Teaching seems to be out of fashion. In the discussion that I’ve been involved with regarding teaching and facilitation, it seems to me that the general consensus (especially in online circles) is that facilitation is the thing to strive for over teaching.

I think that the word facilitation is used somewhat loosely depending on who’s mouth it comes out of. However if I am to contrast teaching with facilitation (in the context of these discussions), I think that it’s safe to say that teaching has more of a directive connotation for most people, and that facilitation is more learner-directed.

A recent reading from the Facilitating E-learning communities course currently being run by Otago Polytechnic & MIT illustrates these two perspectives nicely.

In Australasian, European, US and Canadian online classes, there has been a move towards active, student-centred classes where the role of the students is to interact with each other and to regard the facilitator as just another participant. In the many parts of Asia and the Pacific, however, learning is still currently a very teacher-centric affair. It generally would not be considered appropriate to challenge any assertion made by the tutor and any tutor could appear lax and disorganised if she or he allowed the class to arrive at its own conclusions.

It’s been my feeling that an effective teacher will move between teacher-directed and learner-directed styles depending on the needs of the group for some time. I was recently reading through an essay that my wife wrote which discussed models of leadership (McQuillan, 2007) :), and found it interesting relating these models to the above ideas, so I thought that it was worth laying them out here.

I think most people are familiar with Tuckman’s model of group development (1965). Tuckman described the stages of group development as forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. I’ll come back to these.

According to Situational Leadership Theory, leaders need to modify the way they interact with their followers. In this model a leader’s behaviour may be represented in two dimensions, by a combination of how much task-oriented interaction and how much group orientated interaction they exhibit. Different degrees of each suit different stages of group development.Situational Leadership Model

Quadrant S1 may be related to the forming stage of group development. In this stage a group is new, finding their feet and typically lacking confidence. The leader should exhibit a high task orientation and a low group orientation. In other words they need to be directive – telling the group what tasks they need to be doing. In this stage a teacher-directed style is optimal.

Quadrant S2 may be related to the storming stage of group development. The group will be establishing social dynamics, and culture. Leaders in this stage should provide a significant amount of direction (gross tasks and roles), although more input should be sought from the group regarding the detail of how tasks should be carried out. The optimal teaching style is still teacher-directed, but with some learner input.

Quadrant S3 relates to the norming stage of group development. The culture of the group settles into form. Task competancy is gained, and the group is more able to make decisions about which tasks they are to carry out, and how they are to do them. The teacher should be mostly operating as a facilitator at this stage. Ideally, learning should be directed by the group.

Quadrant S4 relates to the performing stage of group development. The group should be able to carry out tasks without much interaction from the leader. A teacher in this stage should be operating as a facilitator, but only when required.

Considering my experience of teaching and facilitating with students, it’s clear that reality is much more complex than this model suggests (always the case with models). I imagine that these models might most accurately reflect the dynamics of a group working on a specific project.

The learning experience of a group of students can be considered to be composed of a number of learning projects which may overlap. For the purpose of this discussion I will define a learning project as the students movement towards meeting the learning outcomes of a topic. Consider for example our students who in the course of a term may study up to 8 different subjects concurrently. In each of these subjects multiple learning projects may exist, starting & finishing at different times. Are these models still relevant given this complexity?

The social development of groups of students can be seen to move through the stages of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Teachers/facilitators should probably consider these models when attempting to build community in the group.

The overall learning competancy of the group can also be considered from this perspective. Ultimately our role as teachers may be defined in part by a responsibility to ensure that students gradute with a set of key competancies that are considered essential in the industry, but we should also aim to develop self-directed learners that are interested and passionate about driving their own learning. These models may be used to provide perspective on the development of students towards this end, and the appropriate methodology of a teacher who aims to guide students towards this end.

With respect to the individual learning projects involved in a course of study, it’s my experience that a group of students tends to move fairly dynamically between different stages of development and competancy. I believe there is a need for teachers to be aware of and sensitive to the social dynamics of each group of learners, and to be able to move between the role of a teacher or a facilitator depending on the needs of the group. In many areas it seems that as a new topic is broached it may be advisable to be fairly directive. Once students have some familarity, discussion can be opened and this can become part of the learning process, as learning deepens students can begin to lead the learning process. Again this is not necessarily a linear process. At any point the group dynamics can change, and the teacher should be prepared to step into a more directive or more facilitative role. I see this as being a natural intuitive part of teaching, although it could probably be developed by a process of post-teaching reflection.

How does this apply to online education?

I’ll attempt to relate these ideas to online education. I’m not especially familiar with online theory, which might be a disadvantage or an advantage depending on how you look at it. Nonetheless if you’re reading this, I would appreciate links to any relevant resources.

In the disussion that follows, I’ve considered a macro-view of the course and have assumed that the group will move through their process of socialisation at roughly the same time that they move through their process of development as learners. I’m not sure if this is a safe assumption.

When a programme begins that employs online methods, the class will typically be composed of students with a range of computer skills and backgrounds. As well as the normal orientation processes and group formation, there is also the need to orient to working and communicating within the online environment that the course operates within. Orientation involves both gaining familiarity with relevant software applications and gaining competancy in use of the communication media that are utilised in the course.


In this stage I think the main questions that drive the student will be

  • What do I need to do?
  • How do I do it?
  • Who is here?
  • How do I relate to other people in the course?

The role of the teacher/facilitator is to

  • Provide a clear framework consisting of course structure, learning objectives, and assessments, all linked to a timeline if relevant.
  • Provide opportunities for socialisation.
  • Provide opportunities to develop literacy in the use of the computer applications and communication media that are used in the course.
  • Learning activities should be teacher-directed


Questions that will drive the student

  • What do I need to do, and is it relevant?
  • Who do I agree with?
  • Who do I relate to?

The role of the teacher/facilitator is to

  • Provide opportunities for discussion & controversy
  • Be active in facilitating & leading discussion
  • Learning activities should be teacher-directed with some group participation


As the students move into being more comfortable with the group and in the environment they should become more self-directed in their learning. Learning activities should be learner-directed with some teacher participation.

The teacher/facilitator should provide opportunites for self-directed learning, and also directed learning so that students can move into self-directed learning when they feel comfortable doing this. Group projects fit well with this stage of development, as they enable less confident learners to learn from more confident learners.


As the students become more self-sufficient as learners, learning activities can move to being almost completely learner-directed. Project work can become based around individual projects rather than group projects (depending on course learning outcomes).

NOTE: In some cases it may not be appropriate for course work to be largely learner-directed. For example our programme content is largely determined by the requirements of our professional association. In this type of situation, learning activities should move to being learner-directed where this is appropriate. Constructivist approaches may be worth considering.


Groups of students move through stages of development in both online and off-line courses. An important element of the teacher’s role is to act as a leader of the group. To be effective in this role, a teacher must be able to move from a teacher-directed style to a learner-directed style depending on the social dynamics and needs of the group. In the earlier stages of group development a more teacher-directed style is often more appropriate and in the later stages of group development a more learner-directed style is often more appropriate, however the appropriate style of leadership can change rapidly and a teacher must be able to adapt to the needs of the group.