The obvious affinity I experience reading Parecon-inspired articles with what we do in some Mexican schools persuades me that ZNet readers could profit by knowing what can be called “participatory education”. It all began several years ago at the margins of the school system, in a few small, single teacher elementary and middle schools, where the touted goals of public education – quality and equity – were least attained, if at all. There, at the farthest from the central administration and in circumstances that made it difficult, if not impossible, to follow central directives, a group of outsiders were charged to try to do anything that could help alleviate the situation.
The bare essentials of teaching and learning appeared clearly in the midst of uncertified teachers, and students unencumbered by bureaucratic and social pressures to attend school. It was easy to see that if teaching was routine, learning memoristic, and attendance erratic, one shouldn’t attribute it to the teachers’ previous training, the inadequacy of the programs or the poverty of the families – though these factors couldn’t be discounted. The inadequacy could be attributed simply to the fact that there was no genuine interest on the part of either teachers or students to learn. For one thing, there was no clear accessible, useful, concrete knowledge that teachers could offer their students that could provoke their interest. Lacking this foundation, common to any learning endeavor, all other factors became practically irrelevant.
To remedy the obvious, in a manner that seemed most accessible to all, teachers were invited to master a few basic themes of subjects in the official curriculum through tutorial relationships with members of a network of advisors who visited them in their schools. This boosted the teachers’confidence, because they were – some for the first time – personally attended to, and because they were given the opportunity to proceed autonomously. In turn, they presented their students the few basic themes they had mastered, and allowed them to choose what most interested them. What followed was more crucial, because they repeated with each student the process they had previously undergone. For the first time, they did not “lecture” their students; instead they became tutors to apprentices who in turn would become tutors of other classmates. The commitment of tutor and tutee guaranteed successful, useful, and satisfying learning. With students becoming tutors to fellow students, the initial help of outside promoters expanded into a tutorial network that linked advisors, teachers, students – and soon their families – in what soon became an extended learning community.
Academic change is associated with a personal transformation experienced by the one being tutored: somebody takes individual care, offers worthy learning challenges, attends the person’s preferences and respects particular ways of approaching learning. At the same time, the newly discovered power to teach others, and by so doing deepen previous understanding, transforms academic accomplishments into social gains. In a learning community where teaching and learning is a shared competency, the need to share becomes part of learning itself. The classroom transcends the school and the school reaches out to the community and other communities in the area.
Meanwhile, official authorities, surprised and pleased with the results, decided to use the successful experience with tutorial networks to improve low achieving schools (9,000) in larger towns. The paradox was that personal relationships, which by definition are consensual, were being imposed on teachers and students in regular schools. The results, obviously, have been mixed, but the point of bringing it up is to emphasize that the weight of authority can help to extend tutorial networks among ordinary teachers and students, even though the thrust of the movement rests clearly on the latter actors at the base of the institution.
Professor Richard Elmore of Harvard, heard of tutorial networks from one of his students, our colleague Santiago Rincón Gallardo Shimada, and became deeply interested. He decided to come to Mexico to see the effects of the new educational modality for himself. In a small rural school in the state of Zatececas, a 14 year old girl tutored him on a geometry problem with the aid of an interpreter. Elmore felt he was in the hands of an experiencied teacher, as he later wrote:
“When I think of María, I think: 'someone had the audacity to believe that this thirteen-year-old girl could take control of her own learning, and someone tried to figure out how to make that happen, not just for María but for hundreds of other young people like her, and, more audaciously, for the adults whom Maria looks to for guidance in her learning'." (Richard Elmore, “What Happens When Learning Breaks Out in Rural Mexico”, Education Week http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/futures_of_reform/2011/05/what_happens_when_learning_breaks_out)
Since then, groups of students in the Leadership Doctoral Program (Harvard Graduate School of Education) have come regularly to Mexico for week long visits to schools in various states. Others come as well, One of the most recent visitors to Mexican schools linked by tutorial networks, professor Charlotte Ryan of Massachusetts University at Lowell, wrote a very informative report that can be seen on the web page redesdetutoria.org. On the same page, there is a brief documentary, “Maravillas”, with subtitles in English, which offers a glimpse into the personal changes that tutorial relationships effect in teachers, students and their families.
Nowadays tutorial networks are expanding rapidly in regions where educational authorities support them, and more slowly where they meet opposition; but they continue expanding by the strength that derives from personal conviction, and due to the interest of educational researchers, practitioners and policy makers in Mexico and elsewhere.
The coincidence of what we do in education with what Parecon proposes should take place in the larger society is clearly visible in the centrality given to personal exchanges among free, responsible individuals and groups. The mainspring of participation, educational, economic or otherwise, is the respect due to any member, the recognition of each person’s unfathomable value and the egalitarian approach with which common work is being done. Sharing knowledge in tutorial dialogues equalizes power, shoulders social tasks and generates community. The process rests on the energy that is best distributed in the world: the personal energy of every person, which is basic, free and powerful, and goes beyond the specific acts of tutoring, because it necessarily transforms institutional structures, forcing them to make room for new autonomous, convivial relationships.