Steps in a Process Part One: Finding a Home in a Group

It’s no accident that I write more often about the striking aspects of my daily life here in Haiti and about assorted chance encounters that I meet than I do about my work. My work is the least striking part of my life here. Though I spend almost all my time dwelling on my classes, little about them stands out. In many ways, they seem a lot like all the other classes I’ve taught over the years. Every class is unique, just as every person is, but they have a lot in common with one another too. But I’d like to talk some generally about how classes like mine work, and I can use one of the classes I taught this fall as an illustration. The process through which a group learns to take collective responsibility for learning together can be long and slow, and there are different ways to identify the steps along the way. I would like to present one possible account of the steps a particular group is going through – the group I work with on Saturdays – and to suggest where the
group might be heading.

This Saturday group has been a particularly interesting one for me. We meet at one of the divisions of the national university – the Inivèsite Leta Ayiti – namely, the Fakilte Syans Imenn, or the College of Humane Sciences. It’s the division where two of my Haitian colleagues studied – Eddy studied sociology, and Guerda studied child psychology – and, for what it’s worth, it’s one of the places where courses in philosophy are taught. The participants in the group are students or former students, colleagues of mine at Limyè Lavi, and various teachers and librarians. They are an educated, high-powered crowd.

Nevertheless, some of what the group has gone through in these first weeks is a perfectly recognizable version of what almost any group would experience. For example: In the first meetings, the most important tendency among many members of the group was to establish their individual identities within the group as a whole. Participants were in a new and somewhat unfamiliar situation. They were unfamiliar to one another and unfamiliar to me. Many of them felt the need to impress. These individuals spoke quite fluidly and at great length. They took turns politely, but their comments rarely built on one another. When I asked them, as a preliminary activity, to come up with questions about the text, questions that could serve to open our discussion, the questions came with lengthy explanations – what their importance was, what likely answers would be. At the same time, there were others who reacted to the newness of it all with silence or near-silence. They said little, waiting to see whether this was a group they could work

Against this backdrop, our first task as a group , my first task as a leader, was just to help people relax. Another way to say this is I had to help make a collection of individuals into a working group, to help them start to feel comfortable working together, to feel that their individual importance would be respected, that we would listen.

Almost all meetings, at any stage of any group’s history, will start – after reading of the text to be discussed – with individual work. For the first weeks, participants are mainly asked to develop questions on or around the text we are reading that could be used to start a discussion. We call these “opening questions.” New participants or group leaders often understand them to be like good essay questions for an exam. They pressure themselves to produce something penetrating, something that will “open up” the text. But I think this is a misunderstanding. It is not so much the text that a good question opens, but the conversation. Opening questions are, as Nick Maistrellis has said, “invitations to conversation.” They point to issues in or near a text that could serve as something to start with. The long, interesting explanations that some participants will tend to provide do not, in this sense, serve well. They take the place of an initial inquiry, and leave a group needing to start all over again. Typically, this is what happens, too. The long question or explanation is followed by a similar performance – perhaps immediately, perhaps after a short silence. At best, people politely take turns until they run out of speeches or time runs out.

Against such tendencies, the single most important strategy for accomplishing the group’s first task is to ask participants to work together in small groups. In early meetings, I ask small the groups to develop a consensus of one sort or another. Often, it’s a consensus as to what a good opening question might be. Such small group work helps in several ways. Working together in groups of two, three, or four, participants get to know one another. They get used to speaking directly to one another and listening to one another without their leader’s mediation. Reluctant speakers are invited and even forced to talk by the task the small group shares, but they’re also freed to begin to speak without having to face the more intimidating prospect of speaking before a larger group. Those who feel the need to prove themselves discover that their partners are indeed listening.

The small groups will generally choose the questions they argue for, and this usefully validates their sense of self. The pressure they can feel to impress starts to go down. Small group work also helps all participants learn to work with and to look towards one another, not to me. Though a discussion leader will monitor this work, most closely when working with children – helping them to stay “on task” – he or she is mainly absent from these small discussions. The most important accountability that the process imposes on small groups is the knowledge that each group will have to report on its deliberations to the class as a whole.

With my Saturday group, much in this stage of the work was easy. They are successful young students and educators. They’ve been lucky to get where they are, but they’ve also arrived because of their own strengths: They’re quick and confident. The habit of speaking directly to one another, without my intervention, came quickly.

The habit of listening to one another has been harder, but we’ve made progress there, too. Again, small group work has been central, but it has been useful to assign a different kind of task. Rather than asking each small group to develop a consensus around one opening question, I started asking each group to consider every member’s opening question, and to help each member make his or her question as short and as clear as it could be. Each individual reports his or her question to the class as a whole before we start our discussion. This type of small group work forces individuals to ask their classmates for advice. And even if they’re not ready to accept that advice – some are, some aren’t – they quickly start listening to their classmates’ questions to inform the comments they themselves are asked to make.

Though much of this important early progress happens in small groups, the core of our process is the large group discussion that is part of every meeting. I call it the core not because it’s more important than the other work, but because it’s the work that most participants –and most group leaders as well – look to as the center of the undertaking. It is indeed at the center of our objectives – helping groups take collective responsibility for their own education – because the group is, more than anything, the whole collection of
its participants. If participants are asked about the progress the group is making, they almost invariably think of the weekly large-group discussions. That is what they chiefly base their judgments upon.

These larger discussions have gotten better. People have gotten more and more comfortable with the task of openly discussing a text as a group. They’ve each grown more comfortable with the role that he or she plays within the group’s work. They’ve begun to feel at home. Next week, I’ll talk about how and why I’ve tried to disrupt this comfort, and about the progress the group has made away from it.