National Representative (Education)
This session is about re-thinking, and that's usually an uncomfortable process. Personally, I find that change is easier to deal with the farther away it is from me changing myself. That's why we usually look to those who are benefiting least from the status quo when we want insight into the need for change. On this occasion, I'll speak to the need for building capacity, building caring and building craft.
The resistance to any deeper questioning of what's going on is widespread among those who control most of the economic capital and educational capital in Canada. They stop short of the famous comment by Joseph Goebbels: "Whenever someone uses the word culture, I reach for my pistol". But the words "philosophy of education" still get backs up among corporate and government human resources spokespeople. We can expect some resistance and ridicule, since, as John Dewey shrewdly noted some time ago:
"I think that only slight acquaintance with the history of education is needed to prove that educational reformers and innovators alone have felt the need for a philosophy of education. Those who adhered to the established system needed merely a few fine-sounding w ords to justify existing practices. The real work was done by habits which were so fixed as to be institutional."
Today's "fine-sounding words" are familiar to everyone here. "Competitiveness", which translates as "an injury to one is tough luck for that one". Or "teamwork", which translates as "give your full effort until we trade you". Or "flexibility", which brings to mind the contortionists at the Cirque de Soleil. Or "learning outcomes", a potentially progressive idea which has been captured by behaviourists to mean narrow, observable, controllable performance indicators.
These "fine sounding words" are backed up by habits, like the funding cuts to adult education for citizenship, and the pressure on extension departments to pay their own way or disappear, as at Memorial University in Newfoundland. This puts us back to the resource levels of a generation ago... except that then we hadn't lost our bearings.
The language of cutbacks and competencies has seduced or intimidated us, we are burned out and/ or engaged in turf battles. And we are confused. As my friend Jojo Geronimo once said, "if you're confused, that's a good sign. It means you're paying attention. Because the situation is confusing." So we shouldn't suppress our uncertainty, our doubt, but work through it to a new set of bearings.
Last winter, I got a depressing call from a local within my union. The employer had decided to downsize, to contract out part of the work, to bring in some new technology. They had discovered re-engineering. That meant concentrating on their core business and dumping those areas that didn't add value. This was necessary, they said, to maintain competitive position, and indeed to survive in the rapidly changing printing industry .
So far, this was normal life for the nineties under NAFTA. Then I sat up. The employer had approached the local union because some government funds were available for re-training, if the union would join in the application. The company envisioned an intensive up-grading program for about 20% of the workforce, who would take over key positions with the new equipment. For the remainder, they wanted a one-day session on "managing change", which could be done by the training unit of another corporation.
The local leadership felt uneasy about this proposal. In particular, they resented the one-day session aimed at ironing out resistance to change. Yet they were at a loss for a counter-proposal. The union's signature was needed if management was to get these training funds. What should they do?
Within the hour, we had worked out a proposal, with literacy and computer literacy at the centre, and community-based popular educators engaged as the facilitators. It was pretty straightforward. That's what made me uneasy. Why did the local need me? They were a sophisticated group, with seasoned and progressive officers. Yet their time was being drained by frictions among members over layoff rights, bumping and so on. And they had no input into the major decision, the downsizing itself . The winds of change had blown them off their customary course, and they had lost their bearings.
It's bad enough in my union, but I see this problem throughout the network of voluntary organizations engaged in adult education. The scatter makes me dizzy. Around this time of year, people meet in different places -- ACCC, CAUCE, CLERA, CAPLA, CCLOW, and of course CAAE and CASAE . I respect the huge amount of voluntary effort that has gone into building and maintaining these organizations, effort made by many of the people in this room. This is "civil society", a classical concept for structures that are neither in the state nor in the market. We need to re-organize. Before falling for a version of cutbacks and re-engineering in our own groups, we need to re-orient. That's the conclusion from my one-person Royal Commission on Reality.
We need to build capacity, economically as well as socially, among ourselves and with other learners. We need to build caring, based on the practical experience that love can beat fear, 15 rounds, winner take all. And we need to build craft, with a clear-eyed recognition that skill confers influence.
Capacity, caring and craft. These are the indicators I now use, the outcomes I seek when evaluating adult education. It's not hard to see how far these are from the performance outcomes envisioned today in schools and post-secondary education . Yet they are, or should be, tangible to those of us engaged directly in adult education. Let's look at each in turn.
We need more than cheerleading to turn this around. We need different measures of
effectiveness, and greater skill in dealing with the forces arrayed against us. Let's try another
quick survey. How many of you have the capacity to, without anyone else's permission:
- send 20 faxes out locally?
- send an E-Mail message?
- reserve a meeting room for 20 people in the evening, without charge?
- communicate in a language other than English?
I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. We have an incredible concentration of resources in this room . We have the capacity to collect and sift information, to plan and design events, to link and mobilize people. Yet we generally see the hole rather than the doughnut.
By underestimating ourselves, we model something for the learners with whom we work. I am struck by how much complaining we do about our own powerlessness, while claiming to empower other adults . Many critics of current trends in education, training and employment are long on critique, but short on proposal. And when it comes to strategy for change, there are few subjects for their verbs .
I'm interested in accurate assessments of the abundance of resources we now have. And in clear assignments of responsibility... of who will do what to make change happen, and when we will meet to assess our progress. Because the capacity is only potential until it is put to work. The criterion I for a proposed initiative in adult education now should be whether the course or program increase the individual and collective capacity of the learners to re-shape their situation. And similarly, any efforts to re-structure our voluntary organizations should be assessed on whether they increase our individual and collective capacity to re-shape our situation.
When her plant was closed, Bev had to learn how to deal with re-training, unemployment insurance and other bureaucracies. Now she works with laid-off workers in industrial plants across Ontario, as a counsellor with the Metro Labour Education Centre. She puts her learning to the service of others facing layoff or job loss.
Her work is important. Last fall, my union put out a summary report on participatory research we had done in six Ontario workplaces, in electrical manufacturing and telecommunications. We called it "Transition and Difference", exploring whether each location had actually moved from mass production to flexible specialization, and how different groups of workers were affected by the transition . Less than a year later, three of the six are closed, two are facing cutbacks and only one has expanded. It's an upheaval, and people like Bev step in to help people re-build community among workers, a community shattered by corporate greed and government inaction. In particular, she works with the officers in the local union who take the stress of this upheaval to heart. As one said at the Mitsubishi plant in Midland Ontario, shortly before the closure there was announced:
"Local union activists don't have time to take a pee any more. We are dealing w ith so much. Union work is expanding, the range of issues is wider and more complex, and harder to handle. We need to build the union and involve new members. Otherwise we won't be able to handle it -- we will burn out"
Bev's a grandmother now. Throughout our dinner and an evening where she spoke to other labour educators, she kept returning to her feelings -- about workers, about unions, about learning. She's a modest person, so she'd be embarrassed at me making this fuss about her, but her loving spirit shone throughout that evening -- the kind of person Holly Near had in mind in her song "We are a gentle, angry people/ and we are singing, singing for our lives"
Bev works in a connected way, caring about the learners, caring about her community and standing up for herself. She feels responsible to give back some of what she has gained. Dedicating this speech to her is one of many ways that I and others have recognized her contribution. So she's not alone, not one of the isolated people who dominate the literature of "individualized" adult education. She is resolutely her own person, making choices about learning and living, but not in a vacuum:
"The existence of the `individual' is merely an ideological construct, an idea that was invented to make sense of the modern reality in which people began to act in very self-centered and self-serving ways that negated their common togetherness and solidarity. But, in our essence, we are connected, and our fulfillment depends completely on each other."
What, then, is the nature of our connection? We need to review our educational programs to ensure that participants emerge from them with a renewed sense of personal dignity and social solidarity. And we as educators need to make the space to hear one another out, from the heart, rather than scrabbling for "quick fix" solutions to the organizational and financial barriers to our work.
Interestingly, while the major educational providers are pursuing the Holy Grail of competency-based skills, many adults are voting with their feet for much more integrated styles of learning. Along with self-teaching around computers, self-help, recovery, environmental and other learning circles are multiplying across our country, often with minimal professional guidance and support. While one layer of the adult education field is resonating with competitiveness, flexibility and hierarchically-imposed teamwork, another is emerging that is more resonant with the social and personal vocation of the "passionate educators" who gave the initial shape and status to our organizations. I cite them, people like Moses Coady, Ned Corbett and Roby Kidd, as a reminder of our traditions, and as a defiance of the a-historical arrogance of the re-engineering consultants... "If it ain't broke, break it".
I say this, not to identify a new market niche which hungry continuing educators can appropriate, but to say that the need for solidarity, for social support and for holistic learning has not died. Quite the contrary. For us to address this need among learners, we cannot do better than to start with ourselves. That means a different pace and style of communication than usually happens in gatherings of professional adult educators, so dominated by overhead projectors and business cards. It means re-constituting learning communities among ourselves as well as in our programs.
This will demand emotional rigour, not niceness, links based on genuine need rather than abstract ideology or sentimentality. A good model of this is provided by bell hooks, stepping back from the storm of criticism from white American feminists for the sexism in Paulo Freire's work. She goes into some detail about how patriarchy plays out in Paulo's writing and his personal interactions. Then she says:
"To have work that promotes one's liberation is such a powerful gift that it does not matter so much if the gift is flawed. Think of the work as water that contains some dirt. Because you are thirsty you are not too proud to extract the dirt and be nourished by the water ... If we approach the drinking of water that comes from the tap from a global perspective we would have to talk about it differently. We would have to consider what the vast majority of the people in the world who are thirsty must do to obtain water. Paulo's work has been living water for me."
To me, that is emotional rigour. It is caring tempered with clarity and toughness. We need more of it among Canadian adult educators.
We have to get better at what we do. And many popular educators are trying hard. The aims of this practice are to engage those with the least power in the society, to develop them as critical thinkers and transforming agents, and to accomplish this by dialogue rather than imposition. Within the field, these are the educators with whom I identify most.
Popular education, then, is defined, not by what is taught but by what is learned and applied. And it requires constant renewal of the craft. Let's think about how this applies in my own corner of the field, union education. The participants in a residential steward course of 2-5 days learn from a variety of sources. There are films, readings, exercises, lectures and discussions.
The films may be selected by me and a course leader, the reading material and exercises written or at least edited by us, and the actual sessions led by us. Yet it all builds on the experience of participants, and much of the most valuable learning occurs simply because a union course provides a supportive collective environment in which people who are generally "time poor" have time to reflect on a single topic.
The skilful union educator will always try to "bring the coffee break into the classroom", to maximize the frank and practical tone of self-directed learning in the formal courses. Indeed, for the learners, I have on occasion felt that the formal classes were a break and relaxation from the intensity of coffee break conversations!
For example, during the break in a "Facing Training" course, I noticed that delegates from one plant were picking the brains of delegates from another plant where a joint training committee had been operating for some months. After the break, I asked the less experienced group to share what they had learned with the whole class, and the resulting discussion ran for a full hour. It was good pedagogy, good politics and good fun. As long as the course leader is clear on objectives and able to keep people's attention focused on them, details of the course agenda can be re-negotiated constantly throughout the course.
Consider the activity, the "politics of furniture", which has been used widely in the Facing Management course, all over the Canadian labour movement. A steward and grievor are called into the manager's officer to discuss a reprimand, and the course participants guide the steward as to body language, moving chairs, using pen and paper, proxemics, and so on. It' s fun, it's participatory and it requires careful guidance and de-briefing. Precisely because this flexible and democratic style runs against the grain of "competency-based" education , it must be really well done:
"To confront power is costly and difficult; high standards of evidence and argument are imposed, and critical analysis is naturally not welcomed by those who are in a postion to react vigorously and to determine the array of rewards and punishments. Conformity to a "patriotic agenda," in contrast, imposes no such costs. Charges against official enemies barely require substantiation.."
Part of the craft, then, is to bring the street smarts of the participants into the book smart climate of a formal course. But the challenge also is to bring new ideas and resources into the process. Two new courses I am developing are "Union Judo: Strategies for the Changing Workplace", and "Solidarity Skills: Working Together Across Social and Political Differences". In the former, I draw on material from Sun Tzu, The Art of War, to Fisher and Ury, Getting to Yes. In the latter, I use John Cleese's video "More Bloody Meetings", Deborah Tannen , You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and the wealth of union material on sexual and racial harassment . These two courses address the economic changes underway, in labour-management relations and in cultural and sexual oppression. They stretch my ability to read what is current in the professional literature, adapt it to the situation of union members, and introduce it at the appropriate moment in the learning spiral.
This development of craft is a personal choice, but it is also a response to the pressures from participants. These pressures are backed up by the unusual balance of power between educator and participant within a union. In a union course, formal certification of outcomes is a secondary concern, and hence the power of educators over learners is drastically curtailed. I can't mark people. However, the participants in a union course are electors. The course leader is usually hired by the union officers and directly accountable to them. If anyone gets marked in my courses, it's me.
In other words, the power dynamics in union education are the precise opposite of those in the formal education system. The pressure on the educator, for craft in our trade, is very immediate. This inversion of power models the transformation that social unionism seeks more widely. It should be recognized and valued as a distinctive educational dynamic, indeed as the seed of a genuinely democratizing educational process from which the lifelong educational system could benefit greatly.
The education I have just described is not directly for the job market. But when we enter training, I believe that the same potentials exist. This is the point where learning meets the economy, a lively crossroads, with lots of traffic careening every which way. Right now, it's one of the few places in the adult education field where there is discretionary money available. And the issues of capacity, caring and craft are to be found here too, a burr under the technocratic saddle.
In the Sectoral Skills Council, a joint labour-management training initiative in the electrical and electronics manufacturing industry, we have set three criteria for training , without which a course or program should not be funded. It must be "incremental", or in addition to training already conducted by the employer. It must be "portable", with skills not limited to the particular workplace in which the learner is currently employed. And it must be "equitable ", both between management and unionized employees and in recognition of groups traditionally marginalized in both education and employment. It's a long way from perfect, but we now have 5 1,000 workers covered by the fund and eight years of careful negotiation about how it is administered. This has built capacity in the workplaces of that industry, has cared enough to be open for needs of illiteracy and discrimination, and has developed craft, especially among those workers now making decisions about training of fellow employees in their workplace.
Others outside Canada are travelling this road. I think of Mike Newman in Australia, whose book Defining the Enemy deals vividly with the traps of decency, detachment and selective vision in adult education . I think of Oscar and Laura Jara, of the ALFORJA network in Central America, steadily building creativity and systematic thinking around popular education . I think of Shirley Walters and her colleagues at CACE in South Africa, moving their organizations from apartheid to post-apartheid civil society . And I return to the clarity and stamina of Joan Newman Kuyek in Sudbury, building capacity and vision in women's organizations.
I started by saying we need to get our bearings once again. I believe that capacity, caring and craft are useful landmarks in trying to do so. In my work and in my writing , I am proposing an educational practice that will strengthen the "popular civil society" in Canada. I believe that the labour movement has a role to play in this process, in dialogue with others in the fields of education, training and employment.
We need to re-structure, to work out the core mission of each of our organizations, and to join hands whenever it makes sense. This means that solidarity is to be negotiated rather than assumed. Such re-thinking builds a kind of connection among people that renews our spirit as well as our capacity. As Marge Piercy points out:
"Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you...
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party...
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
May we renew such community, carefully and strategically, in the Canadian adult education field in the years ahead.