Monday afternoon, I went straight from my Mindoro trip to the Fair Trade Alliance office. The FTA staff had invited me to give an orientation on popular education or “pop-ed.”
“We have formulated a Nationalist Development Agenda,” I was told. “But we need to popularize it among the members of our network, especially the workers.” The first participants to gather at the office were all leaders of workers – from trade unions, women from the informal sector, and a worker party list. Other FTA staff members joined us a bit later.
One of my parting advice was, “Don’t schedule your education sessions after lunch.” For speakers and facilitators, the early afternoon is “ora de peligro” when participants nod their heads, but not in agreement. John Medina in his Brain Rules cites findings from neuroscience that support having siesta or at least a short catnap, if we want more effective learning sessions.
One of his other finding is that physical activity is necessary, not only for our health, but also for learning. It’s supposed to be rooted in the fact that our brain evolved when our ancestors were doing a lot of walking and other physical activities. His provocative conclusion is that the usual classrooms and offices are not designed for effective learning, since they are designed to keep students and employees immobile.
That adds an interesting angle to one standard feature of pop-ed – energizers, ice-breakers and action songs.
The usual understanding of pop-ed is that it is “light” magaan, even “fun” kwela, not heavy mabigat, or boring. For political activists however, these attractive features of pop-ed has negative connotations of being “shallow” mababaw, or worse, “populist.”
It remains true that for many, pop-ed is understood primarily as a matter of methods – participatory, interactive, creative etc. But during the series of consultations we convened soon after EDSA 1986, our network of popular educators emphasized that “method” is only the third and last component of pop-ed. We proosed the “C-C-M” framework: Context, Content, Method.
When organizations set out to have a session on pop-ed, they expect to learn methods of presentation and facilitation, and of course they should. But we emphasize the need first to define the context, the program and organization, within which pop-ed will happen. And of course, we need to identify the content that the pop-ed session seeks to help the participants understand and internalize.
“There are only a few principles, but very many methods,” I told the participants. They need not limit themselves to copying the methods used by various facilitators. They can and should discover and develop new ones, so long as they grasp the key principles.
The first is that pop-ed ( and any effective education ) must be “learner-centered.” It seems rather obvious, but during our discussion, we agreed that we tend to be more “teacher-centered” and “topic centered.” This is especially true in the activist tradition, since there is strong emphasis on “the correct line” and on the “cadre.” Pursuing the discussion further, we arrived at a more nuanced appreciation of pop-ed, that it is not a stand-alone strategy for empowerment.
Still, at the informal feedback midway through the session, the participants said that one of the things that struck them most is the emphasis on being learner-centered. I had told them my usual (fictional) story about the British scientist who claimed that he had taught his dog how to whistle. But when it didn’t, explained to the jeering public: “Please recall that all I claimed was that I taught it to whistle. i didn’t say that it learned.”
Another favorite item I introduce to make my point is Thomas Aquinas’ “Quidquid recipitur, recipitur secundum modum recipientis.” I linked Paolo Freire’s critique of the “banking method” to the metaphor from Plutarch about learners: “They are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but torches waiting to be lit.”
From there we moved on to discuss the principles of “accelerated learning”: 1) Learning is more effective if it is not consumption, but creation. 2) Learning is more effective if cooperative rather than competitive. 3) Learning is more effective if it is adapted to the different learning styles of the learners – visual, auditory, kinesthetic etc.
To round off the discussion on principles, we went cursorily through Howard Gardner’s ideas on “multiple intelligences.” One observation I posed, partly in self-criticism, is that we in the pop-ed network have not given enough attention to the fact that a high degree of musical intelligence is evident among Filipinos. One indication of the state of the popular-progressive movement is the lack of new contemporary songs. I recalled James Connoly’s assertion that “a cause has not become a people’s cause unless it is sung.”
The afternoon session was too short to have the practicum that I originally planned. I concentrated on explaining the key next steps they need to take, based on Freire’s “dialogical decoding” approach to popular education.
“You will have to identify the key words and generative themes of the Nationalist Development Agenda,” I suggested to the participants. “Then you have to develop the different “codes’ you will use for the pop-ed sessions of dialogical decoding – stories, posters and diagrams, short lectures, skits, songs, and yes, even powerpoint presentations.” I referred them to one of my favorite websites PresentationZen, to help them avoid the danger of “death by powerpoint.”
The timing of the FTA’s decision to popularize their Nationalist Development Agenda is based on their regular three-year project cycle. But it is very timely because of the current turmoil in the globalized economy, especially its financial system. After all, pop-ed does not only seek to help people understand what is happening and why. Ultimately, it seeks to help them consider ways to respond and pursue viable alternatives.
But I pointed out one additional crucial challenge to FTA as it popularizes its agenda: “You must avoid being framed as merely recycling an old paradigm. Instead, you must make the case that you are innovating, since the previously dominant neoliberal paradigm has been refuted by real world events.”