More about Apprenticeship

When we decided to call our project an apprenticeship, Frémy and I were choosing to emphasize our status as learners, and not just teachers. We felt, and continue to feel, that it’s important. We are not masters working to accumulate and train disciples. We do not presume to talk very much about services we provide. We view ourselves as apprentices, constantly discovering more about the kind of work we do.

At the same time, the word “apprenticeship” suggests a teacher/learner relationship that’s a far as possible from what we seek to promote. In English, at least, it suggests learning at a teacher’s side, internalizing the principles of a craft under the watchful eye of an authority who has already mastered them. Neither Frémy nor I think of ourselves as master teachers, and we don’t see our partners as apprentices learning under our watchful eye. But we don’t think of the folks we work with as masters either. We don’t feel as though we’re absorbing a craft that they already know. We believe that we learn together with our partners, so we like to speak of a “shared apprenticeship.” We want to emphasize the way a group can make progress when its members work together. Meetings I attended over the past couple of weeks with two very different groups illustrate this point well.

Kofaviv is the Commission of Women Victims for Victims. Its members are rape victims who have organized themselves to provide a range of support services to other women who’ve suffered rape or violence of other kinds. Frémy and I have been meeting with them weekly since February, using Reflection Circles to help them develop the skills they need both to work together more effectively and, eventually, to lead their own Reflection Circle groups.

Reflection Circles are structured discussions of texts or images or topics. Their nominal subject is chosen to help the group develop skills. Members work on speaking clearly, on listening actively, on learning from one another. In this sense, though the choice of a subject can be enormously important, it nevertheless remains less important than the process used. Choosing a subject is choosing a means, a tool, that will help the group develop its skills. Nothing more.

The process always includes at least three steps: individual work, small-group work, and work by the group as a whole. We had been focusing for a couple of weeks on improving our individual and small-group work. Working on these two aspects is in some ways more urgent than working on the large group discussions is. But last week we turned to the work we do when we’re meeting in the group as a whole. Though this is the part of the work that one might normally think of first when one imagines a group discussion, it’s also the hardest part to master. It requires more patience, more attentive listening, and more of a commitment to encouraging others to speak.

And it’s more than just a question of making the large-group discussions somehow succeed. The point is to help a group learn to nurture its own best tendencies and to correct the problems that it sees. The point is to help a group take substantial responsibility for its own learning. So whereas one might otherwise, as a group leader, just tell a group what it’s doing wrong and then act to set the ship on course, we much prefer to create activities that invite participants to look at one another and at themselves and to speak together about the progress and problems that they see.

Last week, for example, we held two successive large-group conversations, each involving half the group. While one half discussed, the other half observed their work. After the two discussions, we brought the two half-groups together for a third discussion, one in which we all talked about our perceptions.

The first thing that emerged from that third discussion is that the group was pleased with itself – rightly, I think. Participants had only positive things to say: They were good about speaking one at a time, without interrupting; about speaking their mind to the whole group, rather than whispering to neighbors; and about encouraging one another to speak. On an impulse, I asked them to grade themselves on a scale of ten, and a couple of them awarded the group ten out of ten. When I said that I had been hoping they would give themselves no more than seven or eight, they called me a cheapskate and we all laughed.

So I backtracked a little. I told them that I was as impressed with them as they were, but I added that, as I see it, there is no such thing as a perfect group, that the point is always to improve. I said that the reason I hoped that they would give themselves only seven or eight was that I wanted to ask them what they thought they should do to earn eight or nine or ten.

And that’s when the real conversation started. I admitted that they were very good about letting each other speak, that they were not interrupting one another as they regularly had when we began our work. But I added that there is a difference between letting someone speak and listening to what they say. I was struck that, though they patiently waited their turn to make a contribution to the dialogue, they rarely responded to one another directly. They rarely challenged one another or even asked one another a follow-up question.

Suzette immediately responded that she was glad that I raised the point because she had been thinking of raising the same point as a criticism of Frémy, who had led the activity that morning. Suzette is an imposing figure, a large and forceful woman who organizes other women around her very poor neighborhood in Cité Soleil. I don’t know what her history as a victim is. We haven’t really spoken with any of the women about their histories, though parts of their stories occasionally arise in our meetings. But when I look at her and listen to her, I find it hard to think of her as a victim. She seems so strong. I know this is naïve of me.

Suzette had noticed that, often enough, Frémy would respond to a participant directly, questioning or even challenging what she said. She had understood, however, that everyone had a right to express their opinion, so she thought that Frémy’s direct questions were somehow violating our rules.

Frémy responded that, in the weeks when the group was just starting, our highest priority had been to encourage participation. We wanted to hear as many voices as possible, so we were reluctant to engage participants too earnestly. It would have been too easy to intimidate, to turn someone off. As the group progressed, however, and the women were speaking with more confidence, it was becoming increasingly important that we look at our own and one another’s opinions carefully. The group will only really give us a way to learn from one another when it begins to help us evaluate and, sometimes, change what we think. This requires not just that we make good use of all the opinions that are expressed in the group but also that fellow participants help us look at the opinions that are our own. And neither of the steps is possible until we learn to challenge and criticize one another and to accept the criticism our own views might receive.

Time ran out a few minutes after Suzette’s question. But I returned a week later to continue the work. At that meeting, we decided to begin the activity by talking about the importance of a group’s establishing the habit of evaluating itself and of proposing the direction it wants to move in, and the women formed small groups to do just that. I asked the small groups to answer two questions: what progress they would like to see their group make together and what steps they could take towards that progress. They jumped right into the work, and came up with a number of answers to each question. To the first, however, two answers stood out. Several groups said that they wanted their discussion to be livelier and several said that they wanted to see more reliable solidarity within the group.

And they also proposed solutions. The suggested two steps they could take to make the activity livelier. One would be to add singing or other warm-up activities. The other would be to respond more directly to the things that each of them said. To increase their sense of solidarity, they could make a name and address list so that, whenever one of them is absent, someone can take responsibility for getting in touch with her to make sure everything is ok.

And when we left the evaluative phase of the activity to enter into the conversation about the text, that conversation was indeed somewhat different than the previous two or three meetings had been. It was less orderly. There were more interruptions. Participants returned to their tendency to whisper to their neighbor rather than to speak up to the whole group. In a sense, it could have appeared as though the group had taken a step backwards.

But this appearance was hiding a more important truth. They were interrupting one another with direct responses. Their side conversations were giving them needed space in which to voice judgments about what was being said. We spent the last few minutes of the meeting discussing how things had gone and they pointed out both the improvement and the work they had ahead of them. They then got to work on the name and address list. As I was leaving, they began to sing a song.

I was surprised that the group of fifth-graders in Jan-Jan started their meeting with a game that resembled Simon Says. I’ve written about this group before. They are the ones who told their teacher, Dorlys, that they wanted to lead the meetings themselves. To his credit, Dorlys encouraged them in this, and members of the class have been using the teacher’s guide we produced several years ago to take turns leading their weekly discussions ever since.

A couple of weeks ago, they had come to Dorlys with a problem. They had counted out the number of weeks remaining in the school year and had realized that they wouldn’t all get a turn to lead. They wondered whether it would be ok to lead the discussions in groups of three. I happened to be in Jan-Jan that day, visiting an adult literacy center, so Dorlys had the children call me over to ask me what I thought. I told them that I think it can be much better when two or three discussion leaders work as a team, but that, in order for it to really succeed, the team should meet a day or two before the discussion to discuss their objectives for the week and divvy out the roles that they would play. At the end of that conversation the children asked me to be sure to come by to watch their again before the end of the school year, and I said I’d try.

I went yesterday. It was quickly clear that the children had taken my advice. Three of them took turns leading the various steps in the process, starting with Simon Says and ending with a short evaluation of how the day’s work had gone. The transitions went seamlessly, without discussion. The three of them had, in this respect, a clear plan, and they were able to follow it without prompting of any kind.

When they were finished I asked whether I might ask them some questions, and they agreed. The first thing I wanted to know had to do with their use of Simon says. I wondered why they chose to start that way. I mentioned that I had never seen a group do anything like it before. They said that they hold their discussions at the end of the school day, and that they find that some of them have a hard time concentrating. They thought that a little physical game at the start of class would liven things up and get everyone tuned it. It was the first time they had tried it, and we all had to agree it worked well.

I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing. The level of self-understanding and self-mastery that they were showing was entirely new to me. In some respects, they know what they are doing more than any group I’ve seen.

The children then asked me whether I had seen anything about the group that wasn’t good, and I started to think of the women of Kofaviv. These kids, in their little uniforms, could hardly appear any more different from the Kofaviv women than they do. But there was something fundamentally similar in the way they understand what Reflection Circles are about. Like the Kofaviv women, they have mastered procedural aspects of the activity. If anything, they are even more advanced than the very strong Kofaviv women in this respect. These kids never interrupt one another. They address everything they say to the whole class, never turning to a neighbor to whisper a few words. Participation is really general, even if there are a few of them who talk much more than others.

But they will not argue with one another. Their conversations have become well-disciplined events at which they all patiently wait their turn, but little real dialogue is emerging from all this because they studiously avoid reacting to each other directly. They are so entirely focused on procedures that they have no time for questions like whether the conversation they holding is teaching them anything. This is explicit when they evaluate themselves: The only criterion that’s even mentioned is whether the rules of discussion were respected.

So I told them that as much as I admire what they’ve accomplished, I would like to see them argue a little more. Even if it means that they break one of their rules now and again. They would like to continue to meet next school year. I know, though they don’t yet, that Dorlys will not be with them. But I’ll have to see whether there’s any way for me to arrange an occasional visit.

The two groups go a long way towards defining the limits of formal mastery of group discussion. Each is rightly pleased with the way that they’ve been able to internalize patience, respect, and a willingness to speak out as principles they scrupulously observe. But that progress has come with a cost: It’s taken them away from the kind of engagement with ideas that is, in large part, what conversations are really for. My ongoing commitment to Kofaviv will enable to learn with them how to bring their mastery of principles to bear on achieving deeper goals. I hope I can find time to accompany the children of Jan-Jan as they try to move forward in the same way.