It can be hard to facilitate student voice. At SoundOut, we define student voice as any expression of any student, anywhere, at any time about anything related to learning, schools and education. Trying to facilitate definition on purpose can challenge the most experienced teacher, wizened community facilitator, or determined student leader.
ALL student voice can be supremely useful. That includes students who dress in ties and business clothes and present at school board meetings, as well as those who text answers to tests under desks and fight in the hallway. But when things go bad, and they can, facilitating student voice can be counterproductive and actually work against the very things it was intended to do.
Over the last 15 years, I have facilitated student voice in a many settings with a variety of students for literally dozens of reasons. I have also trained and taught thousands of people how to do the same. Following are some tips, concerns, and considerations I have compiled for people who want to become EXCELLENT student voice facilitators.
I share this out of love and respect for everyone who has ever sat through a poorly led student voice event and wanted to do it differently. If you are really committed to being an excellent facilitator of student voice, read on. If you’re not, well, good luck, and don’t give up.
HINT 1: Before You Start
Before you start down the road of facilitating student voice, youth should think about these questions:
- Who were the best teachers, facilitators, or adults who worked with students you ever experienced? The worst? What made them that way?
- What is your goal for being an excellent facilitator- productivity, interaction, fun? Do you think you can facilitate all those at once?
- What assumptions do you have about facilitation?
- Why do you really want to learn more about excellent facilitation?
After thinking about all this you are ready to begin learning more about being an excellent facilitator- but not before then! Take a little while and really consider those questions, and then read on…
HINT 2: Be a Facilitator- Not a Teacher, Speaker, or Preacher.
There’s a difference between a teacher, a speaker, a preacher, and a facilitator. A facilitator’s job has three parts:
- Lead the gathering or group
- Guide towards goals
- Lead by example
A excellent facilitator always starts by setting the tone of the student voice group. A facilitator is not expected to know it all, nor are they expected to drive everything. Insecure leaders do this. Secure leaders follow the maxim that, “A good leader makes the people believe they did it themselves.” You have knowledge and experience that you can and should share; however, you do not have to be the expert. Allow students to teach you. Also, remember that the mood of the facilitator will set the tone for the entire workshop, and that enthusiasm is contagious. Strive to be positive, be human, and have fun in every student voice group, no matter what its about.
Six Tips for Excellent Facilitation
- Set aside your needs in favor of the needs of the student voice group.
- Establish a friendly atmosphere and open sharing of ideas.
- Encouragestudents to take risks. When in doubt, check with the student voice group. It’s not your responsibility to know everything.
- Be aware of student engagement: Observe what is said, who is speaking, and what is really being said.
- Respect is the critical ingredient in effective student voice groups.
- Successful student voice groups should be uncomfortable sometimes. Address conflict and do not try to avoid it. Create an atmosphere of trust so that disagreements can be brought into the open.
HINT 3: Create Guidelines and Goals
Many well-meaning facilitators come from cynical perspectives that disallow us from acknowledging the norms that make successful student voice groups work. We can overcome this by having students create ground rules or guidelines before you begin. Brainstorm potential rules and write them down – but avoid too many rules. There are three essential guidelines:
- Stay on task. Every student voice group should have a clearly stated purpose and agenda. This allows us to stay focused, considerate, and action-oriented.
- Avoid rabbit holes. Alice fell into a world away from reality – Your group doesn’t have to be that way. Stay aware of off-topic banter, read your audience, and consider other ways to share ideas before getting too far away from the point.
- Look for diamonds by working through the coal. There are rough things to go through in some student voice groups. Instead of avoiding them commit- as a group- to getting in and going through them.
Every student voice group should have some specific guidelines that all students agree on. Some goals can include:
- Accomplish the specific task at hand, and when we’re done say we’re done.
- Build a sense of teamwork and purpose.
- Show that everyone has different strengths and abilities to offer the group and that no one is better than anyone else.
HINT 4: Think about Framing and Sequencing
Framing. Facilitators introduce the purpose, or frame, the student voice group they’re leading. Framing happens when a facilitator sets a simple prompt that lets students know there is a purpose to the group.
Sequencing. An important consideration is the order in which you present student voice groups, or sequencing. If a group has never learned together, it might be important to follow the sequences laid out beforehand. If they spend time together a lot, following the formal sequence isn’t always necessary. If a group is more comfortable with each other, try bursting the bubble by digging right into deeper group times. It is important to try to put “heavy” activities after less intensive ones, to build a sense of rest and preparedness.
HINT 5: Reflect, Reflect, Reflect
One way make student voice group events matter is to reflect before, during, and after the reflection. You can see reflection as a circle: You start with an explanation what you are going to learn and frame its purpose and goals to the group. As the activity progresses, the facilitator taking a more hands-on or less guiding approach as needed. Finally, group reflection helps students see how they met the goals of the workshop, and helps them envision the broader implications. Then the group has came full-circle.
Five Types of Reflection Questions
- Open-Ended Questions – Prevents yes and no answers. “What was the purpose of the activity?” “What did you learn about yourself, our team, our program, our organization, or our community?”
- Feeling Questions – Requires students to reflect on how they feel about what they did. “How did it feel when you started to pull it together?”
- Judgment Questions – Asks students to make decisions about things. “What was the best part?” “Was it a good idea?”
- Guiding Questions – Steers the participants toward the purpose of the activity and keep the discussion focused. “What got you all going in the right direction?”
- Closing Questions – Helps participants draw conclusions and end the discussion. “What did you learn?” “What would you do differently?”
HINT 6: Make Meaning With Students
At their best, student voice group events can serve as bridges between students and promote learning through community building. They can reinforce the need for communication, co-learning, and collective action.
At their worst, group events can actually be tools of oppression and alienation and serve to support vertical practices that isolate people from each other everyday. As Paulo Freire wrote, “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” In this sense, excellent facilitation requires that we all become humanists who engage students with each other, followers with leaders, and teachers with students.
HINT 7: Create Safe Space
It is vital to create, foster, and support safe spaces where students can learn together. In a society that is openly hostile towards critical perspectives, participants in any activity need support when they make their voices heard. Establishing a safe space is powerful, positive, and hopeful, and hope is a requirement for excellent facilitation.
Seven Ways to Create Safe Space
- Acknowledge that everyone has preconceived ideas about others– or prejudices– that can damage others and ourselves.
- Ask students, “Who should be in this group but is not?”
- Focus and limit our conversations until trust increases (sometimes it is better to agree not to talk about specific issue/problem right away.
- As the facilitator, seek true dialogue and ask real questions.
- Encourage students to examine their personal assumptions by checking in with others rather than hiding or defending them.
- Speak from personal experience by using I statements and do not generalize about others.
- Be open to a change of heart as well as a change in thinking.
HINT 8: Seek Consensus
Whenever a student voice group is discussing a possible solution or coming to a decision on any matter, consensus is a tool excellent facilitators turn to. Following is a popular consensus-building technique.
Start by restating a decision the student voice group may make and ask everyone to show their level of support. Each person should responds by showing a fist or a number of fingers that corresponds to their opinion.
- Fist is a no vote – a way to block consensus. It says, “I need to talk more on the proposal and require changes for it to pass.”
- 1 Finger says, “I still need to discuss certain issues and suggest changes that should be made.”
- 2 Fingers says, “I am more comfortable with the proposal but would like to discuss some minor issues.”
- 3 Fingers says, “I’m not in total agreement but feel comfortable to let this decision or a proposal pass without further discussion.”
- 4 Fingers says, “I think it’s a good idea/decision and will work for it.”
- 5 Fingers says, “It’s a great idea and I will be one of the leaders in implementing it.”
If anyone holds up fewer than three fingers, they should be given the opportunity to state their objections and the team should address their concerns. Continue the Fist-to-Five process until students achieve consensus, which is a minimum of three fingers or higher, or determine they must move on to the next issue.
HINT 9: Embrace the Journey
Learning is a process, not an outcome. Encourage students to view the student voice group process as a journey that has no particular destination. However, even experience cannot teach us what we do not seek to learn. John Dewey once wrote that we should seek, “Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining is the aim of living.” This is true of excellent facilitation.
Students should use student voice group action as a starting point for a lifelong journey that includes learning, reflection, examination, and re-envisioning democracy in our communities; facilitators help groups down that path, and encourage students to embrace the journey.
HINT 10: Embrace Challenges
Since excellent facilitation is a process, it is important to understand that there will be difficult times ahead. One of the keys to excellent facilitation is knowing that criticism will come – and that can be good. We cannot grow without criticism. In a society where criticism is often a one way street, we must be aware of the outcomes of our actions, embrace these challenges, and learn from them. Following are several strategies for fostering critical thinking with students.
Seven Ways to Grow Student Voice Groups
- Use think-pair-share. Have individual thinking time, discussion with a partner, and presentation back to the student voice group.
- Ask follow-ups. Why? Do you agree? Can you elaborate? Can you give an example?
- Withhold judgment. Respond to answers without evaluating them and ask random group members to respond to them.
- Summarize. Asking a student at random to summarize another’s point to encourage active listening.
- Think out loud. Have students unpack their thinking by describing how they arrived at an answer.
- Play devil’s advocate. Asking students to defend their reasoning against different points of view.
- Support students’ questions. Asking students to formulate their own questions and build off your questions.
These are the plainest steps I can write down right now for becoming an excellent facilitator. There is plenty of information about facilitation online, and some of it is good. This is meant for those who want to be Excellent. I hope you join us!