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Advice for novice facilitators (part 1)

Posted on: February 24, 2017

I am evaluating the lesson plans of future facilitators. Normally I wait till the end of the semester to reflect on the common misconceptions that arise. However, critical patterns have already emerged.

One mistake is not articulating how they form student groups using pedagogical principles. Novice instructors often assume that students will form groups, know how to form different types of groups, and/or know what to do in those groups. This is not true even with learners who have worked in loose cooperative groups before. This is because context and content change the strategy for the type of cooperative work.

What might work with heterogeneous grouping in one context might not work with another class learning the same content. The second class might need different-sized groups, more homogeneous groups, or different group strategies.

I model these strategies in my workshops. Here is one example.

As my learners come from different schools in a university, I make them find peers of similar backgrounds so that they are in more homogenous groups. I get them to play an academic dating game by asking each person to write their school and teaching topic on a piece of paper. Then I ask them to use that paper sign to find birds of similar feather and to flock together. The rest of the session then looks something like this.

My design rationale is simple: My learners uncover generic cooperative and learner-centric strategies during my workshops. However, they need to apply them in specific teaching contexts. What works in one context might not work in another. So the more similar their backgrounds and shared histories, the less cognitive burden my learners have to shoulder when they unpack and repack the strategies.

There is value in using more diverse groups, of course. The cross-fertilisation of ideas when an language historian shares strategies with a theoretical physicist can be wonderful, but this is more likely to work for a group of more advanced participants.

Depending on the group of learners I have that day, I facilitate a rise above of the experience so that we analyse the design of grouping for cooperative learning. Perhaps I should not assume some groups get it and others do not. I should set aside time and space for all groups to rise to this lofty ideal.

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