Listening Workshops - Or the Simplest Step to Educational Reform

Is 'bottom up' change really possible?
If you are an educational functionary, by now you must be  fed up of hearing how planning and change have to be 'bottom up'. By which is usually meant that those who are 'under' you must somehow begin to contribute, own and implement a range of actions. And you inwardly wonder if this is ever going to happen!

It was during a discussion on precisely such views that the idea of a listening workshop emerged. Colleagues in the Institute of Educational Development (IED) in BRAC University, Bangladesh felt that a 'listening workshop' might help them understand teachers and grassroots functionaries better.

Listening workshop - a straightforward structure
It was agreed that before forming any views, it is critical to simply listen to teachers and head teachers. Hence a straightforward meeting / interaction / workshop was designed around the following three questions that would be asked of teachers and head teachers:

  • What do you really do? Exactly what does your work involve?
  • What do you like doing?
  • What do you find difficult or dislike doing?

It was also agreed that IED colleagues initiating the discussion would only listen, and not prompt or provide leading questions or offer any comment from their side. In other words, they really had to listen rather than talk!

So why is all this worth writing about? Because around ten such listen workshops were actually conducted, and most turned out to have  a very interesting pattern, followed by an unexpected twist.

What teachers felt
The listening workshops, it transpired, tended to proceed in the following stages.

  • Teachers found it really difficult to believe that anyone could come down from the capital only to listen to them! There had to be a 'hidden conspiracy' or an 'agenda' they were not aware of... It would take anywhere from 40-60 minutes to convince the participants that the intention really was to listen to them. (What do you think this tells us about the functionaries that teachers usually deal with?)
  • Once teachers believed the above, their initial reaction was that of giving vent to all their frustration and anger at 'you people who sit up there and form all kinds of views about us without ever visiting the field and observing the realities for yourself.'
  • Finally, teachers would pour their hearts out on the three questions given above.

The teachers' replies have of course begun to inform the work of the institute in many ways. However, it was the completely unanticipated outcome below that left everyone (cautiously) elated.

The unexpected 'reform'
In the case of a large number of teachers who participated, a few days after the listening workshop it was found that they were implementing many new pedagogical actions in their classrooms! In the entire discussion, at no point had they been asked to make any improvement in their classrooms. So it was not as if teachers did not know improved methods - a large number of in-service interactions had ensured that they had had exposure. It's just that they were not using them. But for some reason the listening workshops triggered a change process in the classrooms!

What do you think this tells us about teachers, about their motivations, and about the kind of relationships they experience? If you can bear the initial first hour, isn't holding a listening workshop the simplest way to initiate educational reform at the local level?