By Gemma Jiang and Robert Hacku
What does it take for graduate students to become good at facilitation? What skills do they need to learn and how can such skills best be imparted?
A facilitator is someone trained in the skill of shaping group dynamics and collective conversations. In cross-disciplinary research, thoughtful facilitation is necessary to enable effective interaction across disciplines and sectors.
We describe an apprentice facilitator program developed in a cross-disciplinary research team comprised of nine faculty and 15 graduate students from four academic institutes, representing six disciplines.
Five apprentices were selected from the graduate students on the team. The program was one semester long and took on average one hour per week.
Liberating structures (the principles of which were described by co-founder Keith McCandless in a previous blog post) formed the basis of the curriculum for the apprentice facilitator program, with a focus on 1-2-4-all, Impromptu Networking, Conversation Café, Wise Crowd and TRIZ (for more details see https://www.liberatingstructures.com/).
In particular, the apprentices gained experience in:
- Generating cross-disciplinary interactive dynamics
- Making sure everyone’s voice is heard
- Encouraging deep listening
- Creating psychological safety for questioning
- Making room to leverage collective wisdom to solve problems
- Holding space for reflection on team processes and adaptive strategies.
This “learning by doing” program included three components: enhanced learning, guided practice and independent practice.
In the first component of the program, the different meeting types and facilitation skills outlined above were introduced and practiced in seminars open to the whole team. In addition, the apprentices as a group practiced on each other, receiving coaching and critique from an instructor.
Almost simultaneously with the enhanced learning phase, apprentices practiced their newly acquired facilitation skills at student meetings and informal gatherings of students around specific topics. In particular they facilitated most of the student meetings focused on divergent thinking described by Gemma Jiang in a previous blog post.
Apprentices were paired and worked collaboratively with the instructor in designing the meeting flows, writing out the facilitation guides, co-facilitating the meetings, and reflecting on the learning.
The guided practice culminated in a capstone project, which was a one-hour event designed to engage the whole team. We decided on a “Team Playground” theme to make room for social play and fun, while serving as a charging station for an upcoming reverse site visit with our funder, marking the transition from year 2 to year 3 of funding.
- We opened with a coloring game to help everyone arrive in a playful mood. Team members were then moved into two-person breakout rooms where each took turns to tell the story of their name. The purpose was to move the team out of their usual task-oriented mindset into a relationship-oriented mindset.
- The team was then divided in half, with each group participating in two further activities, to continue building relationships. One was to pass around a virtual “curiosity ball” to ask a question of the person they were passing the ball to. The second activity involved showing objects related to circular economy (the focus of the team’s work, eg., plastic water bottle, smartphone) with team members asked to share “what comes to mind when you see this”.
- We ended with a game called “Starburst”. To start, everyone turned off their cameras. Then one by one team members turned on their cameras (like a twinkling star) to answer the prompt: “In the coming three years, our team will thrive by…”. The purpose of this exercise was to connect individuals with the team vision and end the event with a future orientation.
The instructor consulted with the apprentice team on the flow and rehearsed with them several times to deliver a successful event, judging by the interactions and feedback.
Apprentices then worked individually in all types of team meetings, with the instructor’s role transitioning to that of a learning partner. There were monthly reflection gatherings for apprentices to learn from each other, to introduce new practices and to harvest learning for future offerings of the program.
Two key learnings and concluding questions
The apprentices were all engineering students, who are highly trained to work with complicated mechanical systems. The apprenticeship program deliberately shifted perspective to facilitation of complex adaptive human teams. There were times when the apprentices were reluctant to practice out of fear of failure. In such situations, the instructor encouraged them to examine their assumptions about what “failure” and “success” mean in facilitation. This usually led to the apprentices worrying less about skills and techniques and gaining a deeper understanding of the importance of the interactive dynamics arising at the moment.
Another key insight was being more thoughtful about the purpose of each team gathering. Instead of defaulting to the common practice of sharing information and updates, which often leads to disengagement, the time is much better spent on solving problems by leveraging collective wisdom and supporting this with the necessary facilitation capacity.
How do you develop the facilitation skills of your graduate students, especially in cross-disciplinary research teams? Do you have experiences or lessons to share?
Funding for this research was provided by the U. S. National Science Foundation Award ID: 1934824, GCR: Collaborative Research: Convergence Around the Circular Economy.
This blog post is based on a workshop presentation at the 2021 Science of Team Science Conference: https://www.inscits.org/2021-scits-conference
Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is the Director of Organizational Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh, USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis, and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance. She was the instructor for the apprentice facilitator program.
Biography: Robert Hacku is a PhD student in Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, USA. His research focuses on the design and life cycle assessment of reusable thermoset plastics within the context of the circular economy. He was a participant in the apprentice facilitator program and led the capstone project.