Conviviality in the Face of Zombies

from here

The Toronto Star has published an article about Canada's imaginary skills gap in May and it just came to my attention today - finger on the pulse as usual :)

The article is by Sachin Maharaj who is a graduate student at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).
If we really had a large skills gap, wages in STEM fields would be very high and unemployment would be very low relative to non-STEM fields. But there is almost no evidence of this. In fact, the median salary of science and technology grads is actually lower than those in non-STEM fields, and the unemployment rate in STEM and non-STEM fields is virtually identical. The report therefore concludes that contrary to popular opinion, “Canada appears to have a well-functioning labour market, where individuals are choosing fields of study and occupations based on factors such as market signals and personal preferences.”

That so many people continue to believe in existence of a skills gap, despite the facts, is why Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has dubbed it a “Zombie Idea,” an idea that should be killed by evidence, but refuses to die. Krugman pins the blame on the fact that influential people and the media have kept repeating the skills gap narrative for years now, to the point where it has just become accepted wisdom. He thinks part of the reason for this is to divert attention away from widening income equality and so that workers can be blamed for their own struggles. But while I doubt that is a major motivation among government and business leaders here in Canada, that does not make the skills gap story any more real. So perhaps it is time to put this myth to rest and focus our efforts on more pressing issues.

We talked about this Zombie idea in our post about the Temporary Foreign Worker program and you can find links to more articles about the skills gap myth there.

The trope of blaming workers for their own struggles - especially when it comes to people who are viewed as needing to upgrade their literacy skills - is not new of course.
... the influential Jump Start report of 1989 stated, "There is no way in which the United States can remain competitive in a global economy, maintain its standard of living, and shoulder the burden of the retirement of the baby boom generation unless we mount a forceful national effort to help adults upgrade their basic skills in the very near future (p.iii)."

by Tom Sticht

The IALS discourse also acts as an important disciplinary mechanism of neoliberalism. Its framing of literacy is used to convince people who live in the Global North that economic competition is inevitable, that each of us is responsible for our nation’s GDP, and that some people in our midst—usually racialized people who are not fluent in an official language—are a drain on our individual and national prosperity. It is used to convince ‘good citizens’ to fear unproductive people who are hampering the economy, and to blame themselves rather than the structures of capitalism if they become ‘unproductive’ or unemployed. Finally, literacy as it has been constructed in IALS has been used as justification for undermining the social safety net: one of the most recent reports based on IALS data (Coulombe et al, 2005) concludes that investments in ‘human capital accumulation’ are more beneficial to national economies than policies that support social infrastructure.

As Tannis says:
In Canada, government departments which support adult literacy insist that programs focus on a narrow range of literacy outcomes tied to a framework of Essential Skills that articulates key competencies identified by the OECD through PISA and IALS. Increasing numbers of practitioners experience a profound disconnect between the real needs of learners in their classes and the demands placed on them by state funders. In addition, they now feel pressured to spend more time on paperwork than on working with the adults who the programs exist to teach.

Practitioners often respond to this predicament with dismay, puzzlement and frustration. They bemoan the fact that policies and funding seem driven by accountability rather than attempts to meet the needs of people who are marginalized because they lack basic education. Practitioners feel that the government policies are irrational, and most do not believe it is possible to effect change. While some may be aware that these pressures result from the past decade of neoliberal economic policies, the field as a whole has been unable to respond effectively to the poisoned environment in which they now work. 
I met up with some literacy workers at a work event the other day and we were talking about how we might have to start again - unfunded in a basement library as they did in Parkdale, Toronto many years ago.

Later that week, I went to a poetry reading where one of the founders of that program was reading and another was attending. We talked about the program briefly and Arthur Bull started talking about the Learning Circles Project and how what we learned there informs his work now. The other founder, Michelle Kuhlmann, was a researcher on the Powerful Listening Project and her work there and in a community based literacy program keeps our field connected to the needs of learners.

We cannot return to the old days and we cannot shake the zombie ideas. So what can we do? How can we keep community development and asset-building approaches alive in our work? Here are some ideas from those founders:

We called our time together deep listening. We needed this experience and we were very open about how we entered this time with each other, looking for what would emerge each time, and cherishing the time together. This is a very personal reaction to a research project, but I was also aware how it related to the field we work in everyday. There was this lingering feeling about how unusual our research situation was compared to the experience of keeping up with our daily life in literacy. When feelings of discomfort and difference arise in our work we are on the spot and have to choose the best response for the moment but can be left with disturbing feeling and questions that are not resolved even for years. These feelings and experiences surfaced and lived in our storytelling. I don’t mean that we “used” the stories as much as we experienced them together.
by Michelle Kuhlmann, Powerful Listening

there is a hard-to-define element that seems to be a prerequisite for any successful learning circle. This is best described by the word conviviality; that is, the enjoyment people take in each other’s company. Again and again, when asked why they come to a group, people expressed the idea that they like spending time with the other people in the group. All of the above elements - safe place, peer learning, self-determination, group thinking - contribute to this atmosphere of enjoyment. It is also something that has a life of its own, that the group itself can create and nurture. Of course this is not something that can be made into a rule, or produced on demand. Nevertheless, it should never be far from our minds as we think about learning circles.

How are these elements of the group dynamic created?  There are undoubtedly many factors, but the overriding one seems to be the role of the facilitator. Clearly this is different from the traditional role of the teacher or instructor. It involves a number of different facets. ...

Another feature of facilitation that we noticed in a number of the cases is that the facilitator was thoughtful about being, and acting like, an equal with the participants in the group. The leadership role of the facilitator seemed to be to all about leading the group to where they take over.

At the same time, we observed that the facilitator’s role in fact shifts within the group, and sometimes even during a single session. The facilitator is almost always the person who has the responsibility for the overall life of the group. As such, he or she is always paying attention to what is happening in the group, and adjusting his or her role accordingly. This role might shift from time-keeper, to storyteller, to peacemaker to teacher, to traditional facilitator. This attention and adaptability seems to be at the heart of what makes a good facilitator in a learning circle.

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