Emergent Education

by Sophia Checkley

If political education is to transform society, we need to transform Political Education.

Revolution requires the transformation of social relations in society and political education should offer us the space for this process. This involves sharing values to shape the direction of that transformation and requires chaos and emergence to build a new world in the shell of the old. Although many of the facilitation tools used in contemporary workshops are participatory, they can still reinforce hidden rules and implicitly define how we perceive ‘good politics’, limiting the space for experimentation, learning, and growth. If we want to create space for transformative political education something needs to change.

Political education as rigid radicalism

Historically, political education for the revolutionary left has largely involved teaching a particular ideology. The writers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman have observed that “it was thought that revolution required a unified consciousness among proletarians: they needed to be taught that it was in their interests to overthrow capitalism”. Within this approach to political education, it was the task of a vanguard – an enlightened section of the working class – to disseminate this ‘ideological curriculum’, teaching the right information, values, and beliefs required to transform society.

In Joyful Militancy, Montgomery and bergman argue that teaching in this way is unhelpful, as it presents a rigid set of answers to any given problem that can be policed, called-out, and then used to shame and punish those who disagree. In this scenario, radicalism is an ideal, and everything else fails to live up to it, perpetuating suspicion, self-righteousness, and the constant policing of behaviour and thought. This approach crushes the transformative potential of radical spaces by creating a series of 'shoulds', morals, orders, and rules where one is never radical enough. This is ‘rigid radicalism’.

In the same way, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire criticised what he called “the banking model of education”, a process where information was transferred from teacher to student. He believed revolutionary leaders could not merely “implant in the oppressed a belief in freedom”. A better method, he argued, “lies in dialogue”. Dialogue, or participatory education as it is also called, is now mainstream in social movement political education.

Why doesn’t this feel empowering?

If we claim that what we are doing is participatory, nonhierarchical, learner centred, emancipatory, empowering, and transformative, then it must be… right?”
—Aziz Choudry, Learning Activism, 2015

Current popular education, even in its more participatory form, can remain rigid. There are rules about what constitutes ‘good politics’, the right language to use, and behaviours that are unacceptable. Underlying all this, there remains a sense that there is a ‘right way’ that will be policed in political education workshops to ensure participants become aware of their own ‘false consciousness’. This creates a feeling of rigidity, binding participants to a certain set of ways of behaving, thinking, and talking, and limits what kinds of action is ultimately possible. Constantly guessing what the ‘right way’ is exhausting and doesn’t feel empowering at all. Rigid radicalism is something we all participate in creating, it’s in the air of our movements.

What does rigid radicalism actually look like? In a recent conversation with a colleague, we were struck by the number of ‘wrong things’ that were called out during a workshop: a participant was frequently misgendered, another’s experience of colonialism was erased, and an attendee’s reflections of the intersection between class and race were ‘hijacked’ by an ‘oppression olympics style conversation’. I noticed their fear in sharing one part of the experience, saying the words to me, ‘I really didn’t want to do the wrong thing’. This isn’t about not challenging oppression where it occurs, but it is about considering how policing behaviour in such a way limits learning and action.

If we are moving away from this old form of political education – filling empty containers with the ‘right’ knowledge or ideology and policing those ‘right’ answers – then what are we actually trying to do?

Why do we train?

If we are moving away from this old form of political education – filling empty containers with the ‘right’ knowledge or ideology and policing those ‘right answers’ – what then are we actually trying to do? How can we, as Montgomery and bergman ask, create transformative spaces for processes of ‘struggle, experimentation, and collective power’ without this becoming the new ‘right way’?

In the search for answers to these questions we’re going to look at the concept of emergence, the process by which “complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions”, and how this might relate to trainings and groups. In Leadership and the New Science, American writer Margaret Wheatley uses the metaphor of a stream to describe emergence in groups. A stream, she says, has a clear aim – to get to the sea and follow gravity – but how it gets there can change over time or with the landscape. Sometimes it’s steep and fast flowing with rapids and at others it’s slow or even stops in a lake. In groups this might mean that the activities, or even the structure, might change in response to the environment but the overall aim – to reach the sea or to transform society – remains the same. In this case, the ability to adapt means that it can be more responsive to the current challenges, rather than a rigid strategy that was made in a different context.

Not an answer but a process?

If trainings are to be places to practice and learn emergence they cannot also have set answers that are to be imparted to participants. We cannot go to trainings and expect to walk away with the ‘10 best ways to bring about revolution’. We could, however, have a clear aim or direction we want to go in, such as experimentation towards revolutionary change, but the ways that might happen and the outcomes could change or be totally unpredictable. The Zapatistas have a saying that education is like farming, it’s about ‘selecting the best seeds, scattering them on fertile ground and watering the earth so that the miracle of germination produces, which is never certain nor can it ever be planned.’

This changes the way we think about trainings. It remains important to have aims for trainings, but these might be less about the content you expect participants to learn, but more about the direction you want to explore and the ways to explore it. The US based organisation Training For Change use a methodology called ‘direct education’, based on people’s life experience and the interactions between people in the training setting, which a trainer can learn to adapt to but could never successfully predict. The learning happens through the process that takes place in the training room, an experience believed to be far richer than the delivery of a specific curriculum.

Chaos and experimentation as tools for learning

Margaret Wheatley argues that chaos is a crucial part of growth and learning. In trainings this translates as experimenting and learning from our mistakes, but when we try to perform as people with ‘good politics’ this is often the last thing we want to do. A condition for being able to make mistakes therefore is trust and connection. In Emergent Strategy adrienne maree brown says we should be aiming for critical connections over critical mass and that ‘relationships are everything’. These are things we can practice in training spaces with what is called ‘container building’ in facilitation jargon, and we can take it with us out into our daily lives. Relationships are often seen as a means to an end in organising, but as a necessary condition for learning, they are crucial part of the content, rather than an add on.

Suggesting experimentation around risky or painful issues, such as oppression could seem to be trivialising people’s experiences though.There is a real potential for things to go wrong and people can get hurt from the experience. Here it’s important to ask the question: who could be harmed by those mistakes? Our education shouldn’t come at the cost of causing others harm. Far too often in trainings around racism people of colour can come away feeling exhausted and hurt for having to explain their experiences, whilst white people can feel like they’ve learnt a lot. This isn’t to say we avoid conflict or uncomfortable conversations, but boundaries and clarity over what the possible cost of this learning is are important in building trust. Trust also requires there to be accountability when harm is caused, all part of taking care of one another. As the facilitator is the person who holds power over the design of a training or an exercise, how do we hold them accountable for their mistakes?

This reflects what we as facilitators ask of our participants back on ourselves. To sit with a mistake we’ve made, to not get defensive, listen to those who feel hurt and be willing to learn from that mistake as part of our own growth and that of the groups. Because in this new form of education, we don’t have the ‘objective knowledge’ to share, we too must be willing to get messy and learn as part of the process.

Joyful Militancy: Transforming group culture in our movements Saturday 13th April from 11am to 6pm at SOAS in London. Why is it that groups that seek to bring about social change can be draining and lead to burnout of those involved? Join us for this daylong workshop exploring how to transform group culture. Tickets available online

Ali Tamlit is a member of End Deportations and a facilitator with Resist and Renew.

Kat Wall is a trainer with Organising for Change, facilitator and researcher.

If we are moving away from this old form of political education – filling empty containers with the ‘right’ knowledge or ideology and policing those ‘right’ answers – then what are we actually trying to do?


Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.25, Spring 2019

Written by Kat Wall & Ali Tamlit

Illustration by Sophia Checkley