By Matt Noyes, Charley MacMartin, Nick Bedell, Emily Schnee, and Roberta Silver. (Inspired by a chart comparing teaching approaches from Training for Transformation, but without the didactic "here's what we want you to think” approach.)
Who do we think we are? What do we think we are doing? What do we wish we were doing? Is it even possible to do what we want? Under what circumstances? What changes would need to be made and how could we make them? The idea of this activity is to explore the limits, conditions, and possibilities of our work.
Participants use a checklist and wall chart which present different features of three models of education to explore the way they teach now and the way they would like to teach.
Identifying and discussing the tricky issues that come up for people who try to do popular education in and around the labor movement, based on an honest description of what we do and the gap between what we do and what we want to do. Discussion our educational goals, methods, and political perspectives; finding common issues and shared ideas.
Wall chart (big paper and printed titles), stickers, and handouts. A color scheme to reflect people's different working conditions, e.g., full-time union staff educators, rank-and-file union members, university-based labor educators, community based-organization staff, other.
See the attached chart.
Number of people:
Three hours or so.
- Explain and motivate activity (includes explaining how this was planned, who agreed on the agenda).
- Individually, participants read handouts and circle the description in each category that best matches HOW YOU CURRENTLY WORK.
- Then, ask people to go over the handouts again and star the description in each category that best matches HOW YOU WOULD LIKE TO WORK.
- When people finish, give them stickers in a color that corresponds to their work category, and use the dots to show your answers on the wall charts.
- When all are done putting up stickers, the whole group reviews the outcome, and we have some brief discussion on what is up there: "Who knew so many of us feel we operate in that category? Just as I predicted! Why are we strong in this area and so weak in that one? I'm glad I'm not the only one!"
- Reflection: There are various ways to conduct the discussion of the chart. You can ask participants to brainstorm questions raised by the charts. You can provide some guiding questions, such as: "What do we make of the charts? Does this information matter? Are we really practicing what we preach? Why not? When do we, when don't we? Should we? What makes it possible or impossible to practice popular education?" Then, once the group has quickly prioritized the questions, you can use the mosh pit (see below) or small groups (formed to mix different types of educators, levels of experience, etc.) to discuss the group's most urgent questions.
- It is good to end with a summary of discussion, provided by the facilitator or a designated participant. Another option is to end with a "go around" evaluation: taking turns, with no commentary or "crosstalk", each person takes one minute to say what they think the upshot of the discussion is.
The categories and models have to be related to the participants' actual interests and work, they should also reflect respect for people's work, otherwise the activity will fail because it will seem like a manipulation. (Lack of democracy.)
The purpose of the activity has to be clear to the planners and the participants: to accurately outline our actual work and provoke discussion and debate, not to campaign for one point of view, or bully people to adopt one model or another.
If you have time -- e.g. a couple of sessions -- it would be valuable to have participants come up with the different descriptions and categories together.
If the group includes many people who are new educators, it would be good to provide a time for people to write down questions they have, then share them and decide which ones to address and how (future workshop, break into small groups by question...).
Cut up the categories and place them on cards, then ask participants to organize the cards into three groups: things that describe their work as it is now, things that describe how they want their work to be, and things they want to avoid in their work. (This variation would free people from the "three models" framework.)
We created this activity for a meeting of labor educators, mostly from the US and Canada, at the 2001 Labor Notes conference, the second Labor Notes conference at which "labor and popular educators" had a special meeting session. As you can guess from the setting, this was a group of pro-reform, pro-democracy, activist-oriented people.
From my point of view, the activity worked well on two levels. First, it gave us something none of us had previously: a collective self-portrait that described our work and why we do it, without making assumptions about the participants. Rather than lump us together around vague ideas of what education is, the activity brought out important issues and differences among us as labor educators.
For example, some people felt that because "educators are not neutral" in popular education, some form of top-down steering or manipulation of the learning process was inevitable. Others felt that the idea that educators are "not neutral" meant that their views and goals are part of the process, but that this does not conflict with running a democratic process, where participants define their own priorities, goals, and strategy.
The activity itself became a subject of debate. For most participants, the chart accurately reflected the way they see their work. (Most stickers fell in model two -- a place between the model they want to avoid and the one they wish they could practice.) The fact that no one placed all her/his stickers in one column reflected the messy reality of trying to do popular education in and around the US labor movement.
Some participants, who do not identify their work as popular education (and don't want to), felt that notwithstanding the facilitators' claim that the activity made no assumptions, the chart was biased towards the popular education approach. They felt the activity assumed that everyone wanted to be in model three, and that model three was presented as morally and/or politically superior.
I think they had a point. As one of the people preparing the chart I definitely had a desire to practice some form of popular education, so the third model did represent for me a kind of ideal. But, I think what saved the activity is that the purpose of the chart was not to proselytize but to find out where we all were in our work.
The activity reflected real differences in our work and in our educational approaches (revealing those differences was one of the goals of the activity). Differences over the goals of education should not be forcibly "solved," with one side or the other either giving up or walking away. They should be recognized, described and used to clarify who we are as a group and what we want.
(If the labor and popular educators group had to plan an action in the name of our group, we would need to add on a decision-making process so that our differences would not block action.)
The following day we all met again, but this time, with the help of Sarah Ryan, we ran an educators' "swap meet" exchanging our best hits -- interesting how important just swapping activities is.