Hard Questions

In the spring of 1989, I led a classroom discussion that nearly erupted into a fist fight. The members of the class were students with what were described as “learning disabilities.” They were seventh, eighth, and ninth graders at Riverside Junior High School, in Northport, Alabama. I had been working for the University of Alabama for almost two years, and had come across the opportunity to work with these students once-a-week. We were experimenting with materials prepared by the Touchstones Discussion Project (www.touchstones.org), the group that provided much of the advice and support we needed as we were starting our work here.

The near-fight had a perhaps-surprising source. The students were reading a passage taken from Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. In the passage, Newton is explaining what it means to say that an action has an equal and opposite reaction when he says that if a horse is pulling a rock, the rock is pulling the horse just as much. Several of the students thought this was simply dumb: Rocks are not living things; they cannot pull. Others agreed with Newton.

I was surprised at the time at how important this seemingly-remote question was for the students. Not only did they nearly fight over it the first time it came up, but for weeks afterwards, anytime there was a lull in our dialogue – no matter what I might have thought we were talking about – the students would start arguing angrily about the rock and the horse all over again.

Groups sometimes come across issues that they find they cannot talk about. The example from Riverside Junior High School was extreme and, at the time, perplexing. But it’s nonetheless an example of something that comes up often enough. Something about a question touches a group’s members so closely that they are unable to listen to one another. They can’t speak with the openness to letting their opinions be affected that real conversation requires. They are defensive. They argue. Or they are unwilling to speak at all.

When Roseline shouted “anmwe!” at the mention of the word “eredite,” I was reminded of the Riverside group. In Haiti, yelling “anmwe” is a little like shouting for help. And she was yelling for some sort of help because the question of heredity – in Creole, “eredite” – had come up once again.

Roseline is a teacher at the Matenwa Community Learning Center, in Matenwa, Lagonav (http://matenwa.tripod.com). We were in the first week of a two-week seminar on psychology. Through the spring, I had been meeting with the teachers a couple of times each month, discussing a book by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. At the end of the semester, we met to evaluate the time we had spent together and to decide how we wanted to continue. The teachers had become interested in psychology and asked whether we could spend some time studying it together. We found a textbook that had been published by a Haitian press. It’s partly in French, partly in Creole. We figured that reading it all would take a little over two weeks of meetings. We scheduled a first week for early July and a second for early August.

These teachers have been working together for sometime, working together more closely than any other teaching staff I know of. Though the school has a principal, Abner Sauveur, he is the farthest thing from a tyrant. His opinions carry a lot of weight in staff decision making, but for that very reason he’s slow to express them, preferring to listen closely to his colleagues first. And even after he expresses them, they feel free to disagree and to express their disagreements strongly. And in the end, the group decides together.

It would be an exaggeration for any outsider to take credit for the way they talk with one another, but they themselves point to the difference that Wonn Refleksyon made. In the States, Touchstones Discussions have been most often and most importantly used in classes of school children. But the example of Matenwa has shown that, in Haiti, Wonn Refleksyon might be even more important among groups of teachers. When Erik was here as part of our team in 1999-2001, he invested a lot of time leading and participating in discussions for and with the Matenwa teachers, and they are quick to say that those exercises helped them learn to collaborate the way they do.

But when they come across the question of heredity, their ability to converse productively reaches its limit. They argue, several speaking loudly and angrily at the same time. They stop listening.

The issue is a hard one indeed. The question they see before them is whether intelligence is inherited, and there is a tremendous amount at stake. For example: they regularly have students whom they have trouble teaching. Some of the teachers have noticed, or believe they have noticed, that many of these children come from families in which other children have difficulties as well. Many of the children’s parents have no education. Many of the parents raise their children in ways the teachers disapprove of. It can be tempting for teachers to say that this or that student is troublesome or troubled because of the family he or she comes from. From there it can seem like a short step to conclude that the problem is hereditary. The apparent advantage to this conclusion is that it seems to let the teachers off the hook. They tried, they can say, but there was nothing they could have done. A student’s limits can simply be too great, and those limits are with him or her from birth.

Various members of the Matenwa faculty present arguments against almost every step in this reasoning, as they very well might. There are plenty of wholes in the argument. For one thing, families can share traits without those traits being hereditary in the biological sense of the word. The traits might thus be very much susceptible to influence. For another, suppose for the sake of argument that a child has severe limitations to his or her potential development that he or she inherits from parents at birth. Even then, we cannot conclude that we cannot work to help such a child succeed. We can’t know in advance exactly what a child’s limits are, so there’s no point to arguing about where the limits derive. We must in any case treat each child as though they can succeed, so we might as well assume that they can.

That has more or less been Abner’s argument: That the discussion of hereditary is pointless because we must behave as though we believe that a student’s development can be influenced nonetheless. But he has had a hard time expressing it. And even if he could express it well, it might not help. The issue of their students’ limits has pushed the teachers up against a limit of their own, though a limit of a different kind.

I hope the question keep arising. I know that, at some point, someone will say something that breaks through their colleagues’ inability to hear or to learn.

In the conversation in which we evaluated our discussions of Piaget, Abner said something both striking and encouraging. He said that our conversations were helping him appreciate how much more we can learn when we work together. I think that the opinion he was expressing was general. I myself certainly felt the same way. And a group whose members are devoted to the idea that they learn best, that they work best, together can only continue to move ahead.