Two Experiments

Discussion groups should never stop learning. Or maybe it would be better to say that, if they feel that they have no more to learn together, they probably no longer need to be a group.

I had been working with the women from Kofaviv – the Commission of Women Victims for Victims – for about a year, and I had begun to feel that they had reached a plateau, that they were no longer moving forward. They are an accomplished group, both in our work together and otherwise. We could simply have decided to continue enjoying the pleasant meetings that we have, or to end our collaboration, but neither of those options seemed right.

They have learned to follow Wonn Refleksyon procedures more than competently. They are fearless in the face of texts that other groups in Haiti have thought to be too hard. For example, whereas Haitian university students and others have doubted whether one can even discuss Newton’s laws of motion, or at least whether someone without a fair amount of education is qualified to talk about such things, the women of Kofaviv, who range from high school graduates to women without any formal education at all, have simply done it. They listen to one another and encourage one another to speak. Each of them seems to recognize that she has something to say. As a result, any one of them might be the next one to speak at any time. This is true when I’m the one leading their conversations, but it’s just as true when one of them is playing that role. We take turns leading, and they respond well to one another just as they respond very, very well to me. It’s wonderful.

At the same time, I can’t get away from my sense that there are steps the group hasn’t taken. While they are really good at helping one another share their thoughts, I don’t see much evidence that their thoughts are changing, or developing. One of Wonn Refleksyon’s core objectives is to make our opinions visible to us in a manner that invites us to challenge them, and I have to admit to myself that the Kofaviv women do not seem to me to be challenging their own thoughts.

So we decided to try a couple of experiments in an effort to shake things up a bit. One was intended to help them make better use of texts, the other to help them rethink what it means for them to lead discussions.

I wanted to help them look at texts differently because I thought the texts they have been using could be much more useful than they’ve been so far. Some of them express puzzling, surprising thoughts. We include a text in which Herodotus quotes the Athenian lawmaker Solon as saying that he can judge no man happy until he’s dead. Some of the texts we use make ordinary thoughts seem surprising. Newton’s explanation of the laws of motion includes the claim that, if a horse pulls a rock, the rock pulls the horse just as much. The example has the power to create more intense and varied discussion than one might imagine.

But the women of Kofaviv rarely find that the texts challenge their thinking because the way they use the texts doesn’t draw that sort of help out of them. They let the texts suggest issues to discuss, but once the texts suggest what we’ll be talking about, more or less, the women don’t much return to them.

For example, one of the postulates that Euclid’s geometry is based on, that a straight line can be drawn from any point to any other point, occasioned a wide-ranging discussion about how they find their various ways around Port au Prince, about how the best route is not always straight. There’s nothing wrong with using the text in that way. We are not a math class. The fact that the text invites them to share their experiences is a good thing. But once they start talking about how to get around Port au Prince, the text can’t help them anymore. They are on their own, and the degree to which they can challenge one another and themselves will simply depend on the habits they’ve already established.

We tried to address the group’s use of the text by spending two weeks working through the Euclid slowly. We all agreed we would temporarily try a different style of work, one that was more focused on figuring out what that text can tell us. We went through it together, almost line-by-line. In order to emphasize that what we were doing was not a standard part of Wonn Refleksyon, we even gave it a different name. We said we would be working in something called a “study group”.

And with the exception of the very interesting discussion of getting around Port au Prince, it seemed to work. The women patiently pieced together different ways of understanding Euclid’s definition of right angles, for example. More importantly, it seemed to help them in the weeks that followed when we returned to our usual style. Shortly afterwards I led them in a discussion of a short excerpt from one of Darwin’s books, and they were willing to let it puzzle them and raise questions about some of their own thoughts.

The second experiment was very different, and it’s far too early to hazard a guess as to its results. It took shape in a conversation with Kerline, a lab technician who does blood tests for the rape victims that come in a too-constant stream to the Kofaviv office. Kerline is a strong member of the group, and has begun working with Frémy and me on other Wonn Refleksyon projects. She and I were talking about a discussion we led together at the office of a large international NGO in Pétion-Ville. Kerline said that what she felt she was learning as she worked with Frémy and me – and a third experienced leader named Abélard – was how to intervene in the discussions she leads with confidence.

This requires some explanation. The first thing that generally strikes Haitians about the way Frémy and I lead discussions is how relatively silent we are. Group leaders in Haiti generally dominate. Haiti is not unique in this respect. They do most of the talking, they respond to almost everything that others say, and they always have the last word. Compared to what the Haitians we work with are accustomed to, Frémy and I really are quiet. We push people to talk directly with one another, to set the course of their own conversation, and to do without a leader’s final word. Most of this we try to accomplish by simply leaving them the space to take these responsibilities on. In other words, by shutting our own mouths long enough so that others can talk.

One consequence of this is that many of the people who learn the process from us are reticent about asserting themselves. They can tend to think that shutting up is their role. When they do speak, it’s generally in one of two simple ways: Either they’re reminding participants of the rules that Wonn Refleksyon asks them to follow, or they’re expressing an opinion about the topic being discussed much as any participant might.

Kerline said that she thought that the members of the Kofaviv group needed to think more about what real leadership requires. They are good at encouraging participation and at energizing their groups, at monitoring rules, and at entering the groups they lead as one participant among equals. But they weren’t actively helping one another deepen their collaboration or their thinking. They were, rather, just letting things happen.

So we decided to spend a meeting focusing on what discussion leadership requires. We proceeded in four steps. First, we asked the women to separate into groups of five-six. Each group was to make three short lists: one of the three qualities of a good traditional classroom teacher, one of the three qualities of a good community organizer, and a third of the qualities of a good discussion leader. Neither Kerline nor I were very interested in the first two lists, but we thought that creating the three lists together would help the women concentrate on the most essential, unique qualities of a discussion leader.

Second, we brought the small groups back together and made a list of all the qualities of a discussion leader they had proposed. There were eight in all, including things like the ability to be on time, the abilities to motivate participants to come to meetings and encouraging them to participate actively once they come, and the ability to explain procedures clearly.

The third step was for the group to grade itself on each of the eight qualities. We decided to keep things simple. For each quality, they would say they are good, weak, or between the two.

There was a lot of consensus about these grades, and they graded themselves much as Kerline and I would have. There were only two points on which they gave themselves the lowest grade: One was for them not to be shy, and the other was to know when to intervene.

It turned out that these amounted to the same thing. The shyness that some of them were worried about was precisely a shyness about when to intervene strongly in a conversation. And a little talk was able to make this more precise. They don’t feel they’re timid about intervening to enforce the rules or that they’re timid about jumping in as participants with their own contributions. They feel they’re too timid, however, about jumping in to a conversation to change its direction: to suggest paths that might be more fruitful that the one a group is taking, to push a group to stick to a topic so they can deepen their reflections, to keep things from merely jumping from one opinion to another.

The fourth step we took was to return to small groups so that they could think about how to work on their ability to intervene decisively and well. Though the groups worked independently, they answered as if with one voice. They said that they don’t think they’re good at preparing for a discussion they are to lead. They think that if they had a clearer sense, from the outset, as to where a discussion might profitably go, if they were better able to formulate clear objectives before a group meets, it would be easier for them to feel as though they know what they’re doing.

It was an obvious point, but one neither Kerline nor I had considered. So we decided that we would all think about what we can do to learn how to better prepare for the discussions we are to lead. It will be a couple of weeks before I see the group again, and we all agreed we would come with ideas.

I haven’t come up with anything yet, but it’s a great question. If we are able to come up with a really good approach, it could quickly become an important part of teaching Wonn Refleksyon all over Haiti.