When I was a first-year in college an older friend and mentor named Lan Anh Ha handed me a book that would change my life and career forever. I sat up in the single bed of my college dorm and peeled open the darkened pages of an old copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and read it cover-to-cover.
The author, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, describes the traditional education system as “the banking method” because teachers deposit knowledge into their students and expect to withdraw it later. In contrast, he describes liberatory education as one where the educator and student learn together how to bring about social change through dialogue and action.
To this day I read his work in an almost biblical way, using the dense academic prose to gain insight into the problems I see around me daily as someone who is trying to build a better world.
Not long after I was introduced to his work, I was invited to co-facilitate groups to help people apply this thinking in their work for social change. We discussed participatory techniques for curriculum design and facilitation and together named differences between this model and conventional schooling.
While I have seen many wide-eyed participants respond excitedly after participating in a form of learning more engaging than Powerpoint lecture, I have seen far fewer actually apply these principles in the way that I hope.
Challenges in Teaching Popular Education
I remember one training graduate inviting people up for a timeline exercise. The facilitator handed participants historical examples of past movements on construction paper. They stood still in front of the room holding the examples up as the facilitator described to the rest of the group what the timeline said and why it was important. “Any questions?” She asked.
A common misconception is that popular education is simply a bag of tricks. Here the facilitator seemed to believe that the training was participatory because it wasn’t a Powerpoint. The problem is the only element of participation was to stand still and hold up the supplied examples!
What was sad to me was not only the lost opportunity to learn together from the movements displayed, but also my failure to effectively prepare the facilitator. They already participated in a three-day intensive training. They already were familiar with Freire.
What could I provide them to encourage them to adapt their methodology? What resources could I point them to beyond the basics we had already covered?
This example illustrates what is missing in movement education: There are very few written resources on methodology and how to design effective trainings directed towards movement educators.
Those Who Build on Freire’s Legacy
This problem exists in spite of a plethora of resources from popular educators in the United States and Canada who have built on the legacy of Freire.
There are academics who have told stories and offered theoretical background, founders of Critical Pedagogy like bell hooks, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, and Donald Macedo, to name a few. These authors have continued the intellectual legacy that contributed to my own passion for popular education.
Others have created widely-used curricula on specific topics for organizers and educators. Deborah Barndt, Bev Burke, and Project South. For 80 years the Highlander Center has produced incredible material on everything from Black Liberation to Language Justice and Cooperative Economics. The topic of economy alone enjoys resources from my alma mater United for a Fair Economy and more recently Runaway Inequality.
And then there are those who have aimed to teach people how to do popular education, often offering their unique style of pedagogy. There is Direct Education with Training for Change, Dialogue Education with Dr. Jane Vela’s group Global Learning Partners and the People’s Hub specializing in online popular education.
In spite of decades of great work using popular education in the United States, it still seems to be a small sub-culture and the only place people in the movement discuss training methodology.
What’s Missing in our Movement Ecosystem
The beautiful academic prose mentioned above provides inspiration and theoretical background about why popular education is important, but it provides very little instruction and, like Freire, leaves so much open to interpretation.
Most curricula I am aware of that uses participatory methods are topic-specific. The introduction usually includes the same basic (but important!) lessons on popular education such as the Popular Education Spiral and facilitating difficult participants. They rarely, however, teach people how to comprehensively design their own curricula and activities.
Those who train trainers have translated learning principles into digestible activities that organizers can use, but we have produced very little material available to the public on what makes curricula effective and why.
We need more resources on how to effectively apply the field of adult education to organizing and social change.
So Much Training, So Little Evaluation
There are many groups that provide important trainings to movement groups: People’s Action Institute, Wildfire Project, Center for Story-Based Strategy and Movement Momentum. There are many more organizations, unions, networks and individual organizers that incorporate training as part of their organizing strategy.
How many hours and resources do we dedicate to recruiting participants, writing curricula, coordinating retreats and (more recently) equipping people with the tech know-how to connect. How often do we look at the results our trainings deliver beyond whether participants liked it or not?
It took me nearly a decade to come across resources that discuss methodology in-depth, that consider how to apply principles of adult learning to a training context. I was shocked when I found out that there are two monthly magazines dedicated to this purpose: Training Magazine and Training Industry.
The problem with these resources is that they are directed largely towards a business audience. While some draw from examples of public service in government and issue-based nonprofits, others aim to have participants comply with their specialized function in the workplace in order to assure efficiency and maximize profits.
We need to develop our own practical resources on training methodology so that social change leaders can make their trainings more effective.
The Purpose of This Blog
This corner of the Internet is my humble contribution to this need. I am not an expert on adult educational psychology, but I am fascinated by it. More than anything I hope this blog sparks action to improve social justice trainings to help us build a better world.
Some entries will help you design materials on a topic of importance, others will explain evidence-based learning principles and provide examples to help you put it into practice.
Some of my readers might be turned off by some of the resources I quote, but until we popularize talk about training methodology in the movement, we will need to work with what we have.
What do you think, should the movement talk more about training methodology?