Journeying to develop critical thinking 5: Translocal knowledge in participatory settings

We did make a terrible lot of mistakes… So we had a little self-criticism, and we said, what we know, the solutions we have, are for the problems that people don’t have. And we’re trying to solve their problems by saying they have the problems that we have the solutions for. That’s academia, so it won’t work.

So what we’ve got to do is to unlearn much of what we’ve learned, and then try to learn how to learn from the people. Myles Horton (1983)

The final passage in this series of posts concerns a variant of the simple-complex tension. In the previous passages my ideal student or audience member appears to be a person who would be stimulated by my critical thinking activities to seek more complexity in their own understandings of the world. A contrasting image, however, is of people who can make good use of more straightforward knowledge, as long as that can be brought to the surface. This tension has run through my environmental research, but only recently have I articulated it in the terms to follow.

I have long been inspired by participatory action researchers, such as the late Myles Horton and the Highlander Center, who shape their inquiries through ongoing work with and empowerment of the people most affected by some social issue (Greenwood and Levin 1998, Taylor 2002b). Yet my own environmental research has drawn primarily on specialist skills in quantitative modeling and analysis. For example, in a formative experience at the end of the 1970s, I was contracted by a government agency to undertake a detailed analysis of the economic future of a salt-affected Kerang irrigation region in south-eastern Australia. I completed this at a distance—both geographically and institutionally—from those most directly affected by the region’s problems. The sponsors homed in on a finding in the final report that confirmed their preconception that the price charged for irrigation water could be increased. They were, however, unable to implement this change and nothing more resulted from the study (Taylor 1995b).

In contrast, let me draw some material from the phase of pedagogical exploration since 1995 mentioned earlier. Part of this has involved training in group facilitation with the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA). ICA’s techniques have been developed through several decades of “facilitating a culture of participation” in community and institutional development. Their work anticipated and now exemplifies the post-Cold War emphasis on a vigorous civil society, that is, of institutions between the individual and, on one hand, the state and, on the other hand, the large corporation. ICA planning workshops elicit participation in ways that bring insights to the surface and ensure the full range of participants are invested in collaborating to bring the resulting plan to fruition (Burbidge 1997, Spencer 1989, Stanfied 1997, Taylor 2000).

Such participant “buy-in” was evident, for example, after a community-wide planning process in the West Nipissing region of Ontario, 300 kilometers north of Toronto. In 1992, when the regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC) enlisted ICA to facilitate the process, industry closings had increased the traditionally high unemployment to crisis levels. Although the projects resulting from the planning process are too numerous to detail, an evaluation five years later found that they could not simply check off plans that had been realized. The initial projects had spawned many others and the community now saw itself as responsible for these initiatives and developments, eclipsing the initial catalytic role of the EDC-ICA planning process. Still, the EDC appreciated the importance of that process and initiated a new round of facilitated community-planning in 1999 (West Nipissing Economic Development Corporation 1993, 1999).

When I learned about the West Nipissing case, I could not help contrasting it with my own experience in the Kerang study. Detailed scientific or social scientific analyses were not needed for West Nipissing residents to build a plan. The plan built instead from straightforward knowledge that the varied community members had been able to express through the facilitated participatory process. The process was repeated, which presumably allowed them to factor in changes and contingencies, such as the start of the North American Free Trade Association and the declining exchange rate of the Canadian dollar. And, most importantly, the ICA-facilitated planning process led the community members to become invested in carrying out their plans and had enhanced their capacity to participate outside of that process in shaping their own future.

A difficult question has been opened up by the contrast between scientifically detailed analysis and participatory planning. Could a role in participatory planning remain for researchers to insert the “translocal,” that is, their analysis of dynamics that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local? (Harvey 1995) For example, if I had moved to the Kerang region and participated directly in shaping its future, I would still have known about the government ministry’s policy-making efforts, the data and models used in the economic analysis, and so on. Indeed, the “local” for professional knowledge-makers cannot be as place-based or fixed as it would be for most community members. I wonder what would it mean, then, to take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, but not to conclude that researchers should “go local” and focus all their efforts on one place.

Recently I have seen something analogous to this longstanding tension in my research when I have tried to extend students’ critical thinking into reflective practice. Experiences such as those reflected in this essay lead me to assume that students know more than they are prepared, at first, to acknowledge. Facilitation training leads me to assume also that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves. On the other hand, when I explicitly adopt a facilitator’s role, should I keep quiet if I see that a crucial insight is not emerging? How much will it stifle the group process if I, the teacher, contribute as well? In any case, even if I put on a facilitator’s hat and keep quiet, I cannot ensure that I am perceived simply as a non-directive supporter of their process. I cannot completely erase the students’ sense of me as a teacher with whom they need to negotiate power and standards (Taylor 2000). Decentered pedagogy cannot avoid active, charged, and changing relationships among all concerned.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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