New Internationalist

Drawing Conclusions

Issue 122

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EDUCATION [image, unknown] Cooperative knowledge

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Drawing conclusions
‘Eureka!’ is one response to discovering the truth. But a Canadian education group, GATT-Fly, has found that ‘Ah-hah’ is more typical when people pool their knowledge to analyze social problems. Dennis Howlett explains the ‘Ah-hah’ Seminar technique.

IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH people say ’Ah-hah’ when they understand clearly something they knew before in only a partial or confused way.

GATT-Fly’s ‘Ah-hah’ Seminar is based on the assumption that people through their lives and experiences have a basic knowledge of how the world works. When given a chance to share their knowledge ordinary people can teach each other a lot.

At GATT-Fly, a ten-year-old project for economic justice funded by the Canadian churches, we quickly grew frustrated with traditional educational methods. When we gave lectures to adults about economic and political issues it was hard to see the results. We found ourselves playing the role of experts speaking from on high to largely passive audiences— with no way of knowing how relevant the information was. This traditional lecturing method also made people feel inadequate or unqualified to act. That was exactly the opposite of what we wanted. So what to do?

Inspired by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire we began to develop a new approach. The method involves sketching on a wall or board covered with a large sheet of paper, a picture using symbols and graphics suggested by the seminar participants. With themselves at the centre, the group collectively fits together a picture of the economic and political system around them.

Over the years we’ve found people take the results of this process much more seriously than the view of one person, even if he or she were an ‘expert’.

Part of a drawing by native people in northern Ontario produced during an 'Ah-hah' seminar.

As one woman at the end of an Ah-hah Seminar with members of the National Farmers Union in Saskatchewan put it, ‘This is our drawing. We produced it. You didn’t come and tell us all this information: it came from us.’

There is no such thing as a typical Ah-hah Seminar. Each one is unique because it is based on the experience and interests of those involved. For example, a seminar with a farmers group might start by sketching a farmer’s field. A seminar with industrial workers usually starts with someone describing his job and working conditions.

We always start by asking participants to put themselves in the picture by describing their work and their community. Links to a larger picture of the government and the national and global economic system emerge naturally from discussion of the participants’ work and life. Discussion then follows on how the system works and finally and most importantly on the changes the group would like to make and how to achieve them.

A key to a successful seminar is that the participants have some organization or group through which they can channel and act on the information they’ve learned. Without this, people have difficulty dealing with how to change things. They often get discouraged by a system which seems not only unjust but overpowering. One workshop with the Nishnawbe-Aski Indians in Northwestern Ontario began by drawing with a light-coloured marker, a picture of how the people in the area lived in the past. Next we drew over the top in a darker colour the changes brought by the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Church. Finally we added government services like schools, health clinics and welfare. Slowly people began to realize, as one native said, that ‘dependency is a cycle.’

After discussing and drawing the economic relationships with the South (of Canada) the group went on to visualize the changes they would like to make. In bold red over all the rest we drew community gardens, community freezers and more hunting and fishing to reduce the dependence on imported foods. A locally-controlled education system to teach traditional skills was also high on the list. So, too, was the need to develop economic activities like trapping and craft-making shops compatible with their land-based economy. We also looked at forces like the forestry and mining companies which might oppose such plans and the political strategies necessary for the native people to control their own future.

While the content of every Ah-hah Seminar is different, they all follow a similar structure and use the same basic format

We are always ‘up front’ about the political perspective we bring to the seminar, which shapes the questions we ask. We explain that our bias is to view society from the point of view of the majority, who are excluded from positions of wealth and power. Although we participate in the discussions and share our own experiences, we involve the group at every step in making decisions for itself.

In fact in most cases the seminar ‘leader’ becomes less and less central as the group takes over asking questions of each other. The leader eventually becomes a participant just like everyone else.

One interesting result of the ‘Ah-hah’ technique is that the process often communicates a more powerful message than the content of the discussion. The act of physically drawing in front of people a model which they create is important for a number of reasons.

• It helps organize the discussion by giving the group a common task.

• The drawing acts as a kind of collective memory. The pictures and symbols record all the points in such a way that they can easily be recalled and discussed.

• The pictures can also be understood by persons with little or no literacy training and by participants who speak different languages.

Rather than give participants a lot of new information the Ah-hah Seminar puts the information people have into a new arrangement so that it starts to make sense. It is this ‘Ah-hah!’ of understanding one’s own reality that we feel is the core of the experience. And it is this that gives people the energy to act

Dennis Howlett is a GATT-fly staff member and author of a fourthcoming book on the Ah-hah Seminar experience to be published by Between the Lines, Toronto.


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