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Learning the WISR Way–page 2

The intangible qualities underlying learning and collaboration at WISR

Long-time WISR Core Faculty Members, Cynthia Lawrence and John Bilorusky, have written the following about the important, intangible qualities underlying learning relationships at WISR [from “Multicultural, Community-Based Knowledge-Building: Lessons from a tiny institution where students and faculty sometimes find magic in the challenge and support of collaborative inquiry” by John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence, from Community and the World: Participating in Social Change, Torry Dickinson (ed.), Nova Science Publishers, 2003.]:

John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence, with former student, Mohammed Ibrahim and former faculty member,  Nazreen Kadir

John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence, with former student, Mohammed Ibrahim and former faculty member, Nazreen Kadir

The real “magic” that is WISR is even more intangible than the images that can be grasped from WISR’s institutional history, from our institutional problems and “successes,” and from the community activities of our students and alumni. In trying to articulate these intangibles, we have decided that, in part, there is something special in the ways that faculty at WISR combine challenge and support in their work with learners. Indeed, the idea that students and faculty, alike, are first and foremost learners is a basic tenant of WISR’s philosophy. It is the interests of students as learners and the learning needs dictated by their community involvements that become the focus of student-faculty inquiry. Faculty members at WISR take on different roles–the mentor, the partner in inquiry, the facilitator and coach. Further, in our collaborative inquiries with learners, we are eager to become engaged in their interests and strive to assist them to center their action-research activities and knowledge-building on their interests and learning needs.

It might be magic, but it is definitely not easy. Learners, for whom WISR is the place to study, work very hard to realize their dreams. These learners are not just seeking a degree, although degrees are appropriate goals. They are challenged by their commitment to correct social wrongs and bring about needed changes in their communities-of-reference. The objectives and interests brought by learners vary, as would be expected given the diversity of our student population. As faculty, our intention is to meet learners where we find them–to support their research, to guide their process with suggested readings and questions we put forth as “food for thought,” and to use our knowledge to guide the development of theirs.

WISR is an individualized program. As we write that, it is easy to conjure up visions of people sitting in cubbyholes with programmed worksheets, where they work alone, and “correct” their own work against answer sheets provided by whatever publisher has used their own perspective, their values, and their social and political views to provide. That is NOT WISR!

Nor is WISR set up to award credit to students for previous life experience or current work-related activities. In contrast, we tell prospective students that if they enroll, they should expect to be actively engaged with their own learning, and actively engaged with faculty in their inquiries.

By individualized, we mean that learners choose and direct their own program. Although the program is self-paced, self-assigned and self-regulated, we, as faculty, take a major role by maintaining close contact with the learner to work with them in assessing their progress and process. Students meet often with one or several of the faculty, one-on-one, and the meeting is almost always a cooperative and collaborative learning experience. It makes us smile to note that when one of our learner’s forgets to put their name on their paper, we easily recognize whose paper it is by the content and style. We are so intimately involved in student learning that we know many of the nuances of each learner’s thinking, and indeed, it is interesting that students are so sure that we will know that they wrote a particular paper, that our students often “forget” (don’t bother?) to put their names on the papers they hand in. Because learners are given the opportunity, indeed encouraged, to think about what they want to learn and accomplish, they often arrive at more clarity about their ideas and the directions in which they are headed. At the same time, we as faculty actively and enthusiastically share thoughts that spring from our interests, curiosities and commitments, but as they might pertain to the interests of the particular learner with whom we are meeting.

All-in-all there are some themes that characterize the subtle, emerging combination of challenge and support that we give to our students. These themes are not facile techniques, nor cut-and-dried formulas that we “implement” on a day-to-day basis, rather they are some of the things that we have become aware of as recurring patterns in the ways we try to work with our students, and qualities underlying the learning relationships with them. This list of themes is not an exhaustive one. The themes could have been listed in any sequence, or categorized in any of a number of different ways. This list should be read in the way that one would study a mosaic, or perhaps a kaleidoscope of patterns. Looked at in different ways, each part provides us with an additional perspective on the other parts and on the total “picture.” In thinking about the items on this list, the reader may want to keep in mind such notions as exploration, reflection, creativity, engagement, inquisitiveness, social justice, collaboration, open-endedness and emergence. What other qualities come to mind as you read this?

WISR Collage

• We encourage learners to do projects they’ve been wanting to get around to, but haven’t—for example, developing a needed, new program or writing a critically reflective autobiography on their community/work/life experience, as these experiences relate to the bigger picture.
• We encourage learners to not just study topics they want to, but also to realize that implicit in their insights are emerging theories to be communicated to others.
• We invite learners not only to write about what they’re interested in, but also to write in their voice, to use the first person, to wonder and ask questions out loud on paper.
• We see learning projects as open-ended, not as “products-to-be-graded.” We tell students that they may often end a paper by coming up with new questions more than definitive conclusions.
• We urge learners not to formulate thesis and project topics by what “sounds good” (e.g., not to focus on coming up with a “good” hypothesis to test, where the answer is really known in advance and can then be verified). We urge learners to search for the questions that are important to them, and to others, for the things that they are sincerely and deeply curious to learn more about.
• We try to identify with the learner and his or her concerns, and elicit from her/him some insights, questions and ideas that are interesting to them. And we challenge them, by asking them to read and think about how their concerns relate to the bigger social picture, what they see to be the pros and cons of theories of social change put forth by others, as they think about how those theories could be applied to their concerns.
• We even tend to encourage the reading of certain books and articles we have come to find useful for learners over the years—Paulo Freire, bell hooks, T.S. Kuhn, and action-research handouts written by WISR faculty, among others. Also, we are continually learning from our learners of useful books and articles that we can suggest to other learners to read. The material is more than simply male, Eurocentric material.
• What is the “politics” of the faculty, the learners and the institution. As a group, a significant majority of us could be characterized as progressive and very much to the left of center, and yet we are diverse in our politics. As an institution and a learning community, we do not have a particular “party line” nor do we have a litany of “politically correct” behaviors or positions that learners are supposed to adhere to. Most importantly, however, unlike most institutions, we are actively hospitable and even encouraging of learning endeavors which seek to reflect on issues of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression and social injustice. We rather consciously and emphatically find ourselves supporting learning and actions which are intended to promote equality, human liberation and justice.
• We encourage learners to probe beneath the surface of things, to look concurrently at both the immediately practical tasks before us in community work and the bigger picture (society as a whole). We want learners to become more conscious of how they evaluate and judge evidence, and to be alert to get more information, to broaden their experiences. We suggest concrete research strategies for accomplishing these things.
• We also improvise and brainstorm about specific ways each student can proceed with their inquiries, when we are in the midst of thinking with them about their unfinished projects as well as their yet-to-be-formulated projects. What research methods are likely to facilitate the learner in productively addressing the questions, interests, problems, and actions with which they are engaged?
• We endeavor to help learners to do more than simply think or write about their community involvements, for we encourage them to be creative, intellectually and practically. Our students are very apt to write books and articles putting forth the insights and ideas growing out of their experience. Many work on establishing their own non-profit organization, to try to fill some unmet community need in a distinctively innovative way.
• We encourage learners to critically reflect on their community/job experience. People often get involved in routines and find it difficult to take the time and give the attention to looking beneath the surface of what they are doing, or to think about the bigger picture. We try to encourage learners to take notes on what they are doing and then write papers about their insights, and the questions, problems and challenges they encounter, what works, what doesn’t work, and how their efforts might contribute to longer-term changes.
• Talking with us in one-on-one meetings is another way to get learners to reflect on what they are doing. We encourage them to talk with others, as well. In a more formal way, they often interview clients, coworkers, and others who are doing similar work, to learn about their experiences, their insights, and the concerns, questions and problems that matter to them. Often learners lead seminars at WISR to get feedback from other students and faculty on the things in which they are involved.
• We also ask learners to read what others have to say about social change, about the factors that contribute to it, and their vision of how it should happen and where it should lead. We ask them to critique these ideas and theories about social change, in terms of what they agree and disagree with, and in terms of how these ideas relate to the specific types of activities in which the student is engaged, be it work with youth, therapy with trauma survivors, health education, or job training. In this way, students can stand back from the details of what they are doing and think about it in terms of the bigger picture.
• We are always curious to learn more about what our students are doing, both from their perspective (i.e., in terms of their knowledge and experience) and from the perspective of others engaged in the kind of efforts our student is. Our work with learners at WISR leads us to want to learn more about their particular field of study, for very often our students are more expert in their specialized area (be it the development of biracial children, the psychology of trauma, community-based health education, African culture and spirituality, or providing services to homeless families) than we are. By learning more about the learner’s field, we are able to ask better questions of them, to know enough about what they are doing to ask interesting questions for ourselves, and to share our wonderings and thoughts with the student, in the role of colleagues, co-inquirers who are actively interested in scratching our heads about the problems our students care about.
• Sometimes learners at WISR are changing fields, and we encourage them to do more research about the field or field(s) they are considering. This may involve doing interviews with others in the field under consideration—to learn more about what they do, what problems they encounter, and why they find it meaningful or challenging. Sometimes we encourage the learner to write an autobiographical piece on how their experiences have led them to the interests and concerns they are currently exploring or embracing.
• We encourage the learner to take his or her own ideas more seriously as a basis for developing theories about a topic in which he or she is an expert. Very often, people think theories are something developed by “other” people, by so-called famous people, and don’t take their own insights seriously enough. Autobiographical writing, or at least writings about one’s own experience, as they pertain to ideas, questions, concepts developed on a particular topic, is a good way to help students begin to develop their own theories, which they often have but don’t realize that they have. We believe that most of us know more than we realize that we know, and we just need the right kinds of support and dialogue to help us become aware of our knowledge, as such, and then to articulate it.
• We spend a lot of time commenting on student rough drafts, and encourage our students to submit rough “drafts” that are still in the form of bits and pieces of as-yet unorganized ideas, as well as more polished drafts that have a beginning, middle, and end to them.
• We sometimes suggest that learners interweave reviews of literature with their own ideas—not so much to support their own ideas (which usually can be supported by examples and evidence growing out of their own rich experience) as to think about how their ideas fit in (or don’t fit in) with the body of writings that other people have put forth on similar topics.
• We often encourage learners to interview others to test out their ideas, to see how others’ experience is similar to or different from their own, and to use these interviews as a basis for involving others in taking some kind of action on the problems of concern to the learner.
• We try to put learners who have similar or overlapping interests in contact with each other, so they can support and learn from each other. We encourage learners to come to seminars to see how others, even with seemingly very different interests, jobs or involvements, may often share their deeply felt values and broader ideas about the society, where it is going, and where it should go. These seminars also serve as a basis for learners of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to come together and learn more from each other because of both the differences in their life experiences and from the similarities than transcend the differences.
• We try to encourage learners not to accept “pat” answers or narrow, technical solutions to problems, whether those approaches are ones they are advocating or whether they are adopting someone else’s recipe for success. We usually find when questioning students about these formulaic approaches, that the learner’s deeper thoughts about the strategy are much more complex, and more subtle, but that the action advocated has been more simply stated, sometimes because the simply stated version sounds “acceptable” and similar to approaches validated by others in positions of high status or authority.