We need ICT teachers, not facilitators

We need ICT teachers, not facilitators

When did ICT teachers stop becoming teachers and become "facilitators" instead? I’ve largely managed to ignore this sort of nonsense but now it’s getting out of hand. The other day someone said on Twitter or Facebook that he is an "active facilitator," while someone else shared a sign which read “I am not a teacher; I am an activator.”

Let’s examine these terms.


I once acted as a facilitator for an in-service training session. A group of teachers from a local school had been given the option of having half a day’s training out of school regarding the setting up of their departments’ areas of the school website.

I reckoned that what they needed was not training as such, but a day out of school where they could get on with what they had to do without being interrupted by children, bells, or being hauled off to cover the lesson of an absent colleague. So what I did was provide them with a room with computers and internet access, and myself to answer any education-related questions that might arise, and a technician to answer any technical questions which might come up.

The feedback we received on the evaluation forms was that it was the best training session they had ever attended. But there were special circumstances:

  • It wasn’t really a training session, just an opportunity for some teachers to have the time they needed to get on with the task, with access to expert help if they needed it.
  • They weren’t following a course: they were not expected to have learnt anything specific by the end of the session.
  • They were adults.

If you’re meant to be teaching children and ensure they learn a certain number of specific things by the end of the course, how can you do so by being a mere facilitator?

One answer that people come up with is that pupils can learn from each other, i.e. peer-learning is facilitated. But unless peer-learning is organised really well, it does more harm than good. Why? Because they can reinforce each other’s misunderstandings. Peer-learning only works where pupils are organised in such a way that a pupil who has mastered a particular concept or skill is able to help others who haven’t.

For example, in a cross-school multimedia project I was involved in, one pupil became the ‘go-to person’ for video animation in his classroom. If anyone had a problem with it, he would help them out. That was peer-learning which actually worked.

Active facilitator
I have no idea what this is. Presumably an ordinary facilitator just throws open the doors of the classroom and lets the kids get on with it, while an active facilitator tries to give them some guidance. I suppose if an active facilitator were sufficiently active you could refer to them as a "teacher."

OK, I give up. It sounds like someone who walks around the classroom with a cattle prod to keep the kids awake.

Teaching is an ACTIVE process - photo by John Haslam http://www.flickr.com/photos/foxypar4/

I think it has emerged from a number of propositions, which I will consider in turn.

Young people are familiar with technology
I think this is a red herring. For a start, I am not convinced it’s true, except on a superficial level. See, for example, How good is the teaching of ICT? An interview with Edith, an English teenager and the other articles referenced there.

The kids know more about this than I do
This is a more extreme version of the one above. Quite frankly, I think it’s an appalling admission. I have been asked to teach subjects at very short notice, and in some cases I was only one lesson ahead of the pupils. But the operative word in that sentence is ‘ahead’. You should always know more about the concept you’re dealing with at the time you’re dealing with it.

In any case, even if it was objectively true that you didn’t know the subject well enough to disseminate knowledge about it, you’re the teacher. You should know how to check whether the pupils really understand the concept. Can they apply that understanding in a different context? Can they use it to solve problems? If they don’t understand something, how can you help them get to grips with it?

Being self-managing is a 21st century skill
Pupils have to be taught or shown how to self-manage properly. Sometimes self-management means being able to listen to someone else talking without fiddling with a keyboard or staring at a phone. There are lots of facets of self-management, and just assuming that everyone can be an effective self-manager simply by the teacher’s doing nothing except letting them get on with it is ridiculous.

Pupils should be able to set their own learning goals
This is hailed as a new idea, but has actually been around for decades. It was especially prevalent in the 1970s in the context of adult education, and was known by the term "andragogy." The idea was that people come to a class with their own experiences and ideas, and can be relied upon to decide for themselves what they would like to learn.

I tried it as an experiment. I asked the people who attended the first session of the evening class I was running if they would like to choose the topics we should study, under the overall banner of “Understanding the Economy." They came up with a few half-hearted ideas, but the majority view was that, as the expert, I had a better idea than they did of what was important for them to learn.

I’ve had experience of being facilitated both on a course I attended to learn how to do advanced programming, and on numerous in-service training courses. In the advanced programming course, I found the tutor’s attitude of setting some work and then doing nothing to help us achieve it was infuriating. Even the odd prompt over the shoulder now and again would have been helpful, but being a "facilitator" he was more content to sit watching the tennis on a television set in the room.

What an ICT teacher does
A good ICT teacher, by which I mean one that understands what real teaching is, will do everything a so-called "facilitator" would do, and more.

  • They set up activities which are challenging, not quite within the pupils’ comfort zone, technically known as the zone of proximal development. For example, they will ask the pupils not just to program a turtle to move from point A to point B, but to build in code to deal with an unexpected event during its journey.
  • They set up activities which have an interesting context, and preferably with some potential real-world application.
  • They know enough to be able to answer pupils’ questions, at least when it comes to matters of fact. If a pupil says “How can I set up a series of "IF" statements in a spreadsheet in a more efficient way?”, the teacher should be able to give a proper, ie practically useful, answer.
  • “Facilitating” is done as a technique to work in a particular context, not as an unthinking default position.
  • They will pair up pupils in such a way that an expert in one thing will help the non-expert – and changing the groupings for concepts/areas in which the expert and non-expert roles are different, perhaps even reversed.
  • Will ask difficult questions of the pupils, to move them on to the next level. For example, if a pupil has written a brilliant program, a good teacher will ask her how the interface could be made more user-friendly for use by non-programmers.
  • They will be highly critical, in a positive way of course, and not accept any old output. I have seen pupil videos in which the ‘background’ music is so loud that you can’t hear the commentary. That is poor editing and should have been dealt with before the video was released. That's what a real ICT teacher would do. Similarly, a spreadsheet full of nested "IF" statements which is so complicated that it’s all but impossible to look at it and work out what each element actually does should prompt a request to find a more user-friendly way of achieving the same result.
  • They have a bank of resources the pupils can refer to if they need to.
  • They actually teach the class for at least some parts of at least some lessons.
  • They set appropriate out-of-school work.
  • They assess what the pupils have done, not just rely on self-assessment or peer-assessment.
  • They understand how people learn. Quite frankly, anyone can be a facilitator: the school caretaker allowing you to run a computer club after school is a facilitator. A teacher needs to be more than that.
  • They enthuse and motivate pupils to learn more and achieve higher. That’s an active process, it’s not something that can be achieved by merely "facilitating."

And so on.

It’s obvious from that list that some of the activities are a form of facilitation. In other words, the term "teacher" subsumes terms like "facilitator." So here is my plea to those who feel the need to come with new job titles to replace "teacher": grow up, get a grip, and take pride in being a member of the noble teaching profession!

cross posted at http://www.ictineducation.org/