Thinking About Facilitating

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For many STEM educators, facilitating the Underrepresentation Curriculum Project (URC) can feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Like any new pedagogy, it takes some additional preparation to develop the skills and competence necessary to discuss issues of equity and social justice. This page is meant to help with that process. Remember that no one is the perfect instructor for any topic and context – we all can always improve! 

Now that you have thought through the questions in the Planning your Implementation page, here are additional questions to help prepare you to facilitate the URC. On this page, you will find information about questions to help you prepare for URC facilitation.

A. What are your students ready for?

Discussions of inequality and justice feel different than a traditional science unit, and classrooms vary in terms of their readiness to explore these topics. Considering the level of depth and intensity that matches your class is important…but don’t forget that it’s OK to make students uncomfortable – without making them feel unsafe – and that we ask students to be uncomfortable and brave in the service of learning all the time. The question underlying it all: what degree and type of discomfort will be productive for your students?

B. What are you ready for? 

Teaching is personal work, and facilitating the URC can feel even more so. 

Understanding the outcomes that you hope for and those you wish to avoid is helpful, as is understanding why you hope for those things. What personal experiences are motivating you? What do you need to stay most effective as a facilitator? Answering these questions is an iterative process, but doing some pre-thinking will help you start out well.

Start in a way that you can manage. There will always be more to do, and – like any change to your teaching – it is better to take on a manageable step that will leave you excited to keep expanding in following years than it is to swing for the fences and feel too discouraged to go on.

C. How do the power dynamics and your positionality affect the culture of your classroom? 

A Latinx woman facilitating the URC will have different blind spots and insights than a white man, we ignore that at our own peril. Recognizing how your identities impact the work you do as a facilitator is key, as is considering how they align with or differ from the identities of your students. 

The topics raised by the URC – exclusion, implicit bias, marginalization, and privilege, etc. – impact our own classrooms as much as they impact the scientific fields we study. It would be hypocritical to think about making science more socially just without addressing what happens in our own classrooms as we do so. Click here for some perspectives from individual instructors who have previously taught the URC.

D. What if someone says something inappropriate?

People will say the wrong thing, and being prepared to support your students when this happens can turn it into an effective learning moment. In some ways, this can be evidence of vulnerability and risk-taking, but as a facilitator, you are balancing competing interests – wanting students to be honest, wanting to protect vulnerable students, wanting students to move towards an embrace of equity and justice. Depending on what was said, different approaches may be necessary or valuable.

Remember, and maybe remind your class, that we all learn best when diverse views are expressed. If appropriate, some facilitators recommend taking the focus off the student and keeping it on the comment: “Many people think this way. Why do you think that is? Does anyone else hold this view? Is anyone willing to offer an opposing view?”

At the same time, if what was said suggests bias or discrimination, it is important that you acknowledge that in the moment. This is both for the benefit of students who may be harmed by the comment – acting to support students with marginalized students is one critical role that you play as a facilitator – and for the student who made the comment: remember that they are here to learn. It is useful to separate the comment (“that comment sounds homophobic to me”) from the person (“you sound homophobic”) and to address it in a way that preserves the humanity of the person and the value of risk-taking while taking a strong anti-bias stance. You can follow up with the student outside of class, too, but it is critical for all other students to see you address it in the moment. These resources offer more information and guidance.

E. What other tips should I know before trying this?

This isn’t extra. There can be a temptation, because of how the URC is a departure from more traditional curricula, to view and talk about it as a diversion from “real” learning. If you want students to engage fully, make sure to think about and discuss the URC with the same importance that you do any other valuable part of your class.

Keep it local. One common human response to difficult ideas is to intellectualize them, and we have seen this in our classrooms: students tend to focus on “the world out there”. Our challenge, as facilitators, is to keep guiding the conversation to more personal places “in here”: how do these issues manifest in our own city? our own school? our own lives? (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with starting broad.)

Expect a lack of resolution. It can feel really challenging when class ends and students aren’t in a neatly finished place on a tough concept. We’ve found it useful to remember that progress isn’t always as linear or clear as we expect and can be hard to see. Facilitating can be hard, draining, and frustrating. It can also be inspiring, energizing, and transformative. The hard work is, fundamentally, an act of optimism and positivity: as challenging as it can be, this is one part we can play in making the world that we want to see. 

Look to your students for expertise. You are learning alongside your students and, in many cases, they know more than us about these topics. Listen to them, and ask questions more often than you tell someone what to think. If you do want to share from experience, I’ve found it useful to frame my comments with “I get that, and once thought that way, too. Here’s what I’ve learned since then…”

Finally, instructors need also to reflect on, learn about, and improve their year-round teaching practices to become more equitable and justice-oriented. We have written some thoughts about how to get started on year-round action.

PlanningFacilitatingCommunityLesson Plans