On my Visible Thinking in the Museum trainings we teach participants facilitation skills for use on guided tours or educational programmes with art and museum objects. I use this image (above) of an angry teacher (!) to get the discussion started with the question ‘What is facilitation?’

What is facilitation? What is a facilitator? 

The word facilitate actually comes from the Latin which means to ‘make easy’. A facilitator is basically a person whose role is to guide people through a process to an effective result. On a guided tour or educational programme, facilitation is centred around guiding processes and creating participation.

How do you start with introducing facilitation on a guided tour?

As we’ve talked about here before, the role of a (museum) guide has evolved in recent years from the lecturing ‘sage-on-the-stage’ model to a more participant-centred, inquiry-led, discussion-based model (‘guide-on-the-side’). New engagement techniques have places extra demands on museum guides to develop suitable questioning techniques AND facilitation skills. So, where do you start exactly with introducing facilitation on a guided tour? 

  • You create the environment for learning to take place
  • You structure conversations and use group facilitation techniques to keep discussions effective (ie thinking routines).
  • You remain neutral and impartial
  • You encourage participation: get people to come up with ideas, thoughts and perspectives that add value.
  • You encourage the group to work together and feel like they are collectively working towards a shared goal or interest e.g. deciphering and reaching an understanding of an artwork.
  • You ensure that all participants feel visible, valued and understood.
What roles will a facilitator play on a guided tour? 

On a guided tour, the facilitator will play a variety of roles, including (but not limited to):

  • catalyst for discussion – the facilitator makes the discussion happen.
  • coordinator who ensures the tour and discussions within it goes well. (everyone stays on track and on time, understands their roles, feels ownership, listens to others, and makes key and timely contributions).
  • learning coach – you set the conditions for learning to take place, you decide when, where and how much information to share.
  • observer  – you watch your group for signs (body language, verbal clues) to indicate where to take the discussion next.
  • climate-setter– you set expectations at the start and help every individual to comply with the agreed-upon rules and norms to be followed
  • communication enabler – you ensure that everyone feels at ease commenting by paying attention to your language and feedback to participants.  You use your verbal skills to facilitate engaging conversations.
What does good facilitation look like with the ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’ methodology?

There are many skills to being an effective facilitator, for my ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum trainings we focus and offer coaching around the following 4 areas:

  1. Using thinking routines with open-ended questions
  2. Guiding looking, pointing and using verbal facilitation tools (paraphrasing, re-directing, bridging, summarising etc)
  3. Being mindful of your language
  4. Listening actively, be open, accepting and neutral

We realise that no-one is born with the skills of an expert facilitator. It is important to work on these skills and practice, practice, practice. We often use the analogy of a swan in our trainings – whilst you make look calm and composed on the surface, underneath it all your legs (well, brain!) is working extremely hard at utilising all of these skills to keep the discussion going and to keep all the plates spinning. It’s important, even once you have received training, to ensure that you regularly practice your skills with other facilitators and find the time to learn and experiment with new tools and techniques. Rest assured, that the more you do this, the better you will become!

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