This post was originally published on Dot Learnt.
What are the conditions needed for community education initiatives to thrive?
A few animated dinner conversations and back-of-the-envelope brainstorms later, I feel like I am finally starting to formulate a satisfying answer. But, before I share my thoughts, let’s quickly define community education so that we are on the same page:
Community Education: learning and social development work with individuals and groups in their communities using a range of formal and informal methods. A common defining feature is that programs and activities are developed in dialogue with communities and participants. The purpose of community learning and development is to develop the capacity of individuals and groups of all ages… [and] to improve their quality of life (Wikipedia).
Back to the question at hand… Here are some thoughts on the necessary ingredients required for community education initiatives to deliver true value (i.e. increased community skills, cohesion, happiness, health, etc.). Community education should be:
Demand driven and/or horizon expanding: People in the community should be calling for it (e.g. a particular course, talk, arts event, etc.) or be delighted by the opportunity when it comes. For example, at a recent education event at the Shelter (a community co-working and event space in Dubai) in which the topic of “permaculture” came up in passing discussion, it became clear that community members were intrigued by the topic. So, we organized a separate event on permaculture (a new topic to most people in the community) and now people are asking for more workshops, theory and practical advice on how to bring permaculture principles to their homes and workplaces.
Practical: From the topic, to the price, to the time of day, if an initiative isn’t relevant to people’s lives or easy to attend, it simply won’t gain the momentum needed to stand the test of time. In Ras al Khaimah we used to only deliver professional development to teachers on Saturdays. While this works for some teachers, we found that many female teachers (particularly within certain cultures) simply can’t take a Saturday “off” from family obligations and expectations. So we now offer courses on weekends and during weekday evenings. Also, because many teachers don’t have the extra cash to support their own professional development, we’ve had to find the right partners to fund workshops—partners that see value and that benefit from a local teaching force with enhanced skills in the areas of leadership, action research and technology.
The result of a strong listening process: Ask yourself, “What is my community calling for in this moment?” Listen without judgment or cynicism. Often the answers with regard to “what education to provide and how” are right in front of our eyes and ears.
Open and connecting: In honor of building respect and bonds between members of the community, initiatives should be open to all types of people within the community and all kinds of ideas. Be careful when using words like “exclusive” and “VIP” to describe a community education event, as such language can lead to community stratification rather than community cohesion.
Fun and friendly: As I learned when teaching English to businessmen in Japan nearly 10 years ago, “If the students aren’t having fun and they aren’t making friends with one another, they won’t come back!” If your community education workshop has a soporific effect, take the time to spice it up before word spreads that “It’s a bore!”
Dynamic and changing: What worked for learners of yesteryear, may not work for learners of today. Aim for community education initiatives to be current and to entertain—consumers of today expect “product updates” much more frequently than consumers in the past.
Respect tradition and place: Don’t discount the power of culture, history and location! If you’re expanding your initiative from one community to another, make sure you take the time to localize your offering first. A few years ago, we facilitated a series of workshops for a group of young business people in Lebanon and were later asked to bring the workshops to a group of young business people in Dubai. Due to time constraints, we delivered the second set of workshops without much modification (a mistake). Now, one of my mantras is “Localize. Localize. Localize!”
Organized just enough: As the Art of Hosting puts it, “Where is that sweet spot between chaos and order where good work can happen? What is the minimum amount of order we need to have in place to work together?”
With several community education initiatives on the horizon, I’d love to hear your feedback on the aforementioned list. Please leave your thoughts, questions and comments below!
Image available under CC licensure by Susan NYC.