Using Visual Facilitation Strategies in Small Group Discussions

This approach offers multimodal entry points for all learners to prepare to share their thoughts in small groups.

June 12, 2023
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy

Since coming to middle school English teaching a few years ago, I have been looking for ways that my eighth-grade reading groups might represent their learning during, and in addition to, traditional discussions. When I learned about visual facilitation this past winter, I knew I’d come across an important tool.

Though visual facilitation is often presented as a strategy for managing meetings among adults, its emphasis on the creative representation of ideas seemed immediately useful for working with middle school students. I started experimenting with the practice in weekly reading groups, and the impact on student engagement was profound.

Here’s how visual facilitation works in my classroom.

Defining Visual Facilitation

In visual facilitation, a group selects a facilitator who runs the meeting and takes charge of representing on chart paper, or through another visual medium, what has been said or decided. The result is intended to be a creatively drawn, visually engaging chart representing the ideas of a group.

To get going, you can buy specialized, refillable markers that are designed with visual facilitation in mind, or you can use whatever you have around. You will need chart paper or poster-sized Post-it pages as well. There are a number of helpful visual facilitation resources on the internet that you can use to teach yourself and your students the basics. I have found that students take to the technique quickly, much more so than I did upon learning it; they are adept at remaking it for their own purposes as well.

How It Works

The simplest way to use visual facilitation in the classroom is to adopt the practice as designed: Students can use it as a real-time means of taking notes and visually representing the thinking of a group.

I have used it this way with my students, asking them to designate both a group leader who manages discussion and a visual facilitator who represents what they hear on the page. Students respond to the same questions they might if we were doing a more conventional discussion, but instead of writing notes in notebooks or filling out a worksheet, they contribute to the visual facilitation page, which becomes evidence of their thinking.

The most engaging use of visual facilitation, however, has come from asking students to combine the technique with other ways of representing their learning. For example, prompting my reading groups to produce a one-pager together has proven engaging and effective, especially when it comes to engaging students who are reluctant to participate in more traditional discussions. 

The same is true of combining visual facilitation with hexagonal thinking. In hexagonal thinking, students identify five or six main ideas from a text and arrange them on chart paper in a way that represents relationships among ideas. In combining hexagonal thinking with visual facilitation, students arrange their hexagons and then draw or annotate to deepen their ideas or provide textual evidence to support their decisions.

What students produce is often fascinating in its own right, and when combined with those of other groups, the poster pages they create provide excellent starting points for subsequent whole-class discussions. If you leave them up after a lesson is over, they can also provide a kind of running commentary on the work you are doing with students.

I often refer back to particular posters as we move throughout a unit, and the constant presence of student work provides a helpful window into the learning happening in my classroom for colleagues, administrators, and families who might stop by.

Why This Approach Matters

Adding visual facilitation to my classroom has been effective for a number of reasons, but among the most important is that, for students, it reframes the purpose of class discussions. When discussion is the sole avenue for students to express themselves, many struggle to overcome the anxiety that comes along with speaking in front of their peers. Using visual facilitation makes discussion seem more authentic and task-oriented than discussion alone. Students still engage verbally with one another, covering much of the same ground they would in a more formal discussion activity, but they do so by way of producing a tangible final product. 

Visual facilitation has also opened a number of pathways through which students can dialogue with our texts and one another. Some students are artistically driven and take charge of producing the poster for the day. Those who are most comfortable with discussion tend to lead the group’s reflections about their work. Others show initiative in providing textual evidence to support the claims that their group is making on the page. 

In visual facilitation, there are multiple, multimodal entry points for all learners, meaning that everyone is able to engage in ways that feel best for their learning preferences. The consequence is a much more participatory and equitable classroom environment than when I teach via discussion alone. It’s not the only means by which I manage reading groups, and I still occasionally utilize more traditional discussion among students. However, my students have come to love group work with their visual facilitation tools, and for that reason, it’s a strategy I’ll continue to use while managing student discussions for years to come.

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  • Creativity
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School

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