Honoring Adult Learners: Could a Facilitator Model Improve Professional Development Outcomes?

In my last post, I discussed at length the characteristics of effective professional development (PD) which should include “…interaction, relevancy, purposefulness, and focused on the learner,” (Vlad-Ortiz, 2019). Since learning requires effort, professional development models that include a social context and an active component tend to be the most successful models, (Vlad-Ortiz, 2019). Keeping in mind the ISTE standard for professional development addressed in the last post, one model known as the “facilitator model” caught my attention as having potential to meet the above criteria. According to Dr. Frances Gipson, to “facilitate” means to make easier, (Gipson, 2012).  The assumption is that a facilitator acts as a guide and manages a group towards a shared goal or purpose. Dr. Gipson warns that the word “facilitator” is often misinterpreted as a passive role, however, a good facilitator acts more like a leader ensuring that the group makes good use of resources, decision-making power, and problem-solving skills, (Gipson, 2012). Because facilitation requires active participation from all participants, could this model help improve professional development learning outcomes? 

Adult learning. 

In order to begin addressing this question, one must first understand how adults learn. According to researchers, the specifics of how adults learn are largely unknown and more research is required to complete that understanding, (Borko, 2004). However, what is currently understood is that learning is a dynamic activity that takes time to develop, while learning opportunities can occur anywhere such as a brief conversation in a hallway, for example, (Borko, 2004).  Learning can be facilitated with a few considerations from the adult learning model, or “andragogy,” summarized in figure 1.1. below. 


infographic summarizing the adult learning model
Figure 1.1 Dr. Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Model.

Under Dr. Knowles’ assumptions, good professional development should be goal orientated, relevant, practical, respect the learner’s time and expertise, and bring the learner into an active role rather than passive, (Office of Head Start, n.d.). This is not unlike the criteria my colleagues and I created in my previous blog post.  As adult learners, we want professional development to address our needs rather than tell us about our needs. 

Facilitation as a professional development model. 

Dr. Hilda Borko conducted a study on various professional development models to begin understanding the complex relationships that exist between teachers, students, and learning. It is through this work that she began to understand that more research is needed to explain how adult learning works, (Borko, 2004). Through this study, she explored a few case studies that utilized facilitation models as a form of professional development and concluded that facilitation can be successful if the professional development is well-defined, (Borko, 2004). In particular, the most successful programs, where the learners adapted strategies more readily and rapidly, had clear descriptions of the facilitator’s role, specific learner/participant outcome measures, and well-developed activities and materials that were transportable across a variety of contexts, (Borko, 2004). One caveat of this success meant that facilitators led small groups of teachers that had common goals.  Scaling up towards larger groups may present challenges as the activities and materials may no longer apply towards everyone’s needs or context, (Borko, 2004). 

Dr. Borko’s fears of scaling up may not be warranted as the facilitation model has been used in many contexts.  In Turin, Italy, researchers followed the progress of a teaching community that implemented a “Teacher-Facilitator” model in place of traditional professional development. Educators were followed over a period of 10 years to evaluate any teaching profile changes, particularly in the field of “cooperative learning”, (Ellerani & Gentile, 2013).  Using the “teacher-facilitator” model, teachers were placed into groups with an “expert” teacher whose role was to facilitate professional development, emphasizing job-embedded skills and collaborative learning.  The teacher-facilitators ultimately helped establish professional learning cohorts (PLCS) which later expanded into interdisciplinary networks that included administrators and other schools in the district, (Ellerarni & Gentile, 2013). The researchers remark that the success of this program lies in three factors, 1) the facilitation skills of the teacher-facilitators, 2) increased focus on importance of collaborative learning among teachers, and 3) increased job-related support by the district, (Ellerani & Gentile, 2013). 

Qualities of a good facilitator. 

Regardless of the scale in which the learning context takes place, the key element to effective learning in this model means imposing a good facilitator. Dr. Gipson summarizes her definition of a good facilitator through a concept known as the Five “C’s” described in figure 1.2 below. 

infographic describing the qualities of a good facilitator.
Figure 1.2 Five Qualities of a Good Facilitator.

Good facilitators understand how to establish a community that values inquiry and the opinions of others as a way to invite participation from all members. To do this, facilitators must be both firm and flexible with curriculum while communicating these intentions well to the group, (Borko, 2004). These facilitation skills can be developed over time with the appropriate preparation and resources, (Borko, 2004). 


Through this investigation, it can be concluded that facilitation as a professional development model does support adult learning when implemented correctly.  The skills of the facilitator is crucial to the success of converting learning into implementation while appropriate resources fuel that success.  Facilitation may not be useful or appropriate in larger groups, used in the short term, or as one-time development as noted by Dr. Borko.  However, special considerations can be made to scale such development as demonstrated in the Ellerani and Gentile research.  Ellerani and Gentile noted that, “there is a strong correlation between the development activities of teachers and their actual development as teachers,” (Ellerani & Gentile, 2013). Facilitation respects the adult learner by putting adults in control of their learning, this in turn helps change their attitudes about learning, and ultimately helps put into action what they’ve learned. 


Borko, H. (2004). Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain. Educational Researcher, 33(8). Available from: http://www.aera.net/uploadedFiles/Journals_and_Publications/Journals/Educational_Researcher/ Volume_33_No_8/02_ERv33n8_Borko.pdf 

Ellerani, P., Gentile, M. (2013). The role of teachers as facilitators to develop empowering leadership & school communities supported by the method of cooperative learning. Procedia. 93(21): 12-17. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042813032473 

Gipson, F. (2012). Facilitation skills for teacher leaders [pdf]. Available from: http://www.nesacenter.org/uploaded/conferences/wti/2013/handouts/gipsonhandout.pdf 

Office of Head Start. (n.d.) Adult Learning Principles [pdf]. Available from: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/adult-learning-principles.pdf 

Vlad-Ortiz, C. (2019). Professional development for mixed audiences. Available from: http://professorvlad-ortiz.org/professional-development-for-mixed-audiences/