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Learning at WISR (page 2)

“For many students, one thing leads to another. For example, one learner, the mother of two children, had become concerned about how the recommended treatment for head lice didn’t seem to work. As a single parent, she was all too aware that when students miss school, parents often miss work, sometimes with dire financial and emotional consequences. Then, there is the stigma of having head lice. Her senior thesis on this seemingly mundane topic propelled her forward into the position of becoming an expert on natural, safe remedies for head lice, and in formulating a plan of outreach and education to schools and child care centers. She came to be recognized by others as being a repository of information about head lice and its treatment, as well as a valuable resource and consultant on the effective (and ineffective) organizational (school) responses to head lice epidemics. She was then able to educate others to become more sensitive to the human and interpersonal fallout from this problem, and how to avoid some of the misguided “solutions” to the problem.

Another example is from the action-research project of a student who is the director of a large, multipurpose agency serving homeless families. She wanted to interview homeless mothers and service providers in other agencies serving homeless. Her concern is: how do these clients experience the rules imposed by the agencies serving them? In particular, she is concerned that although the rules are well-intended, the homeless mothers often experience the rules established by the service providers, who have considerable power over them, as a retraumatizing event, as one that reminds them of an experience with say, a battering partner. The result is that these mothers take their children and flee the very places that have been created to shelter them. This project is not yet complete, but she has already learned much more than she thought she would. Further, the homeless mothers interviewed have experienced the interviewing process itself as very empowering and esteem building. Other service providers have become curious about her interviewing efforts, and now want her to interview them and their clients. She has begun to consider having some mothers discuss these issues directly with service providers, or help her in conducting some interviews.

Sometimes “the one thing that leads to another” is that a learner imparts both the content and method of their learning to others. As one learner wrote in a self-evaluation, “Not only has my knowledge base increased tremendously, but my ability to integrate and articulate disparate types of information has increased dramatically. My own learning process has given me a clear way to identify gaps in my knowledge and methodically fill them. In addition, my ability to guide [my own] students in a similar building of confidence through their own education has been much enhanced. I have begun to include research projects in their training and to help them share this learning through peer education. This illustrates how a result of participation in this kind of collaborative inquiry is that learners develop the skills and motivations to engage others in similar kinds of learning processes. In this regard, our efforts seem to have a “multiplier effect.” That is, the learning of one person multiplies in the society if that person conveys in their relationships with others what, and in this case also, how they have learned.

Another example of an important outcome is when learners find their own voice in a deeper, more authentic and more powerful way than they have been able to previously. Learners who are about to write their first paper at WISR discover that they can write in the first person, and take ownership of the knowledge they have built and wish to communicate to others. They come to realize that they are not limited by the “behaviors” of academia (e.g., writing in the third person in a neutral, indifferent-sounding way) that they have always assumed was part of professional communication and “research.” For example, one student at WISR who had long been well recognized in his field and profession, and who was a very capable and accomplished writer, had a breakthrough in his own writing during his studies for the Ph.D. at WISR. He told us that for the first time, he grappled with issues involved in his “coming out of the closet” with his Marxist convictions in the way that he writes about the insights and lessons that have evolved over the years as he has taught English in Japan and has done research in various parts of the world on the topic of intercultural communication.

Learners at WISR often come to see knowledge-building as something that most everyone is involved in—to a greater or lesser degree. Through such realizations, our students become more confident to make their own paths, to embark on their own self-defined careers–be they an activist for changes in our prisons, a therapist focusing on healing the wounds of war and global trauma, a mother who wants to bring together multiracial families in a process of collective learning and support, or a Native American who wants to preserve the history and culture of his tribe. To be sure, such individuals in many cases had embarked on these distinctive paths prior to enrolling at WISR, and for others new options occurred to them in the midst of their involvement at WISR.

Indeed, WISR faculty rather consciously and emphatically help students to design learning activities—action projects, research, and writings—that help to build bridges to the student’s desired career path. In most academic programs, a student first gets a degree, and then uses that degree to qualify for a particular type of job. Although WISR degrees are a source of credibility for most of our students in their professional endeavors, many WISR alumni have told us that it was much more significant that WISR gave them the intellectual, social and emotional support and impetus to develop, embark on and/or stay committed to their own distinctive career paths, while they were in the midst of their learning at WISR. They especially value the personalized assistance from faculty, to not limit their visions by the definitions of existing jobs and careers, and to enable them to be both visionary and realistic in pursuing a life path that makes sense to them.” [excerpt 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. In Community and the World: Participating in Social Change, Torry D. Dickinson (ed.). Nova Science Publishers, 2003.]