Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part I: 5 Common Descriptions

    Posted: January 24, 2017

    The facilitation of service-learning is no easy task. A key factor in designing quality service-learning programs is more closely evaluating and understanding the relationship between facilitator and student, and the roles of each party. Student closeness to faculty in service-learning can create a space for trust, where the development of tolerance, leadership, communication, and collaborative skills can flourish.

           Further Reading: How To Facilitate Transformative Learning

    In order to understand how facilitators can properly integrate learning in such an environment, we can examine the role of the facilitator in experiential learning settings. As this topic is wide-ranging, I’ve broken it down into three separate blogs.

    In this first part, I’ll describe 5 commonly understood roles that educators manage during experiential educational programs, as outlined by Roger Schwarz: the facilitator, the facilitative trainer, the facilitative leader, the facilitative consultant, and the facilitative coach.

    1. The facilitator

    The purpose of the facilitator is to increase a group’s effectiveness by helping it to improve its internal processes and structures. Schwarz argues that to do this effectively, the facilitator needs to be a neutral third party, in order to minimize negative effects or influence on the group. Schwarz describes the facilitator as a “process expert and advocate” who knows the best way to help the group improve its functionality. Maintaining neutrality in contexts of controversy or rich dialogue can at time be a challenging endeavor, but necessary in order to maintain trust and group stability. This neutrality does not mean facilitators should not be clear on group processes that are acceptable and not acceptable. Especially in regards to safety, these rules must be made and enforced.

      Further Reading: Enhancing Democratic Engagement in Service Learning Courses


    2. The facilitative trainer

    The facilitative trainer differs from a facilitator in the knowledge and expertise shared with the participants. The practice is based on the same core values and ground rules, but the primary goal of the facilitative trainer is to help students to develop, test, and get feedback on new knowledge and skills. This individual is an expert in some capacity, and accepts responsibility for teaching a particular topic. The facilitative-trainer role is often fulfilled by outdoor education instructors who  teach students knowledge and skills as determined by set program objectives such as safe participation in an outdoor pursuit, or aspects of environment/sustainability.

          Further reading:  Defining Critical Reflection

    3. The facilitative leader

    The facilitative leader is the hardest facilitator role because this person needs to use their facilitative skills in the midst of having strong views about an issue being discussed. This is commonly seen towards the top of an organization’s hierarchy, in personnel who are senior representatives in charge of managing smaller team groups. To be successful in this role, the facilitative leader must by open and transparent with ideas and opinions, explain the reasoning behind them, and encourage other team members to identify gaps in their reasoning and provide constructive feedback.

    A further complication that experiential educators may experience is the evaluative role they may have to fulfill regarding the development or behavior of participants. In relation to service-learning, this is especially relevant, as students are given grades at the close of their program. This presents a potential conflict, as it increases facilitator power over the group, and consequently jeopardizes student trust in them, which decreases the likelihood of members openly sharing information that could be used in the assessment of their competence or skills.

          Further reading: 3 Key Similarities Between Facilitation of Service Learning and Conflict Mediation

    4. The facilitative consultant

    Facilitative consultants are used for their expertise with particular content or a precise area, and their role is to work with new groups for a shorter period of time, to help them make informed decisions. This role is similar to a specialist or freelance educational educator who comes in and joins a group for a set of workshops or a short trip. Like the above roles, the facilitative consultant is still required to develop effective relationship-management skills and manage difficult conversations when participants have different perspectives on controversial material.


    5. The facilitative coach

    A facilitative coach works with participants to help them improve their strengths as a group by enabling them to reflect on their behavior through critical thinking. This typically involves the facilitator jointly designing the learning process with students rather than assuming a position of all-knowing instructor. Ideally, the facilitative coach inspires students to embrace the flexible nature of this form of learning so that each side (facilitator and student) can glean new discoveries to apply in the future.

          Further Reading: Capacity Building and Empathy in Service Learning 

    Understanding the purpose of each role can help facilitators better decide which one to perform when and why. Inevitably, many facilitators of experiential education will fluctuate between these five roles at any given time throughout an experiential learning program. Facilitator transparency concerning the movement between these roles in the form of an open dialogue with the group will also contribute to their overall effectiveness, as it builds trust among participants.

    These role descriptions suggest that all members are a part of the educative process in experiential learning. This means that facilitators are ideally also learning from these experiences and applying new knowledge to their future practices.


    Further reading and content adapted from: 

    Schwarz, R. (2005). Using facilitative skills in different roles. In R. Schwarz & A. Davidson (Eds.), The skilled facilitator fieldbook: Tips, tools, and tested methods for consultants, facilitators, managers, trainers, and coaches (pp. 27–32). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Thomas, G. (2010). Facilitator, teacher, or leader? Managing conflicting roles in outdoor education. Journal of Experiential Education, 32(3), 239-254.

    Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.