Monthly Archives: July 2016

Facilitation and Instruction

I’m in the middle of a two-day workshop on creating space for difficult topics in the classroom, focused on how and when to bring dialogue facilitation techniques into the classroom.

This has naturally raised the question – in directing a class’ learning, what is the difference between taking on the role of facilitator and taking on the role of instructor?

This isn’t just a question of teaching style, but gets at a philosophy of what it means to learn.

Organizer and educator Myles Horton has argues that there’s an important difference between organizing and educating: you organize to achieve a goal; you educate to develop people. He has a great story of a conversation he had with striking workers which illustrates this point:


They said: “Well, you’ve got more experience than we have. You’ve got to tell us what to do. You’re the expert.” I said: “No, let’s talk about it a little bit more. In the first place, I don’t know what to do, and if I did know I wouldn’t tell you, because if I had to tell you today then I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.”

One guy reached in his pocket and pulled out a pistol and says, “Godddamn you, if you don’t tell us I’m going to kill you.” I was tempted to become an instant expert, right on the spot! But I knew that if I did that, all would be lost and then all the rest of them would start asking me what to do.

In Horton’s view, an educator is not an expert; an educator may help people explore the options, but ultimately the people must decide what to do.

I’d be inclined to use somewhat different terminology in a classroom setting, where whoever is standing is front of the classroom is an educator, though they may approach the task with different goals and styles.

Horton’s style of education is one of facilitation. The facilitator is not an expert, but rather supports the development of the people engaged in dialogue.

Instruction, perhaps, maps on to Horton’s view of organizing. An instructor is an expert, who provides valuable facts and strategies to achieve a concrete goal.

Horton argues that these roles cannot co-exist. While he took on both roles throughout his career, on any given campaign he would restrict himself to being either an educator or an organizer.

Teachers have no such luxury.

In most classrooms, they must combine instruction – dispensing relevant facts and concepts – with facilitation – developing students’ ability to think critically, to develop and analyze solutions.

I suppose the appropriate balance is highly context-dependent on the given topic and learning outcomes, but it is worth noting that these are different approaches which may not seamlessly integrate into each other.



I got confused while watching the news this morning.

There was grainy cell-phone footage of a black man shot by police. But the details were all wrong.

This wasn’t a story about Alton B. Sterling, a 37-year-old man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who was shot multiple times by police early Tuesday morning. He’d been engaged in the dangerously criminal act of selling CDs in front of a convenience store.

This was the story of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old man in Minnesota who was shot four times by a police officer Wednesday night while his girlfriend and young daughter looked on. He’d been reaching for his license, as the officer had requested.

In a powerful New York Times opinion piece yesterday, Roxane Gay expressed the anger and frustration many of us feel; the pain and fear felt acutely by people of color in this country:

I don’t know where we go from here because those of us who recognize the injustice are not the problem. Law enforcement, militarized and indifferent to black lives, is the problem. Law enforcement that sees black people as criminals rather than human beings with full and deserving lives is the problem. A justice system that rarely prosecutes or convicts police officers who kill innocent people in the line of duty is the problem. That this happens so often that resignation or apathy are reasonable responses is the problem.

It’s overwhelming to see what we are up against, to live in a world where too many people have their fingers on the triggers of guns aimed directly at black people. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to allow myself to feel grief and outrage while also thinking about change. I don’t know how to believe change is possible when there is so much evidence to the contrary. I don’t know how to feel that my life matters when there is so much evidence to the contrary.

I am tired of writing this blog post. Tired of chronicling the deaths of too many people of color. Police killed at least 346 black people in the U.S. in 2015. Sometimes I want to just look away.

Of course, looking away is a luxury – it would never be me shooting that cell-phone footage; watching my boyfriend die in the back seat of my car while my daughter looks on; finding the strength to narrate while an officer points his gun through my window. That would never be me.

I was struck by something a Minnesota official said in response to the shooting of Castile. He was visibly shocked. “Things like this don’t happen here.” ….”Often.”

That sentiment strikes me as the problem.

I’d like to think that something like this would never happen in my city. That if I ever witnessed such a horror I would jump in and save the day. But ignoring the fact that I’d more likely be frozen and dumbfounded – this brutality doesn’t need heroes. It needs deep, systemic, and collective change.

Until then, these deaths will continue to happen everywhere. Black men will keep dying.

Earlier this week, the Center for Popular Democracy and Policy Link, in partnership with protesters and street-level organizers released a report detailing what cities and towns can do to end police brutality.

Mic has a good write up synthesizing 15 concrete steps citizens and local governments can take to affect change. I recommend reading their article and reviewing the report, but here are the 15 actions every municipality should take. This is how change happens:

1. Stop criminalizing everything.
2. Stop using poor people to fatten city budgets.
3. Kick ICE out of your city.
4. Treat addicts and mentally ill people like they need help, not jail.
5. Make policy makers face their own racism.
6. Actually ban racist policing.
7. Obey the Fourth Amendment.
8. Involve the community in big decisions.
9. Collect data obsessively.
10. Body cameras.
11. Don’t let friends of the police prosecute the police.
12. Oversight, oversight, oversight.
13. No more military equipment.
14. Establish a “use of force” standard.
15. Train the police to be members of the community, not just armed patrolmen.


Process-Model Utopia

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna argues in favor of a “process-model” of utopia. This vision is built largely upon the work of John Dewey, who dreams of democracy “as a method of living by which individuals are fully engaged in the experience that is their lives.”

We must move away from considering “end-state” models of utopia as a perfect, static, society and instead embrace our role as critical builders and shapers of our future world and selves.

For one thing, a static utopia is simply unattainable: “Social living is an ongoing process, not a perfected life. No harmony is lasting. Each satisfying moment passes over into a new need for which we must alter our world and/our ourselves to meet.”

But more deeply, a static vision strips people of their agency, takes away what really makes us alive. If an end-state utopia were achieved, there would be nothing for people to do, they’d have no role to play in perfecting themselves or perfecting their future. Any change could only represent a move away from perfection.

While that may be a small price to pay for establishment of utopia, McKenna argues that “the unfolding of the future is not determined separate from us, but is intricately connected with us.”  Nearly by definition, an end-state utopia is not sustainable: across generations, people must continually work to sustain utopian institutions, but without a process-model there is no way to prepare future generations for this important task.

This idea fits well with Dewey’s model of democracy which, as McKenna writes, “requires that we recognize how our participation affects what the future can be. It requires that we recognize that there is no-end state at which we must work to arrive, but a multiple of possible future states which we seek and try out. John Dewey’s vision of democracy prepares us to interact with our world and guide it to a better future by immersing us in what he calls the method of critical intelligence”

Notably, Dewey sees democracy as a process rather than an end state: “democracy is not participation by an inchoate public, nor is it a perfected end-state to be attainted. It is the development of critical intelligence and a method of living with regard to the past, present, and future.”

Dewey urges us to consider ourselves as connected, interdependent beings. Connected and dependent not only on those who care for us as children, but broadly connected and dependent our past and present societies. Our individual selves are shaped by collective history and defined by innumerable interactions, and we each have a role to play in affecting the current lives of others and shaping the future contours of society.

As McKenna explains:

Our social situation is not something that simply happens to us, however. We appropriate and integrate our environment into experience. Whatever our situation, we participate in its future development. It does not develop separately from us. Our activity partially defines our social situation, and our social situation goes a long way to guiding our activity. There is an interplay of the determinant and indeterminate by which we realize the potential of the future. We are a perspective, influenced by our experience, through which we organize our participation and structure the community so that future experience is meaningful to us.

We create ourselves from our environment, and we create our environment through our selves.

This places a great responsibility on each of us to work for utopia. We must constantly and critically examine ourselves and our world, imagining better possible futures, and actively working towards and adjusting these visions.

We must each, as Dewey writes, learn to be human.

There is something compellingly beautiful about this vision; about the idea of a society which seamlessly integrates the individual and the whole, the past and the future. A society in which we all see ourselves as intrinsically interconnected and interdependent, working together to perfect ourselves, each other, and our shared experience.

Yet, perhaps this is far too much to hope for. The biggest complain about Dewey, most notably from Walter Lippmann, is that this vision is too unrealistic, too naive about the biases of people and the abuses of power.

As McKenna herself writes:

Even if the process model can prepare people to be the critical citizens it needs (a huge task in itself), how can it ensure that they actually will participate and take on their responsibilities? The process model asks a great deal of people in terms of time and effort. Apathetic or lazy citizens will not take up the critical stance easily. Where the end-state vision does not ask enough of people, or give enough responsibility to them, the process model may ask and give too much.

But, McKenna for one, finds reason to hope:

While the process model may require more of people than we are prepared to give now, visions on this model can provide us with insight into the means available to change our attitudes and action and show us the possibilities of the future if we are willing to try to change and become Dewey’s integrated individual…Utopia visions are visions of hope that can challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions…the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.

For those less inclined towards hope, perhaps one can at least find some grim humor in this concluding note from McKenna’s final chapter:

One can hope that here, in the United States, the elections of 2000 have awakened people to the importance of their responsible participation in the political process.

The process model asks a lot, indeed.



A Month of Mourning

It’s been a weekend of horror. Or, perhaps, a month of horror. Or, perhaps…

Over 300 people have been killed in terrorist attacks within the last month.

Attacks which have heavily targeted civilians in the Muslim world, wreaking terror in Istanbul, Turkey; Mogadishu, Somalia;  Al Qaa, Lebanon; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Medina, Qatif, and Jidda Saudi Arabia; and Baghdad, Iraq – where a bombing of a crowded marketplace killed over 200 people.

This is the holiest time of the Islamic calendar. A month of spiritual reflection, of fasting, of peace.

The attack in Medina took place outside the mosque which serves as the resting place the resting place of the Prophet Mohammed. The second holiest site in Islam, millions of pilgrims travel there each year, “to pray in his mosque, to sit where he once sat.” Especially now, during the last ten days of Ramadan. As scholar Haroon Moghul put it, the attack on Medina was “an assault on Islam itself.”

In Baghdad, one witness described the scene before the attacks as a “delightful atmosphere.” The attack took place at night, after the day’s fast. The streets were crowded with people “shopping and celebrating ahead of the upcoming Eid al-Fitr holiday on Wednesday, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.” These are the people who died.

If there was ever any doubt that the brutal horror of Daesh is anti-Islamic, let that thought be put to rest.

I hardly know what else to say.

There is enough hate in the world already, enough hatred of difference, of plurality. Too many people have died, too many keep dying. Terrorists are waging a war of hate, a war they can only win if they convince us to hate each other.

But hate is too great a burden to bear; I have chosen love.