Reflection, Failures and an Unsafe World



There... that's better. A good night's sleep. A quiet morning when I didn't have to wake up running. A chance to read, breathe, watch a flower grow. Clears the head. Makes thinking possible.

You know, thinking is hard work. Quality, effective thinking, I mean.

First, a person needs time and space. Second, a person needs get past the superficial, often emotional, reactive type thinking. People have to talk out all their complaints and angers and fears.

Then, if there's still anybody around to listen, they can start thinking critically, dispassionately.




We've been doing some thinking over the last couple of weeks. We've been trying to understand the contradictions and stresses that have been growing, for two years or more, in the practical and theoretical foundations of our community literacy work.

Part of what has happened is that the context has changed. By "context" I mean things like the families and the neighbourhoods we serve. But also, our funding sources are shifting. So too, the assumptions made by the larger community (city, province, nation), and the dominant narrative being told by academics and the media. We're working in a different context.

On the other hand, what we're doing has also changed. We changed in response to these contextual changes. We changed in an effort to increase the scope and effective reach of our work. And we changed as a result of our own professional learning.

Not all these changes have been for the best - no one could expect them to be - and so we're rethinking and re-visioning.


Thinking, talking, writing about how programs falter. Or about how they fail. Or about when it's time to close them down - and how to do that.... All this should be part of our professional learning and discourse.

As educators and facilitators, we know that mistakes are revealing. We assess for both weakness and strength. We believe that understanding how and why someone gets a math question wrong is key to helping them learn to get it right.

So, why shouldn't we also take a clear-eyed view of our own missteps? No blaming or judging or I-told-you-so-ing, of course. But why not understand the source of missed opportunities or program disappointments?

I can imagine the Literacies issue: FAILURE: Learning from our mistakes.


Well, no, actually. I can't.

Because another sad truth is that we work in a hostile environment. Some of the hostility comes from others who compete with us for funds. More of it comes from people in power who oppose any funding of antipoverty, social justice or community literacy work.

That creates a pressure to perform that makes real reflective thinking hard.




This isn't news. We understand that children in a constant state of stress are at threat of mal-development. Understanding and helping avoid this situation is an on-going goal of The Fraser Mustard Chair in Childhood Development (see, for example, this pdf resource). I've heard that Bruce Perry (site) reinforced that discussion at the recent Cultivating Connections family literacy conference hosted by The Centre for Family Literacy in Edmonton, Alberta.

As well, since Jenny Horsman's early work, we accept that adults immersed in family or social conflict experience difficulty with abstract thinking or retaining new facts and ideas. We know that abuse can preclude learning; that tension can inhibit memory; that fear can make concentration impossible.

I first met this idea among John Holt's recollections of "the anxiety children feel at constantly being tested", of their fear of "failure, punishment, and disgrace" and how that "reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember" (see How Children Fail and How Children Learn). Fear doesn't just make learning hard, Holt says. It also changes the child's focus to learning how to please the teacher, game the system, last 12 years and get out as intact as possible.

There is, I think, an organizational equivalent to this.

In times like these, when so many grass root literacy projects are under threat, when so many organizations are seeing their access to support removed simply because they want to give aid, information and a voice to women, to children, to immigrants, to native peoples, to the poor....

Well, it's not hard to understand why the staff of, say, the "Small Town Literacy for All Organization" find it hard to develop, to accommodate new facts and ideas, to concentrate on their failures as well as their successes. The the shift from mission to maintenance, from following a vision to following grant possibilities is, I suppose, the equivalent of students learning to game the system.


Open, honest, self-critical reflection and sharing demand a safe, supportive environment. We're not there.

Makes thinking hard.


1 comment:

Cheryl said...

Hey W. As usual, we all think it, and you say it! Tks. Cheryl :)