Popular or participatory education?

Ronald@bentec.co.za

In my work as a popular educator I often struggle with the tension between the different ways popular education is understood. The many views can be located between two poles.

People on the first pole would see popular education as a method to support self-mobilisation of oppressed communities for emancipation. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is associated with this view. Those on the second pole tend to see popular education as education through participatory and participant-controlled methodologies. 

These views can work well together, and most people who come into contact with popular education combine them in some way. Mobilisers certainly value participatory methodologies, and people who prioritise these methodologies are often supporters of emancipation movements.

There are times though, when the poles come into conflict. Emancipatory movements sometimes need knowledge that is outside the experience of their members. In such cases, it is still sound educational practice to start with what people know, and move from there to what they do not know. Educators must avoid being boring and condescending at all times, so new information must be presented in as accessible and exciting ways as possible. There is no denying the fact though, that when you do so, you are doing what Freire disparagingly called the banking method. The educational material is communicated in a way that is “fundamentally narrative in character” as Freire described it. Students should be encouraged to actively respond and participate in making meaning of the information, but this can only take place after the “deposit” of the information has been made. 

Is this still popular education? 

Another way this conflict plays out is when oppressive institutions and groups use participatory methodologies. One of my favourite popular education methodologies is The World Café. It was developed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in their work as business consultants. Since then many companies, including oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell, have used this methodology to come up with ways to improve their profits. 

Is this still popular education?

I think the answer is yes for when liberation movements use the banking method to convey information and skills their members do not have, and no when exploiters of people and nature use participatory methodologies.    

COVID realities: shifting boundaries

By femke@bentec

There is a lot of boundary shifting happening in geographical, professional and in social terms. How does this affect human behaviour and habits? 

Due to lockdown measures such as curfews, social distancing and working from home, most connecting is taking place within the confines of the home. Homes are now functioning as office, school class, gym, and as leisure space. Activities and relationships that used to be associated with physical spaces outside the home have collapsed into one hub of identity and activity. Dress codes changed to day and night pyjamas. Social roles are less separated by spatial contexts. All phone calls have become scheduled meetings and most meals home-cooked with nostalgic flavours such as grandmother’s stews and regional specialties. 

Geographical distance seems obliterated. Interacting with someone on another continent takes similar effort to working with a colleague who is in the same city. Without hardly any face-to-face meetings, a lot of human communication happens on some online platform. No commuting or travelling or traffic, only on the internet highway with megabyte speed limits. It seems more acceptable to meet outside the 9-5 working hours, especially when different time zones are involved. Why not another zoom call at 6pm when kids are done with homework? Was that acceptable before the pandemic? 

I think these processes are not new and they happen in the context of mass dismissals, anti-racism uprisings and livelihood destructions. In a rapidly changing context due to COVID19, different realities and conditions are more visible and have become more extreme versions of what they already were. Working from home is not new, it is currently just a reality for more people. Losing a precarious job is not new, neither is not having access to healthcare or domestic violence. However, we now look at these realities with a COVID19 lens. The way the state imposes rules and discriminates between affected groups, the way families function and the ways in which the economy produces inequalities and violence. 

We already knew how farmers exploited black migrant labour, but now we see the fear and resistance of local communities when migrant labourers arrive and are perceived as carrying the virus with them. We knew the impact of load shedding in poor communities, now people are supposed to home school and feed kids under lockdown, without electricity.   

What is important to think about: how do we negotiate shifting boundaries and check if they work, and for who they work? Which shifts are temporary and which are permanent? And finally, how do we intervene to create the realities we want? 

Zoom teaching: background reflections

By femke@bentec

Imagine a university classroom with 15 students sitting in a circle. The students are surrounded by blank walls, tables, a whiteboard and perhaps a projector. Some will be watching their phones screens, some sit with their legs crossed, some talk about an upcoming assignment deadline and others might be fidgeting with a piece of clothing or their hair. What they all have in common is the room they are in and the social position they have in that place. They are temporarily in the same context with shared understandings of behavioral codes and dress for example. In the classroom they are exposed to the same sounds, temperature, and notion of time.  Here, teaching happens outside of the wider context of students’ lives.  

Now imagine a Zoom tutorial with these same students. Fifteen small squares with faces and upper bodies. Voices when students are ‘unmuted’. And students appear with a background. Some are in spacious rooms with yellow walls, others are hardly visible in what seems a dark corner of an apartment, some sit on a couch, some sit outside in a yard or even on a boat, and it is possible to ‘zoom in’ while at work. Through the different backgrounds arrive different sounds. Birds chirping, wind blowing, room mates chatting, music playing, kitchen noises. Teaching happens in the wider context of students’ lives. 

In the university, individual backgrounds are not as visible. The zoom squares expose personal circumstances and difference. It requires more effort to know what everyone has in common. What kind of connections are made here? What is the effect on teaching and learning? 

Herd immunity

By ronald@bentec 

A recent news report about the Covid-19 pandemic states that “Herd immunity means letting a large number of people catch a disease, and hence develop immunity to it, to stop the virus spreading.”

This concept of herd immunity has become popular and even dominant, judging from my social media feeds. If this is so, it represents a real loss. Apart from its striking internal contradiction, this understanding of herd immunity distorts and, I dare say, besmirches a perfectly good idea from the health sciences.

Let us talk about the internal contradiction first. ‘Letting a large number of people catch a disease’ means the same thing as ‘letting the virus spread’. The virus spreads from a sick person to a healthy person by making the healthy person ‘catch the disease’. You cannot, therefore, ‘stop the virus spreading’ by ‘letting a large number of people catch [the] disease’. It would be like dunking someone in water to stop them from getting wet. 

Secondly, in the health sciences herd immunity simply refers to a situation where enough individuals in a group have immunity against a disease to prevent an epidemic of that disease in the group. This certainly implies that health practitioners would strive to establish herd immunity, but it does not mean at all that they would ‘let a large number of people catch the disease’. The concept itself does not say anything about the methods the health practitioners would use. 

There is nothing in the scientific understanding of herd immunity that implies the sinister heartlesness with which the concept has become associated. If we want to avoid Covid-19 releated deaths, we would definitely want herd immunity.

Covid-19 – research, knowledge and belief

By ronald@bentec

The novel coronavirus frames this time. It is challenging us to rethink or restate what we know and how we know it. I am, for one, a true believer in the value of research as a source of knowledge, but the debates have shown me the importance of the reminder that some of the most important questions we face cannot be answered by research. 

As countries implement lockdowns, what happens to stray dogs who depend for their food on the movement of people and the functioning of restaurants and institutional kitchens? Research can answer this question if we put the necessary resources into it. 

What should happen to these dogs? Research can help, but the answer is beyond its reach.