During the week of
October 2 to 8, 2011, I facilitated an online, asynchronous seminar, with a group of my classmates as participants. The focus of the seminar was a chapter from within Finger and Asun’s book Adult Education at the Crossroads: Learning Our Way Out. The chapter that I chose was titled “Marxist Adult Education: Democratic Centralism or Multiple Paths to the Right Solution”. Pretty heady title.
So, what was my rationale for choosing this particular chapter? Having little prior academic experience in political science, I am nevertheless keenly interested in local, provincial and national politics and have been an avid consumer of political media for a number of years. My political leanings tend to be more to the socialist left due in no small part to my vocation in the social services. With this in mind, a chapter that dealt with Marxism and the opportunity to delve deeper into this school of thought and how this thinking has informed and influenced adult education globally, was hard to pass up. Further, the opportunity to learn more about Paulo Freire, “one of the most influential educationists of the twentieth century” (Mayo, 2010, p. 31) was equally hard to pass up.
The current Occupy Movement and the growing interest and attention given to inequality in the distribution of wealth and opportunity in society, further fuelled my interest and provided a real world, present day context from which to explore the readings. In an article in Finance & Development, Branco Milanovic, Lead Economist in the World Bank research group and author of the recent book The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, states that “income inequality has been on the rise—or stagnant at best—in most countries since the early 1980’s”. He further states that while global inequality has reached a plateau and actually decreased in recent years, this is due in large part to the growing economies of
and China . This does not necessarily mean that the gap between the richest and poorest in the world’s population is decreasing overall. And, even if this trend continues the issue of inequality and all of the social ills that it represents will not simply go away. India
I think that the growing inequality in today’s society demands Marxist thinking and its derivatives, critical theory and critical pedagogy, in the analysis of society and development, how we relate to each other and our environment on a global scale. Further, Freire’s work on “the collective dimension of learning” and the grassroots approach of Participatory Action Research (another key subject area in the chapter) provide useful pedagogical tools to “transform sociopolitical conditions” (Finger & Asun, 2001, p. 86). But that’s enough about my rationale for choosing the chapter that I chose. On to my seminar…
I crafted my lesson plan around the goal that at the end of the seminar learners would be able to draw the connection between Marxism and critical pedagogy and demonstrate an understanding of Paulo Freire’s Liberation Pedagogy and Participatory Action Research (
In the first activity, learners were asked to view a video of U.S. Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren, speaking to a small group of people. Learners were then asked to think like a Marxist and a critical theorist/pedagogue and comment on the politician’s speech. The idea of this exercise was to encourage learners to get into the mindset and philosophy of Marxism and offer their perspective rooted in critical theory. While most learners were able to draw upon the readings, only one was able to really articulate that the politician was engaged in critical pedagogy.
In the second activity, learners were asked to reflect upon a time when they felt liberated through education. They were then asked to relate this experience to elements of Freire’s model of liberation pedagogy. The genesis of the idea for this activity came from Bookfield’s writings on the value of autobiography in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (1995, p. 49); the idea being that reflecting on our experiences as learners would form a personal connection with Freire’s theory and lead to further understanding. This exercise seemed difficult for some learners and easier for others. Some of the experiences that were disclosed were extremely personal, laden with emotions, and left me feeling as though my experiences didn’t quite measure up. If I felt this way, then surely other learners felt the same.
In the last activity I posed the same open-ended question that Finger and Asun posed at the end of the chapter: “can Participatory Action Research be applied in contexts other than agricultural and developing societies?” (p. 94). The idea behind this exercise was to encourage the critical thinking discussed by the authors earlier in the chapter. I knew when I crafted this activity that follow-up material would be required because of the expansive nature of the
PAR approach, its many iterations and interpretations. Consequently, I offered up some further research that I did on PAR closer to home, in a more urban environment. This seemed to spark learners’ imaginations and contributed to the level of discourse.
Overall, I felt that the seminar was successful. Measured against the learning outcomes, I felt that the discussion demonstrated the understanding that learners were developing of Marxist theory and its relation to critical theory and pedagogy, Freire’s liberation pedagogy, and Participatory Action Research. The discussion seemed to flow freely; learners generally posted their thoughts with little prompting or encouragement from me. Further, my interjections throughout the week’s discussion did not seem to hinder participation. Rather, my follow-up questions, posts and comments, seemed to enhance participation and discourse.
In the presentation and in the summary of the weeks’ discussions, I provided my classmates with a hyperlink to an online survey that I had developed using FluidSurveys. This was my first time using an online survey tool and this one in particular was easy to use and flexible enough to allow me to obtain some quality feedback on the presentation, the activities and my facilitation. What my classmates reported, supported my own observations. All respondents indicated that the presentation enhanced their understanding of the readings and that the activities were challenging or somewhat challenging, promoting discussion and reflection. A couple of respondents commented positively regarding the use of video and graphics in the presentation and activities. All respondents stated that the facilitation struck a good balance between letting the discussion unfold and offering timely comments and questions that enhanced learning. One respondent commented that they had difficulty coming up with a personal experience with liberation through education.
So what did I learn from my experience and what does it mean for me as an adult educator? This was my second attempt facilitating an online seminar in an asynchronous fashion. In this sophomore experience, I was able to draw upon more resources to fully take advantage of the platform and really engage learners. The use of video, graphics, and hyperlinks to other online resources promoted a dynamic environment for learning. This is something that I will definitely build upon in future experiences. That said, I believe that there were some elements to the activities that required more thought and could have been tweaked to further promote critical discourse throughout the week.
In the first activity, my phrasing of the question was, “What might someone with a Marxist perspective/ a critical theorist say….” This did not effectively encourage learners to get into the mindset of a Marxist or a critical theorist. Rephrasing it to say something like, “You are a Marxist political thinker/critical theorist attending this speech. What might you say…”, might have resulted in more learners providing responses that were more than a regurgitation of the readings. Further, I think that such an approach may have been more interesting and fun.
In the second activity, I neglected to fully anticipate the emotional component of asking learners to reflect upon and share a moment of liberation linked with education. In some instances, learners were able to share deeply emotional experiences and in others the experiences were somewhat superficial.
(1995) says that “some awareness of how students are experiencing learning is the foundational, first-order knowledge we need to do good work as teachers” (p. 94). Reflecting upon my experience with this activity, I realize that I had no real idea about how learners were experiencing this particular piece of learning. I hadn’t gotten inside their heads so that I could better anticipate their reaction to this activity. I think that in some instances, learners were intimidated by the question and by the responses of those that shared deeply personal experiences of emancipation. In the future, I will attempt different approaches to learn about the participants prior to crafting a learning activity (e.g. through reviewing their biographies, conducting a pre-seminar survey, etc.). Brookfield
This seminar was an excellent opportunity to further develop my skills in online, asynchronous learning development and facilitation. It was also an excellent opportunity to learn more about the Marxist school of thought, Freire’s work, and their implications for society and adult education in the present day. Although I was able to further exploit the potential of an online environment, I was also reminded that a well designed learning event also requires considerable thought into the intent and potential implications of specific activities. I was also reminded of the importance of getting inside the heads of learners in preparation for a learning event. The learning that I gained from this seminar will serve me well in designing and delivering learning events in the future.