Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part III: Relational Learning

    Posted: February 7, 2017

    This final instalment of our series on the role of the facilitator examines the complex relational boundaries between student and facilitator during an international service-learning experience, and examines ways in which educators can develop respectful relationships within the classroom.

    Especially during these turbulent political times, it is important for us all to consider how we relate to our students, and the significance of learning how to have controversial discussions. During these – very likely emotionally-charged – conversations, facilitators will have to use shrewd judgement and open-minds to connect to their students, and challenge them to more deeply integrate into difficult conversations, for deeper learning and ideally deeper civic engagement.

    Relationships in international service-learning

    Relationships in service-learning are understood as existing between institutions, communities, and individuals. When examining the labor that is central to the maintenance of these connections, especially interpersonal ones within the classroom, we discover a microcosm of relationship.

    Facilitation of service-learning similarly involves a relational class design that revolves around establishing trust for the examination of controversial topics. Relationships emerge throughout this process and ideally consist of closeness and integrity among its group members. Intuition, empathy, and trust are integral components of instructors and students wrestling with potential vulnerabilities throughout these experiences. Essentially this process of relationship-building within a learning community navigates potential emotional and psychological tensions as they arise, and uses them as a valuable force for teaching.

          Further Reading: Capacity Building and Empathy in Service Learning 

    When paired with knowledge and skills, these kinds of intuitive insights can be shaped to the oftentimes elusive student outcomes related to transformative learning. Judi Apte suggested a framework for facilitation that consists of four main components: confirming and interrupting current frames of reference; working with triggers for transformative learning; acknowledging a time of retreat or dormancy; and developing a new perspective. She argues that in order to increase transformative potential of the learning process, facilitators must strive to create a “mood of possibility” when aiding students in their development of new perspectives. This means service-learning facilitators fill a provocative role, and are constantly navigating personal ground with students in order to confirm, stretch, and challenge their students’ frame of reference.

          Further Reading: 4 Outcomes of Transformative Learning and How to Achieve Them


    Personal investment and learning

    In part, the deconstruction of an international service-learning experience is the deconstruction of the self. In order to contextualize an experience, a person must contextualize themselves within it. Another way to understand this is building a relationship with the self as well as with others.

    This self-awareness can also be understood as how the individual self-regulates and self-relates in addition to how they enact their own values in the class sphere. Self-relational thinking is the concept of evaluating oneself before evaluating and critiquing others. In relation to facilitation, this means if instructors are going to ask their students to seek a deeper understanding of their own values and beliefs, they must have similarly done so, and have a growth mindset for themselves as well as their students.

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

    As a result, a significant part of the facilitative practice is the art of relating to individuals and an intuitive guidance of those intimate processes, combined with purposeful course objectives. It consists of honoring and enabling personal investment as a valid piece of academic engagement, and of making emotional management part of the holistic learning process.

    Part of valuing the facilitative process is therefore recognizing the power of investing in people holistically rather than merely academically. To resist becoming potentially disembodied representations of human experience, it is then important to take emotional and psychological processes into consideration when discussing this form of facilitation of student development.


    Facilitation as a complex process

    This approach to facilitation indicates a complex reality in how facilitators position themselves as educators. They are educational guides that generate opportunities for unexpected learning, and invite students to take ownership of their own learning process. Service-learning program activities that evoke this kind of unexpected learning can help students consider what assumptions of theirs are being interrupted, and provide a window for real change.

          Further Reading: Exploring the Role of The Facilitator Part II: Creating the Classroom Climate

    Students and facilitators bring their own values into the learning environment, which can additionally affect how individuals relate to one another. These values and belief systems create an individual context for each person involved in the learning process. Service-learning facilitators are in essence participating in the same learning experiment as students in that they are “navigating complex processes of learning and change” and are considering new possibilities for their own facilitative practices by challenging their own assumptions about the learning process.

    The end goal of this process (for both educators and learners) is for students to assume responsibility for their learning and career development by integrating themselves deeper within the process of critical thought and civic engagement.

          Further Reading: How To Facilitate Transformative Learning

    Looking forward

    The relationships discussed above are primarily between student and facilitator; however, they can be extended to include community members as well. Again, especially now, with the shifts in US politics, development organizations as well as international educational programs will need to consider the implications of “being American” and how that affects their international partners, on the ground and remotely.

    Community members with whom our students work will be affected by these developing politics, perhaps in ways we’ve yet to imagine. That will make it all the more necessary for our students to develop these relational practices – first in the microcosm of our own learning environments.

    By setting this example of how to dialogue respectfully and civilly in our programs, we can begin the process of reclaiming American discourse and our overarching American values.


    For even further reading, please see: 

    Apte, J. (2009). Facilitating transformative learning: A framework for practice. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 49(1), 169-189.

    Fransson, G., Van Lakerveld, J., & Rohtma, V. (2009). To be a facilitator of in-service learning: Challenges, roles and professional development. Netherlands: Springer.

    Neville, A. J. (1999). The problem-based learning tutor: Teacher? Facilitator? Evaluator? Medical teacher21(4), 393-401.

    Savin-Baden, M. (2003). Facilitating problem-based learning. United Kingdom: McGraw-Hill Education.

    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.