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June 16, 2010 / heather67

Historical patience: popular education and emancipation.

Reflections on a talk by Sandra Maria Gadelha de Carvalho, Professor at Ceara State University (Universideade Estudual do Ceará), Brazil, Wednesday 20 January 2010.

Sandra is an academic and activist with long experience of developing the linkages between the popular education tradition and critical pedagogies.  In particular, she has coordinated various projects of partnership between the University and the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra – MST).  We were very privileged to hear Sandra talk at the University of Nottingham.  Translation was by Jennifer Martinez and Sara Motta.

Sandra’s lecture placed popular education, and our roles as teachers and learners, into a historical as well as a theoretical and experiential perspective.  This is an approach which requires us to recognise our own subjectivity, and our own complicity with dominant frames of knowledge, in order to be able to understand them.  We are all situated in our own historical moments.  In Sandra’s case, she describes the development of a popular education movement in Brazil as running alongside processes of rapid industrialisation, and a contested process of democratization.  In her work, she seeks to demonstrate how popular education reaches beyond traditional educational spaces, into areas such as health, and the penal system, to explore how a different understanding of knowledge helps people to understand and reshape their lives.

In listening to, and interpreting Sandra’s work, I recognise that I am working in a very different political and historical context.  Working as an educator in an elite Western University, I may explore issues of freedom and emancipation with students, but I am not necessarily working with those who have experienced struggle or domination from the inside, or with those who see an intrinsic opposition between the normative discourses of the civil, democratic, apparently plural, public sphere, and their own reality.  However, it strikes me as still significant that elite students and I (also an elite student, in my own way) recognise that we are implicated in the making of meaning, and knowledge.  This requires a redefinition of the very liberal education which gives us the space to explore the limits of what we know.  As Mohanty (2003:216) has written: “liberalism allows and even welcomes “plural” or even “alternative” perspectives.  However, a public culture of dissent entails creating spaces for epistemological standpoints that are grounded in the interests of people and that recognize the materiality of conflict, or privilege, and of domination.”

Freire has described education as a struggle for meaning that directly impacts on how power is distributed in the world.  When we discuss the meaning of freedom in the classroom, therefore, it has direct implications for the way that the freedom, and unfreedom, of each other, is justified and practised.  Recognising that we are part of the process, means recognising that there is always more than one story to tell.  It also means disrupting the idea of democracy, and education, as an apparently free market of ideas, in which the dominant idea becomes naturalised just because it is stronger, rather than because it serves particular interests.  This requires us to engage not just with the limits of what we know, but of how we came to “know” it in the first place.

Popular Education: What are we doing?

Sandra described two key principles which lie behind popular education:

“The Loving Act”: popular education isn’t about technique and objectivity.  It’s about connecting emotionally with other people, supporting their growth.  It’s more than a job, it’s an ongoing commitment – a “calling.”  It means listening to people, hearing their experiences, letting go of your own preconceptions.  It also requires some humility about your role.  You don’t get to decide when someone is ready to learn like this; they have to decide that for themselves.

The collective construction of knowledge: knowledge in popular education is nothing to do with intellectual or financial capital.  This is an understanding of knowledge which values people’s everyday lives and encourages people to articulate their experiences.  It collapses the dichotomy between “expert” knowledge and “experience” knowledge – in bringing them together, they are both transformed.

How do we do it?

There’s no fixed method for popular education – because that would imply that we, the “experts”, “know” how to do it. This is a meeting of subjects, all of whom have decided to be there.  However, there are some stages which you can work through.

The learning group (probably 30-36 student maximum) meets to discuss their expectations of the programme, then co-constructs a proposal with the teacher, which has clear objectives and educational goals.  The teacher’s role is to come back with a synthesis of these ideas, to put as a proposal to the class, and to ensure it has captured what the students wanted. Because education is a process, these objectives will need to be periodically evaluated, allowing new ideas to emerge.

Always ask WHY? It’s important that everyone understands what the logic is behind this proposal.  I need to understand why you want this, and you need to understand why I want that.

This may involve having a conversation with students which questions how we learn, challenging their existing assumptions about what education is.  Some students may resist this.  Sandra spoke about students who preferred to sit in rows, rather than in a circle.  Her response was to ask them why they preferred to sit in rows, and to allow a discussion.  She continued this discussion each class, allowing them to air their concerns, reflect on their expectations, and to develop trust in the group.  By the middle of term, they were sitting in a circle!

Put the plan into practice.  Divide it up into time periods, and at each end point, students write a reflection of where they were at the start, where they are now, and share these in class.  The teacher’s role is to add a commentary on where they could continue to develop, and why.

The aim is to connect theory to life, to help learners to see that their experience, in their life, and their community, IS theoretical – to demystify forms of knowledge which are often unquestioned.  For this, learners can share resources from the news, the internet, advertising, and start to explore the messages behind the messages.  This allows learners to recognize ideology for what it is: constructed, and contested, not concrete and fixed.

The teacher’s role, in the discussion, is to look for the questions, the contradictions and disagreements between what people are saying, to discover what they really understand, to reflect on that, and to construct new sets of questions which unpick these assumptions.

What are the benefits?

Students bring more commitment to the process of learning if their interests are recognized in the construction of the programme.

What are the issues?

Sandra spoke candidly of her own doubts about whether all learners (and teachers) have a capacity to do this, or will accept it.  As the teacher, you will not always spot where someone is in difficulty.  You have to be prepared to bring up your own evaluation of what you think might be happening, while also allowing students to bring up difficulties and talk together about how to overcome them.

Case study 1: the MST project

The programme with the MST combined literacy teaching with reflection on MST’s settlers’ reflections on their own reality.  The co-produced plan was focused on the themes of Work and Land, Collective communities and their culture, and peasant education, and on three areas of knowledge (Geography, Language, History).  This plan, going through many iterations, was used to win government grant funding.  For each theme, readings and methods were agreed with the settlers.

Initially, trainee teachers were sent out into the rural settlements to deliver the programme.  This meant involving a number of staff with subject expertise but no knowledge of popular education methods, so they in turn had to be involved and educated.  Evaluation of the programme took place both with the settlers, and back at the University.  However, once the movement members themselves had completed the programme, they could return back to the settlements as the next wave of teachers.

Case study 2: Popular Education in Healthcare

Students in the medical profession often come from elite sectors of society, so this programme aims to develop a broader concept of healthcare, which is related to living and working conditions.  This project brought the community and politicians together to talk about the health concerns of the community, and led to environmental workshops on hygiene and pollution, which helped learners to identify the causes of their problems, and the consequences of their own behaviour.

Popular education in context

One of Sandra’s most valuable ideas, to me, was that of historical patience.  Things don’t change overnight, it’s part of a long process, but we can still transform our world, using creativity, and art.  But you need to have the courage to confront the established ideas and institutions.  Popular or critical educators are part of a process of developing a critique, demystifying the supposed objectivity and neutrality of scientific knowledge.

This cannot only happen in the classroom.  We need to be prepared to work collectively with our colleagues, share the results of our work through conferences and workshops, and engage the student voice to gain legitimacy for these methodologies within our institutions.  At a time when Universities are focussed ever more on product, we need to be prepared to make connections between our institutions of higher education, and their broader social contexts, deprived communities, new political movements, connections in which the understandings of both sides are likely to be challenged and transformed.  This may not be what the RAF in the UK had in mind when they asked us to consider “impact”, but it is impact nonetheless.

Critical pedagogy requires hope and faith, as well as patience.  Some of our students, and some of our colleagues, may pass through contact with this process with their existing assumptions completely intact.  They are free to do that.  We have to be realistic about what we, personally, can achieve.  But we are part of a process, and we are connected – and that is something to hang on to.

Further reading:

Gadelha de Carvalho, Sandra Maria and Mendes, José Ernandi (2009)
‘Extensão universitária: compromisso social, resistência e produção de conhecimentos (Continuing education: social commitment, resistance and the production of knowledge),’ Interface, 1:79-104

Mohanty, C. (2003) Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity. Duke University Press.

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