool feedback.


Asking participants to bring the artifacts is only the first step. Asking them to share and talk to each other is a necessary second step. Sometimes I have them share in pairs or small groups, but in each case, I provide guiding questions to help them to make their thinking visible to their colleagues, even as I get to know them. Sample guiding questions may include:

  • Why did you select this artifact?
  • What does it show about how you work?
  • How is it connected to what you believe and value?

While generic, these questions can be tweaked for the various types of artifacts I ask for.  This sharing is a valuable reflective opportunity for the participants in my sessions, but can be even more valuable if it is captured and collected.

The final step involves analyzing the artifacts.  When I do this work, I can look for what they reveal about understanding and practice, identify needs, and, in some cases, use them as quality examples, thus sharing expertise from within the group.  Sometimes these artifacts can serve as a baseline that, when paired with a later example, can reveal growth. For example, a baseline reading lesson paired with another collected after 12 hours of PD on reading instruction will evidence growth and learning, provided my participants were expected to put learning from the professional development sessions into practice.

Strategy 3: Gather, Analyze and Use Questions.

At any point in the professional learning cycle, collecting questions from my participants gives me great insight into “where” a group is related to the focus of the work.  I like to use this strategy at the start of a new topic/focus because it allows me to “test” my agenda and adjust to better fit a group.  Their questions reveal level of understanding, approaches to practice, feelings about the work, challenges, and often contextual influences that are at play in their classrooms, schools and districts.   For example, a teacher that posts a question, “How do I know if a text is complex?” reveals a different level of understanding and a different challenge than a teacher who asks “How do I find the time to assess the level of complexity for each of my groups of learners?”

Taking questions can happen individually, for example with an entrance or exit ticket, or by asking small groups to collect and post their questions.  I use the group strategy more often because it has additional benefits that dialogue between professionals brings.  Either way, for learners this is an opportunity to reflect, slow down and process.  For me, it is a key to being learner-centered rather than curriculum-centered.  I cluster the questions I collect, examine them for what they reveal, use them to adjust my instruction and agendas, all while making this explicit and visible to the group.

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These strategies, while simple, are effective in keeping me close to the educators I work with and to ensuring that I design for them, adjust for them and access the knowledge and expertise they bring to the work.  For professional who work with and plan for adults, taking time to use one of the strategies I’ve shared can make planning more strategic and, more importantly, can positively influence the quality of their participants’ learning experiences.

 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.  They can be used to guide program design, or to take stock of an existing program.

If you would like to hone your facilitation skills and would like more information about ways we can support your professional growth, contact us.