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The role of the teacher

There are three main activities that small group teachers have to manage simultaneously:

  • managing the group
  • managing activities
  • managing the learning.

In many small group teaching situations, the role of the teacher is that of facilitator of learning: leading discussions, asking open-ended questions, guiding process and task, and enabling active participation of learners and engagement with ideas. However, small groups function and behave in various ways and have different purposes. Teachers therefore need to be able to adopt a range of roles and skills to suit specific situations, often during the same teaching session.

Other roles that may be adopted include that of:

  • the instructor, who imparts information to students
  • the neutral chair
  • the consultant, from whom learners can ask questions
  • the devil’s advocate
  • the commentator
  • the wanderer, such as in a larger workshop
  • the absent friend (McCrorie, 2006). 

Some of the problems associated with leading effective small groups are summarised by Jacques (2003):

  • the teacher gives a lecture rather than conducting a dialogue
  • the teacher talks too much
  • students cannot be encouraged to talk except with difficulty; they will not talk to each other but will only respond to questions from the tutor
  • students do not prepare for the sessions
  • one student dominates or blocks the discussion
  • the students want to be given the solutions to problems rather than discuss them.

Effective tutors are essential to ensuring that small groups work well. Any teaching event will be more successful if the teacher:

  • is enthusiastic
  • has organised the session well
  • has a feeling for the subject
  • can conceptualise the topic
  • has empathy with the learners
  • understands how people learn
  • has skills in teaching and managing learning
  • is alert to context and ‘classroom’ events
  • is teaching with their preferred teaching style
  • has a wide range of skills in their teaching repertoire, including ‘questioning, listening, reinforcing, reacting, summarising and leadership’ (McCrorie, 2006, p. 8). 

Making the shift from teacher as expert to facilitator is sometimes seen as diminishing a teacher’s power and authority, but this should not be the case. Facilitating learning is empowering for both the learner and the teacher and frees the teacher from many of the burdens that having to be an ‘expert’ might entail. It would traditionally have been seen as a weakness for a teacher to say ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’ or ‘I don’t know, do any of you students know the answer?’ and clearly clinical teachers need to know more about many topics than their students or trainees, but medical science is changing so rapidly that no one can know everything. Implementing an evidence-based approach to clinical learning and to medical practice involves finding out about the latest research. You can use these techniques and this approach to facilitate your own and your students’/trainees’ learning.

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