Monday, April 10, 2017

Adult Educators as Empathetic Provocateurs

These are the days of alternative facts and sweeping declarations of the so called truth. In this complex world, I often find myself reflecting about the role of dialectical thinking in my own life. What are those different views that I am missing? What can I do to become more aware? And more importantly, as an adult educator, what can I do to foster critical thinking in others? 

As per Wikipedia, "Dialectic or dialectics (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ), also known as the dialectical method, is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. Socrates favoured truth as the highest value, proposing that it could be discovered through reason and logic in discussion: ergo, dialectic."

From the book, International Handbook of Education for the Changing World of Work, Page 2664 "From Mezirow’s perspective, the educator is described as an “empathetic provocateur” and role model who is critically self-reflective and encourages others to consider alternative perspectives. Mezirow ( 1991) contends that a central goal of adult education should involve creating conditions to help adult learners become more critically reflective and “advance developmentally” toward “integrated and discriminating meaning perspectives” (p. 225).”

As an adult educator, when I take on the role of an empathetic provocateur, I am able to encourage critical thinking, challenge underline assumptions and help my clients and participants by providing encouragement to think differently and engage in self-reflection. As an empathetic provocateur, I try to question them in a supportive way and see myself both as a facilitator and a partner in their learning journey. 

Fostering dialectical thinking is perhaps the most challenging yet the most rewarding way to learn and teach. One way that I have been applying dialectical thinking is to challenge any underlying beliefs that my participants may have. For example, some of the participants I interact with believe that ‘students learn best when instruction matches their preferred learning style.’ They come into the session believing they are more ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinetic’. Some clients also expect the use of different instructional strategies to support different learning styles. Although much has been written about how learning styles are a myth including several peer-reviewed scientific articles, TED talks, research reviews, blog posts and videos, this belief continues to be propagated via books, online articles, international conferences and companies that sell products and services based on this myth. When participants or clients bring up this belief in a discussion, I try and point to various resources to offer them another point of view. We are then able to engage in a discussion around our own underlying beliefs and assumptions about learning styles and why this concept may or may not be useful for learners and for adult educators.

As a learner, I find that the use of dialectical thinking enables me to become a better version of myself. When I am learning, I respect facilitators who are able to go beyond what's written in the textbook and encourage me to think in the grey zone. When I am encouraged and supported to engage in dialectical thinking, I find it extremely helpful when others present different views than mine and I am able to accept those views positively. By leveraging dialectical thinking, I become more aware of my own beliefs about certain issues and my underlying assumptions are able to come to surface. I am better able to see my existing frames of reference and filter bubbles and move past those. 

I recently participated in a session on understanding cultural contexts and diversity in the workplace. The facilitator used an interesting technique to encourage dialectic thinking. She cleared the room of all chairs and tables and posted signs that read ‘Agree’ on one side of the room and ‘Disagree’ on the other side of the room and somewhere in the middle she posted signs that said ‘Mostly agree’ and ‘Mostly disagree’. She then shared a few statements and asked us to ‘choose our state’. As she read the statements about culture and workplace behaviour, we were physically supposed to move closest to the each of these four states and then share why we felt the way we did. It was interesting and quite dramatic to see how for a few statements, we were pretty much all on one side of the room and for a few other statements, we were all spread across the room. The discussion that followed was extremely useful in understanding competing views and the paradoxes and contradictions associated with culture and diversity at the workplace. But what was more interesting was that she encouraged us to move and ‘change our state’ after hearing the discussion especially if we believed perhaps we were in the wrong state. 

Arne Tiselius, the author of the book, Place of Value in a World of Facts (Nobel Symposium) said. “We live in a world where unfortunately the distinction between true and false appears to become increasingly blurred by manipulation of facts, by exploitation of uncritical minds, and by the pollution of the language.” 

If such is the world today, what is the role of dialectical thinking in your life?
How do you take on the role of an empathetic provocateur to distinguish between alternative facts and the truth?