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Exploring the roots of Co-creation & Participatory Practice | Community Education

It has already been two months, since I officially started my PhD adventures. So far, I have been intensively reviewing literature focusing on the aspects of participatory practice and co-creation.

Learning about the history of collaborative and inclusive approaches in education, research and commercial services, has been an eye-opening experience. It seems that, the participatory approaches, that I had been previously exploring in my professional practice, originated and flourished within democratic and radical movements at the beginning of the 20th century.

My first experience of the idea of Democratic Education took place in 2010, when I was working on film project with a group of activists and community education workers in North Edinburgh. I remember learning about the importance of active community participation, while fighting against social inequalities affecting some of the Scottish communities. My main priority, as a media worker, was to empower individuals to tell their stories. Consequently, I aimed to provide “the voiceless” with tools and opportunities to create and share their stories. Working with community educational workers, provided me with a great opportunity to directly experience the remarkable effects of informal teaching. On many occasions, I witnessed personal and groups transformations, from ‘an invisible citizen” to an empowered and active community member. Most importantly however, I allowed community educators to shape my beliefs and values. I strongly believe, that this particular experience influenced my practice as a digital community worker.

Community Education workers let me into their world and inspired to focus on “social change”, when delivering projects. I can confidently say, that I am an outcome of community education practice. I was therefore thrilled to be able to research this area as my first literature review topic. In this post, I would like to outlined the work of three, key educators, whose work challenged the traditional approaches in education and research.

When organising my literature review, I was advised to explore the motion of participatory practice in a chronological order. First of all, I learnt that the authoritarian, top-down approach in education, was questioned by John Dewey in the 1930s (Dewey 1930). Dewey claimed that this strict hierarchy, positions students as passive information receivers, limiting their abilities to learn imaginatively from real life and social experiences (Dewey 1930). I was particular interested in Dewey’s comparesation of society to a biological organism, which functionality relies on “communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions’ (1930, p.4). Consequently, referring to the vital educative role of social interactions and collective heritage. In his prominent and radical analysis of formal schooling, Dewey refers to notion of participation, as crucial aspect of learning and states that “not only does social life demand teaching and learning for its own permanence, but the very process of living educates”. (1930, p.7).

This radical idea of community education, was later explored by a Brazilian philosopher and an educator Paulo Freire. I remember coming across his prominent publication, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” ( Freire 1968), when working with activists communities and community educators in North Edinburgh. I also read some chapters when working on my final thesis at Edinburgh Napier University “ Participatory Video for Social Change”. Having an opportunity to re-visit his work , was a real privilege.

In his work, Freire analysed the transformative power of education and collective critical reflection. He believed, that through education we can enable communities to co-create new ways to pursuit “a fuller humanity” (1968, p47). Freire criticised the idea of formal educational framework and compared it to an uncompromising system, where “containers” (students) are being filled in with a meaningless “sonority of words” (1968, p.72). Consequently, it is claimed that, these unimaginative and strict teaching systems block one’s ability to actively co-create and critically evaluate reality. Friere called for ending the authoritarian teacher-pupil relations, stating that the oppressive formal education model creates “the culture of silence” (1968, p.30). His fundamental reflection of the oppressor-oppressed, teacher-student relations in the society was also discussed, advocating that individuals should be provided with opportunities to transform their roles from passive spectators to actively participating actors. (1968, p.48).

Finally, I would like to mention the work of Kurt Lewin, who also advocated for experience-based learning, claiming it would enhance students’ ability to discover and co-create new set of values and behaviours. Furthermore, Lewin outlined the importance of active group participation, by stating that people “change when they experience the need for change.” (2005, p.45) Similarly to Freire, Lewin analysed the transition from a passive problem holder to an active change creator. In particularly, Lewin’s notion of reeducation, (Coghlan and Jacobs 2005), describes participatory, experience-based learning as a way to discover and adapt new and more fulling set of values and behaviours (Coghlan and Jacobs 2005). Lewin’s work, indeed manifested the need for that scientific experiments to take place in the “field rather than the laboratory” (Reason and Bradbury 2001, p.16).

Democratic/informal education is only a small element in the participatory movement’s puzzle.There are other, equally important frameworks that shaped its form (Participatory Action Research, collaborative frameworks in design and computing, co-creation of value in commercial services and many more). The truth is, that over the years, participatory approaches challenged most areas of human interactions, making them more accessible and more equal.

I am particularly fascinated with the work of democratic educators, who primarily challenged the traditional top-down approaches in education. Participatory engagement in problems solving has “existed forever in human cultures, and have contributed to all life-supporting human activities from plant and animal husbandry to political democracy” (Hall 2001, p.3). In way, we can say that collaborative educational and research models are key elements of human and cultural heritage.

Video: The Power of Democratic Process in Schools: Jerry Mintz at TEDxYouth@BFS

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