Vol. 5. No. 3 R-10 December 2001
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Participatory Practices in Adult Education

Pat Campbell and Barbara Burnaby, eds. (2001)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. x--318
ISBN 0-8058-3705-1 (Paper)
US $34.50 Cloth: US $74.95

Participatory Practices in Adult Education purports to "provide concrete models and suggestions to practitioners and participants in a wide variety of adult education settings who want to increase the participatory nature of their activities." [vii] To a large extent, the book fulfills its stated purpose. Those readers willing to wade through the ideology-driven passages of Participatory Practices will be richly rewarded. This book offers many thought-provoking ideas, suggestions, and challenges to the practitioner open to receiving them. Educators, administrators, human resource managers, policy makers, and community development workers will all find exciting new doors to enter on its pages.

For those readers unfamiliar with participatory education, the phrase does not simply refer to increased learner participation in the educational process, be it in classroom activities, curriculum development, or policy planning. Although it may share overlapping concerns, participatory education differs from both student-centered learning and popular education. [189] Participatory educators work towards a specific goal, and they do so by using somewhat specific means.

In her introduction to Participatory Practices, co-editor Pat Campbell defines this goal as "building a just society through individual and socioeconomic transformation and ending domination through changing power relations. " [6] Campbell's definition is echoed by Auerbach, who writes that the "goal of participatory education, as I see it, is . . . to . . . promote critical reflection with a view toward acting for change." [276] Nash's definition is clearer still: "A participatory approach is based on the belief that the purpose of education is to expand the ability of people to become the shapers of their world by analyzing the social forces that have historically limited their options." [188]

Although Campbell notes that "there are no pat solutions to the question 'how to do it'; there is no method to follow or prescription to rely on" [9-10], there are certain practices and beliefs shared by the contributors to this book. Participatory education is seen as a cyclical process during which participants identify and share problems from their daily lives. Then as a group, they move from reflecting on the individual experience of these problems to more critical social analysis, to constructing an understanding of the social conditions affecting them, and then to developing strategies for action and change. [276] Learners and educators are seen as equal participants in this process with educators relinquishing and students assuming positions of power and control. [Chs. 3 and 4] Exploring social identity (race, gender, class, intellectual and physical abilities, location, and language) and how it affects power and powerlessness is an integral part of the process. [9, 41]

Participatory Practices is well organized and comprehensive in its coverage. It is divided into six sections, four of which focus on participatory projects in different educational settings. Section II covers adult basic education, ESL and literacy; Section III describes community-based programs; Section IV discusses workplace education; and Section V covers institutional settings. More than a dozen practitioners from diverse backgrounds present and evaluate programs with which they have been involved. A participatory prisoner education program; a rural town meeting; a participatory doctoral program in adult education; a learners' leadership project; a collaborative training program between Alcan and the Canadian Auto Workers; and a peer tutoring program in a community literacy center are just a few of the many programs presented. Readers may want to head directly to the section most relevant to their work, but no matter where one's professional interest lies, every chapter offers provocative and interesting information. [-1-]

Articles include not only practical information but also summaries of the latest research in the field. For example, in "Participatory Workplace Education: Resisting Fear-Driven Models," Andrea Nash starts by defining the "contradictions and mixed messages" that arise in a workplace teaching context. Her helpful discussion is grounded in the latest research on workplace ethnographies, which "raise questions about the worker deficit rhetoric by pointing out workplace constraints that prevent workers from using and expanding the skills and knowledge they already have." [186] This discussion alerts the reader to critical issues that will arise in the planning and implementation of workplace programs.

Nash then defines and contrasts two approaches to workplace education, the functional-context and the participatory approaches, showing the weaknesses of the former and providing a four-step guide for applying the principles of the latter. The final section of the article describes three programs that illustrate participatory principles in action. Readers gain not only a useful theoretical framework from this article, but also a clear understanding of two possible models to follow and how the implementation of one model took place in three different settings. Although some of the selections in Participatory Practices in Adult Education are longer and less well-organized, the articles in Sections II--V generally offer a survey of relevant research, practical models and applications, and examples from real-life situations.

The first and last sections of this book are more contemplative in nature. In Section I, Reflections on Foundations, Virginia Sauv≥ presents the core principles of participation that she has drawn from her many years experience in ESL, adult basic education, and community and workplace program development. Her discussion encompasses a definition of participatory education and the three sets of principles on which she believes it rests: the foundation principles of respect, hope, faith, and compassion; the working principles of participation, community and commitment; and the concurrent principles of risk, trust and trustworthiness, honesty, and acknowledgment. Sauv≥ tells readers not to take her principles as methodologies but "simply as an accounting of my personal discoveries", and urges them to develop their own participatory philosophy. [19]

Section VI, Reflections on Practice, reviews and ties together issues and themes that run throughout the book. Elsa Auerbach's " 'Yes, But . . .' Problematizing Participatory ESL Pedagogy," is particularly stimulating. Auerbach rarely shrinks from confronting difficult issues head-on, and this article is no exception. In "Yes But . . .", she thoughtfully responds to issues and problems encountered by students in her Adult ESL in Theory and Practice class at the University of Massachusetts, Boston when they tried to implement participatory practices in the ESL classroom. Their objections include such statements as: "But my students want grammar."; "What right do we have to bring political issues into the classroom?"; "I don't want to be a social worker."; and "It's just too complicated." [268]

This article is a "must read" for ESL (and other) practitioners, especially those who feel the participatory approach is "impractical" for their classes. Rather than simply dismissing her students as victims of oppression who are blind to their own victimization or as members of a privileged group unwilling to share their power, Auerbach acknowledges and responds to the real concerns that they have. The result is a powerful case in favor of the principles she embraces.

The only real flaw in Participatory Practices is the sometimes heavy-handed ideological rhetoric that characterizes some of its articles. Passages such as the following distract from the real meat of this book:

We drew from a Marxist analysis that work within capitalist industrialization had alienated workers from the sources and processes of production, from any connection to the whole product (which, in contrast, the craftsperson experienced). In the same light, we suggested that artistic and media production, too, had become commodified and specialized, alienating most of us from any sense of being producers or makers of culture or cultural expression. [42]

Still with us today, this dualism [of Descartes] is reflected in western education systems that divide knowledge into subjects and disciplines, that privilege co-called intellectual over manual labor. [42]

Socialist adult educators bring to the education situation a necessary expertise and they initially assume a position of authority and leadership (a position which is itself the product of the unequal personal development that capitalism generates). They take responsibility for making their expertise available in a way that will further the learners' interests. They participate in a collaborative process which aims to raise the level of awareness and competence of the learners and hence their position is not static. [70-71]


Nevertheless, the education community is sorely in need of people who ask difficult questions and then work hard with others to generate answers. By and large, the authors of this book do just that. The model projects are interesting, the practical information useful, the articles well-written and documented, and the intent of the book worthwhile. For those practitioners already firm in the participatory education camp, this book offers not only strong philosophical and pedagogical reinforcement but also interesting model projects and useful practical information. For the uninitiated practitioner, the book invites you to reflect on your own teaching practice and the beliefs on which it is based, and at least to open the door to some of the new pathways offered on its pages. Overall, Participatory Practices in Adult Education is highly recommended.

Joanne Wilkens
Second Start, Concord, NH

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