The Futility of Facilitating

In recent years I find I have begun serving on boards, task forces, and even in a Think Tank. Such appointments are an honor, and are idyllic in many ways. Dropped into the midst of brilliant, visionary people, I appreciate listening, learning, and contemplating ideas.

However, I have learned that no matter the intelligence or wisdom of the participants, such groups can be crippled by one well-meaning invention: the Facilitator. Modeled after the notion put forth by progressive education that we should facilitate rather than lead or teach, a Facilitator’s role is to “increase opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction” and “promote interpersonal intelligence.” Though the process of facilitating may support the ubiquitous goal of socialization, its overarching interpersonal focus seems to detract from the stated purpose of these groups, namely, to accomplish something.


The mere notion of being led by someone whose role is to avoid leading should cause us to wonder at the popularity of this practice. When a good task force is assembled, members respect the collective wisdom and seek to work together to provide answers for problems not yet solved. Invariably, I begin my time in such a group eagerly anticipating the opportunity to dive with competent swimmers into the bluest, deepest end of the pool; to swim alongside individuals whose swift strokes are more eloquent than mine; and to witness an ease in the waters of ideas surpassing my own. Then a Facilitator jumps in, usually feet first. Tethering us to his artificial life jacket, he drags us with starts and stops to where he seems most comfortable: the shallow end.

I question only the practice, not the person. The professional Facilitator is often clever, smooth, and pleasant. He tells jokes, fills an hour or two, and guides people through planned social exercises akin to party games. If you love party games, you love the Facilitator. However, if you carved out time to devote yourself to accomplishing something, you will find these diversions onerous.

So it was during a recent event. Asked to serve on both a Task Force and in a smaller Think Tank, I drove an hour to spend a Saturday with a benevolent group of individuals I admire. When I arrived, I sat with a woman whose company I enjoy. We introduced ourselves to the others at our table and chatted easily. As the starting time approached, we opened our notebooks, clicked our pens, and leaned forward in our seats. Tasked with strategic planning for the organization’s future for the benefit of others, we had important work to do.

Then our beloved host spoke words that made my heart sink: “Our time together will be led by a Facilitator.” A confident stranger grabbed the microphone and, with a little too much familiarity, addressed us. His comments betrayed an unsettling lack of knowledge about the beliefs of those gathered, but he chatted at length.

He then told us to line up against the back wall according to our birthdays. Perplexed (and possibly a little irritated) but obedient, we all gathered our things and made our way to the wall. He added that we must arrange ourselves without speaking. We all began awkwardly indicating our birth months to people we did not know (four fingers for April, seven for July). Middle-aged national leaders, published authors, high-ranking executives, pastors in clerical collars, and a dozen generous donors—mostly white-haired—dutifully dotted the wall. Like grade-school children we waited for our next instruction.

While we waited I spotted an older gentleman, possibly the wisest in the room. Not far from my position as a June birthday he stood feebly in his designated July location on a grossly swollen foot. Such swelling was a reaction to his chemo treatments for end-stage cancer. He shifted his weight. The youthful, eager Facilitator, meanwhile, checked all of our birthday months and days out loud from January 1 to December 31 to ensure that we were lined up correctly. I glanced at the clock.

“Now I will number the tables one to six.” He numbered them. “I will also give each of you a number.” He gave us numbers like a P.E. teacher assigning random teams. “One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two ….” We all proceeded to our new tables, filled mostly with people we did not know. The professional Ice Breaker basked in his bliss.

I re-opened my notebook. Now, I thought, we would begin the stated task of helping this organization. He spoke from the microphone: “Determine who at your table went to prom most recently.”

Sigh. We shared dates and it turned out I had attended prom most recently. My prize? I would be the one to write down my table’s answers to questions and report them to the larger group. Pen re-clicked, I resolved not to let any of this deter me, hoping the afternoon could still be salvaged.

Getting Down to Business

With hours evaporated, at last the Facilitator posed the first real question to the group. “What is the purpose of this organization?” He projected an enormous slide with this message: Thirty Seconds. After exactly thirty seconds to write an answer in my notebook, we then heard, “Time’s up. Share your answers.”

Despite the process, some good discussion had ensued. I naively hoped we might finally be able to dive more deeply. “Next question. Which person at your table was born the farthest distance from where we are right now?”

Any blossoming insights withered rapidly as we began to answer this question. I learned that the person to my right, whose name I still did not know, was born in the same St. Louis hospital as I was. How fun! We began chatting. Oh, wait. What are we doing? We tried to determine whether Boston, to my left, or Some Town, New York, across from me, was farther from our table. When we finally had an answer the Facilitator beamed. “Now that person will record your table’s answers to the next question.”

I understood what was happening. For the rest of the afternoon every question would be recorded and reported by a different person. No person at any table would have a record of every thirty-second answer. No question could be explored deeply, except possibly the interpersonal ones determining who would record each answer. Uncertainty. Distraction. Randomness. Futility.

Common Sense

The Saturday meeting reminded me why we do what we do in classical education. In classical education we believe that people with a given task need order. They need time to plunge into the depths of purposeful thought. Distractions and party tricks might be fun for a dorm mixer, but for achievement we need clarity, purpose, and an efficient use of time.

One of our students agrees. In Myself & Others this student is learning Aesop’s Fables. He says this is his favorite subject. He listens to the fable, reflects on wisdom, and copies the moral lesson in his illustrated Aesop Copybook. His mother now hears her son tell himself, “Let nothing stray you from your purpose.”

Like this student, let us not be distracted by needless antics posing as pedagogy. Let us teach well, give younger students time to practice and older students time to think deeply, and proceed with collaborative focus and persistence to accomplish any good purpose set before us.

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