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Thursday, October 27, 2011

On developing and facilitating an online, asyncronous seminar

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 China and India.  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.     

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 (PAR).  To support this goal, I created a presentation that employed a mix of graphic and textual components to synthesize these three themes from the reading.  Embedded within the presentation were three activities to engage learners in further exploration of the three themes.

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.  Brookfield (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.).

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.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Clarifying theories

courtesy of fotosoup
I have neglected my writing some, in these last few weeks.  But life has been busy of late.  After facilitating an online seminar (more on this in a later post) and struggling with a bout of food poisoning (damn you, Dagwood!), I took off for the Great White North for an extended weekend of theorizing.  Say what?  Theorizing?  That doesn't sound like too much fun.  Let me explain.
hooks talks about finding “a place of sanctuary in theorizing, in making sense out of what was happening” (p. 61).  She also talks about the influence of Paulo Freire and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh on her life and work.  The former I have talked about at some length in a prior post.  In relation to the latter, she says that he “offered a way of thinking about pedagogy that emphasized wholeness, a union of mind, body and spirit” (p. 14).  Here’s a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that hooks references in her book:  “The practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people”. 
Like hooks, I have often found “sanctuary in theorizing”, inwardly reflecting upon what has been happening around me, to those around me, to myself and my role in all of it; how does it relate to what I know, what I’ve read, what I’m learning.  And as a seasoned social service worker, I know the value of what Thich Nhat Hanh speaks.  Helper, help thyself.  However, I also know that my ability to direct my practice inward is often hampered by the incessant buzz of white noise that the busyness of life projects.  Being a displaced northerner, I have always found solace and sanctuary in the outdoors, particularly the north. 

Now, I’m not talking about tromping off into the wilderness and cutting myself off from reality for an extended period of time, although I have done that and often find myself longing for that.  What I’m talking about is that moment when the cool fall air picks up through the soughing of the tamaracks in their golden glory, and you breathe in through your nose the scent of hay, decaying leaves and football.  The tip of your nose is cold and you revel in the warmth of your sweater, stamping feet, and outdoor work, cleaning up and preparing for snow.  That’s the moment when my brain and my soul feel as though they have been washed clean and theories become clear.    

Monday, October 10, 2011

Welcoming and painful

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks states that “making a classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute is a central goal of transformative pedagogy" (p. 39).  The key word here is “responsibility”.  Hooks concedes that learning is not comfortable.   Having to confront deep-seeded assumptions is a difficult task.  In fact, it can be downright painful.

But the teacher’s role in this process is not that of nurse-maid, coddling her learners as they navigate through this uncomfortable, difficult and sometimes painful process of shedding the old and donning the new.  “Rather than focusing on issues of safety”, she writes, “I think that a feeling of community creates a sense that there is shared commitment and a common good that binds us” (p. 40).  It’s this sense of community that makes it possible for her students to share their thoughts and ideas.  So what if they don’t want to share and would prefer to engage in a more solitary analysis?  Well, apparently hooks doesn’t have much truck with that.  Students in hooks’s classes know that sharing is expected.  Not to give voice to your opinions is a bit of a cop out.  Learning just doesn’t happen if it isn’t given a voice.

Contrast hooks approach to that of Stephen Brookfield in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, and you can imagine that there was some bit of debate and comparative analysis in our online discussions this week.  No more or less respectful of the painful process of learning, Brookfield espouses getting in the heads of learners and reflecting on the dynamics of power in the classroom over the “give voice to your learning or get out” approach of hooks.   

But what are the implications for online learning?  On the one hand you could argue that the relative anonymity of the virtual environment would promote a safe environment.  This is often the case in other online environments outside the learning paradigm.  Case in point: social networking.  As too many of us know either personally or through observation of others, people will often post things on social networking sites that they would never announce in a face-to-face environment such as a party or other social gathering.  On the other hand, you could argue that the absence of visual cues makes it more difficult for a learner to judge how their honesty in a particular situation or on a particular subject will be perceived.  In any face-to-face classroom there is a feeling-out stage at the beginning of the learning event.  This may last from several minutes to several weeks, depending on the length of time that the learners will be together and each individual learner's stake in controlling the perceptions of others.  Often this is also influenced by the leader of the learning – the teacher, facilitator or whatever you want to call them.

I recall a professor in one of my core adult ed courses who spent some time talking about a "welcoming stance" with regard to pedagogical practice.  He referenced everything from signage (does it say “Welcome” or “All visitors must report to the office!”) to the actual body language of the professor, as being signposts that will indicate to a learner whether or not the environment is safe, welcoming of divergent views and diverse voices. He even went so far as to change his stance in the classroom as he lectured and led discussion.  Picture a man in his 50’s, with a white-haired buzz cut and an earring, dancing back and forth on the balls of his feet.  You can understand that, at the time, it reminded me of many football coaches that I had in my halcyon days explaining different types of stances for different positions, and downs and distances.  And although it was the subject of some chuckles during our smoke break that morning, I wonder how that class would have played out online had we not had the visual cues that he was giving and even the tone and passion in his voice as an indication that he really bought into the idea of a safe and welcoming environment and wasn’t just lecturing on it's importance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Power and liberation

Power.  Even the word can bring about a visceral response in people.  We lust for it and we become intoxicated by it.  We also wield it and dominate with it. We can resist it and even struggle against it.  But can we deny it? Can it be ignored?

This week, in the two courses that I am currently taking, we have been learning about and discussing in some depth the relationship between power and adult education.  On a micro-level, we’ve looked at power and its influence on the teacher-learner relationship. And, on a more macro-level, we’ve looked at power and the role it plays society, how it influences development and participation in development.  Further, we’ve looked at the role of adult education in either contributing to inequality, both in the classroom and in society, or contributing to change and social justice. 

In one online discussion, there was a notion that power had no place in the classroom; societal constructs of 'class' shouldn’t be allowed admittance into the classroom.  Learning should be unencumbered by such assumptions.  I don’t think that it is ever possible to push power and it's constructs out of the classroom.  Nor do I think that we should want to.  Power should be welcomed, exposed, picked apart, disected, analyzed and named.  To do so brings the freedom of learning from the micro to the macro level.  It fulfills a higher purpose than just expanding one's mind.  Rather, it connects our personal emancipation to others.  I think that Paulo Freire would agree with me. 

For those of you from the adult ed world, you already know Mr. Freire.  For those of you who don’t, I’ll defer to bell hooks for an introduction:

Paulo was one of the thinkers whose work gave me a language.  He made me think deeply about the construction of an identity in resistance.  There was this one sentence of Freire’s that became a revolutionary mantra for me:  “We cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become subjects.”  Really it is difficult to find words adequate to explain how this statement was like a locked door – and I struggled within myself to find the key – and that struggle engaged me in a process of critical thought that was transformative.  This experience positioned Freire in my mind and heart as a challenging teacher whose work furthered my own struggle against the colonizing process – the colonizing mindset.” (hooks, 1994, p. 47)

Freire is the father of liberation pedagogy: the idea that education was about transformation from a state of voiceless “magical consciousness”, though a recognition of oppression, to finally landing in a state of critical consciousness.  Education was about leaving a state of despair and stagnation for a state of hope and action.  To him education without liberation was not and should not be possible.  I couldn’t agree more.