A friend of mine is currently doing an advanced training course on dialogue facilitation. She was telling me about her course and something she said resonated with me about the work we do in training teachers to deliver our phonics approach.
The aim of the programme she is learning to facilitate is to explore cross-cultural dialogue between ‘Western societies’ and ‘predominantly Muslim societies’ so that participants can engage constructively across difference. As the topics discussed include Islamophobia in the Western media, the role of women in Muslim countries, or attitudes towards Muslim immigrants in the West, to name but a few, the sessions are often highly charged and complex to run.
She was telling me that one of the things she finds most challenging about learning to facilitate such sessions is the sheer cognitive overload trainee facilitators have to deal with: the facilitation takes place online, so trainees (and participants) need to be familiar with the affordances of the platform, and trainees need to be able to support participants if they have tech problems; facilitators need to be able to take notes of the discussion so that they can provide a neutral summary at the end; in addition, facilitators need to ensure multi-partiality (so ensure that viewpoints that are not present in the discussion are also heard), whilst at the same time they need to remain absolutely neutral so as not to compromise their role.
Facilitators are provided with a ‘toolkit’ of resources including reflecting on the dialogue and asking questions, but they must at all times remain neutral and ensure that different viewpoints are considered. In order to do this, they can mirror what they hear back to the group, summarise what has been said, make observations on group dynamics, reflect on how well (or not) the dialogue is going, or name the sorts of frames that participants might be using. They can ask questions to clarify certain points, check the accuracy of something that has been said, or promote criticality.
One of the most challenging things she is having to do is to make the best use of all those tools in the toolkit. In the often highly charged and fast-moving dialogue sessions, she is finding it very hard to mirror, summarise, make observations, ask questions or name the frame of the discussion because she has not yet internalised the language used for facilitating in the programme, which is very specific, precise and neutral. Some of the expressions used by facilitators on the programme include: ‘In our discussion, I keep hearing the word X’, ‘ When I heard the word X, I saw some raised eyebrows’, ‘It seems as if there is some conflict around this issue’, etc. These are not expressions that most of us would use in our normal professional settings, so they don’t trip off the tongue naturally. So, she has realised that the most important thing she needs to do in order to develop her dialogue facilitation skills is to learn the script to master the precise and accurate domain-specific language so that this aspect of the facilitation can become automatic. If this can be done, it will afford her the mental space she needs to focus on other issues, such as the group dynamics in the session, for instance.
One of the fundamental aspects of our phonics approach is that the language we use is very precise, very consistent and as economical as possible. When we were developing the programme, we designed a series of activities (called Lessons in Sounds-Write), which we practised, scripted, trialled, reviewed, commented on, practised again, and finally scripted. Much of this process was undertaken with the help of classroom teachers and the lessons were practised in the classroom.
Practising those scripts is a key part of our trainings, and we strongly encourage practitioners to use them, to learn them, and to make our language theirs, so they can deliver the scripts with a high degree of automaticity, accuracy and fidelity.
When I go into schools to coach Sounds-Write teachers, sometimes I see that teachers are not familiar enough with the script and with the precise and consistent language of the programme. When that’s the case, their delivery falters, they are inconsistent in their instructions and explanations, and might even get confused and, in so doing, confuse the children. My advice is always to go back to the scripted lessons, to deliver them with fidelity, and to make sure that the language being taught becomes automatic.
As my friend reminded me, it is only when you have achieved automaticity in the language you need for your practice that you can pay attention to everything else that is going on in the room.