Self-responsible learning and behavior of the facilitator

In discussions about training and experiential education the term “facilitation” is used almost constantly. But what actually is facilitation? Basically, facilitation is the art of leading the processes of a group in such a way that it can achieve its learning goals. Of course, this definition does not explain how to get there. We have been working with training and education for over 20 years. In working with people like Rüdiger Gilsdorf, Roger Greenaway, Bernd Rademächers, Michael Rehm, Jac Rongen and Nelson Trindade, we have exchanged many ideas. Through this we have learned a lot about how to involve the participants in the learning process and developed a certain approach: So, let’s talk about techniques for self-responsible learning.

In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that participants in education and training programs not only need to actively participate in setting goals, but also take responsibility for their learning. The number of experts and practitioners in the field of experiential learning in Europe who advocate “self-responsible learning” is constantly growing. This was also made clear by the high number of participants in the workshop “Sawing at the Crutch”, which Silke Körner led at the conference “Erleben und Lernen” (“Experience and Learning”) at the University of Augsburg as early as October 2002. This workshop examined various aspects of the facilitator’s behavior and methods for promoting self-responsible learning. There are two main areas of influence here:

1 – The design of the activity

Within the structure of an activity there must be room for group processes and discoveries. This enables the participants to take responsibility for their own learning. The more “freedom of movement” the activity offers the participants, the greater the range of experiences they can have. Let us now compare activities that have only one solution with those that allow multiple solutions.

Here the case with only one possible solution:

A certain insight among the participants should be achieved. If they master the challenge, this will happen – more or less as if a light bulb were to light up over a cartoon character.

The problem is that this type of activity usually does not offer room for another type of learning.

This means that if the insight to be gained from the activity is already predetermined, there is little or no room to reflect the specific processes of this group.

Moreover, if one or more participants already know the solution, the activity dies – and with it the “light bulb over the head” effect. This greatly limits the wealth of potential learning.

Now the case when several solutions are possible:

Here, what insights should be gained from this type of activity remains largely open. Discussions cannot be as easily controlled. Because although the facilitator can steer the discussion, there is no guarantee of the direction it will take. Therefore, the space for discovery and consequently for learning is much greater.

It is interesting to compare these two types of activities with the type of questions (open or closed) we can ask the participants during the processing[1] of an experience. A closed question offers as possible answers only yes/no, correct/false, etc. These types of questions do not require participants to go deeper into the analysis of the process that took place during the activity. Most of the time the facilitator already knows the answer and just wants the participants to validate a line of thought that is being developed. In other words, an effect similar to the “one solution only” activities and cartoon character light bulb. Another parallel that can be drawn is that of control. For both single-solution activities and closed questions, the degree of control of the facilitator is very high.

For open questions there are many possible answers. Although the facilitator often has a good idea of the “direction” of the answer, there is no complete control over the direction of the process. The similarities with an activity that allows multiple solutions are clear.

To enable self-responsible learning, an activity should create an inner area (the learning process) through a clearly marked and limited outer area (the task) that offers the greatest possible freedom.

This can be achieved by combining the following factors, each of which we present with questions that we should ask ourselves when planning an activity

Sequence and nature of the tasks

  • Why this activity now? – What are the goals (of both the activity and the learning) that I want to achieve by placing them at this point in the program?
  • Are the goals clear, relevant, and agreed upon with the participants?
  • Does the physical goal of the activity have any relation to the didactic goals?
  • Is it realistically achievable and appropriate for the group?
  • Are there parallels or metaphors in relation to relevant situations?

 Rules and limitations

  • Do they support the process of discovery and learning to define an outer space that allows maximum inner freedom?
  • What are the “non-negotiable” rules of the activity, and which ones can be negotiated and/or changed by the group?

The rules should be articulated in a way that maximizes the “room for experience”. Or, as Nelson Trindade of sociosistemas (Portugal) once explained: “If we tell a child to sit on a chair, he or she can only sit on the chair. If we tell the same child not to sit on the floor, he or she can choose any other place apart from the chair. This opens up a variety of possibilities for experience (and therefore learning) within the space in which he or she is located”. In the same way, rules and restrictions that tell participants what to do are restrictive. In contrast, those that only describe what should not be done open up space for creativity and discovery.

2 – The behavior of the facilitator

“The most humane thing we can do is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” – Clarence Darrow

Experimentation and learning are essential elements of the growth process. “Growing means pushing!” (George Herrick, during an informal discussion on didactics in Bratislava, 1998). The “pushing” in this sentence refers to the comfort zone in which the person acts. To increase this area, a person must do different things than they are used to by turning to something new. To support participants in their responsibility for their own learning, the facilitator should therefore confront them often with unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable situations. How he or she understands and fulfills this role has a direct influence on the participants on:

  • their willingness to learn
  • the opportunity to try something new
  • the reflection of their experiences and gaining new ways of perception

There are two basic questions that every facilitator should answer for themselves. They serve to clarify at which points he or she should take care not to limit the participants’ possibilities to take responsibility for their learning.

1. What makes the role of an experiential facilitator attractive for me?

There are many reasons why someone wants to work with experience-based methods. So, let us use some generalizations to tap into the subject.

  • The friend: wants the participants to like him/her. He/she finds it difficult to say “No!” to the group and to enforce the rules of the activities.
  • The idol: wants to be admired. It is difficult for him/her to free him/herself from the leadership role and to give it to the participants.
  • The teacher: wants to teach, to pass on knowledge. He/she needs check him/herself in order not to unconsciously start giving tips to the group on how to solve the problem.
  • The paternalist: wants to protect the participants, suffers from seeing them in trouble and believes he or she knows what is best for them.

2. In what role do I support or not self-responsible learning?

An interesting case concerning the paternalistic aspect occurred for us in October 2002 during a workshop for socially disadvantaged young people in Berlin.

We had installed a high ropes element called Postman’s Bridge in a forest. This activity consists of a system of two ropes that are stretched horizontally over an obstacle. In this case a small canyon about 15 meters deep. The youths were able to cross it by using the ropes as hand and foot rails while being secured by another rope with a pulley system. One of the groups was accompanied by a teacher who had already shown some characteristics of our “paternalistic” generalization.

One youth (let’s call him Fritz) had already mentioned at the beginning of the activity how much he was afraid of heights. Towards the end of the activity, Fritz had gathered all his courage, and finally stood at the beginning of the rope bridge. He was impressed by what he wanted to try. At the same time, he was calm and determined to do his best to meet the challenge. After he had balanced on the rope for a few meters, the ground began to move away, and as Fritz approached the middle of the gorge, doubts gripped him.

“I want to go further, but I’m scared,” Fritz said. “You can do it,” “Keep going,” “We were afraid, too,” “I was trembling, too, but it was worth it,” it rained encouragement from the group. Fritz clearly wanted to continue, but we could all see that he was dealing with a strong fear. Without the support of his friends, he probably would have given up already – in a story of giving up that already included school, acceptance into society, etc. At this point we heard the voice of the teacher: “It’s okay, Fritz. You’ve done great so far!” Fritz broke off immediately and returned to the edge of the gorge, where he was congratulated by all for his efforts.

It is very important that we know our needs as facilitators in order not to confuse them with the needs of the participants. Some questions that can help to avoid a situation like the one described above are

  • What needs do I have now?
  • Do they have a positive effect on the group/individual’s learning, or will they block it?
  • Which role currently best supports the group/individual in learning self-responsibly?
  • How should I behave to fulfill it?

At the end of this part you will find a list of skills that we have discovered to be essential for facilitators who really want to support participants’ self-responsible learning:

  • Reliability: Is of integrity, open to feedback, constructive
  • Self-confidence: Has a large margin of competence (S. Priest and M. Gass, 1997), and the activities are entirely within his/her comfort zone
  • Neutrality: Observes without judging
  • Distance: Is empathetic, but not emotionally involved
  • Flexibility: Where possible, he/she creates space to deal with processes, difficulties, learning and insights
  • Delegation: Knows how to place control over the effectiveness and responsibility of learning into the hands of others


Training or facilitation that promotes truly self-responsible learning by participants is very complex and difficult.

It is a set of techniques, knowledge and experience that requires not only self-reflection and awareness of one’s own behavior, but also extensive practice in various situations and programs.

Although we do not know how to teach the recipe for good facilitation only in theory – practice is even more important – we hope that this text will help the reader to better understand the need for certain ingredients. Seasoning to taste…


SILKE KÖRNER – has been working with experiential learning methods since 1988 in the USA, Australia, Europe, and Brazil. Between 2009 and 2013 she was Director with responsibility for Group Leaders, Internal Training, HR and Workforce Planning departments at The Outdoor Education Group (OEG), the largest experiential education company in the Southern Hemisphere, in Australia. She has been training experiential trainers since 1992.

GABRIEL FONSECA – His first contact with experiential learning methods took place in 1991 at the University of Antioch, USA. As one of the founders of the German Ropes Course Association (GRCA – now ERCA), he helped develop the safety standards currently used in the European Union. Since 1994 he has been training experiential educators in Brazil, Europe and Australia. Most recently he taught at the Murrundindi Training Institute in Australia


[1] We often use the term “processing” the experience/activity instead of “debriefing”. The term “debriefing” indicates something that happens later, while “processing” accompanies participants’ learning throughout the experience or program.

 © Silke Koerner e Gabriel Fonseca 2015