10 October 2008

Discovering Dams: Education through Experience

Education has traditionally been defined as the transfer of information from the teacher to the student. Universities, even lecture halls themselves are structured so that individuals are presenting “facts” to large numbers of uneducated people. On occasion, the traditional educational model will use field-trips to supplement formal lectures, power-point presentations, and research projects. Is this educational model working for you? Have you felt personally connected to the topics and the issues you have studied thus far in you collegiate career?
This past week here at CIEE-Thailand we students experienced emotions and feelings that are all but forgotten at today’s schools and universities. Two distinct, but equally exciting realizations occurred as we completed our study of dams in Northeastern Thailand. First, every student became energized around the idea of changing the current global system that has led to the need for creation of dams for energy and irrigation. Individuals who were not necessarily interested in dams, dam construction, or the effect of dams were still able to seek out what intrigued them, and contributed to group discussions. Every single student ranging from Economists to Environmentalists were charged-up and ready to tackle the issues surrounding dams and the local communities they devastate. 

Along with this newly found desire to be more engaged students here became aware of the positive impact of learning in large groups and utilizing the “group process” educational model. When I say “group process” educational model I am basically referring to studying a subject or theme through the use of a large group. Ideas are circulated amongst individuals, the collective conscious is used, and people learn both from and with each other.

Through collectively visiting and researching dams we as a group combined the interest of 27 people into the overarching ideas of discovery and engagement. Beginning this week, a week we were to be studying dams and river-based communities in Northeastern Thailand individuals in this group of 27 were alone and indifferent. 

Until recently I had never heard the term “group process,” or personally toured a community whose livelihood and culture was destroyed by a dam. Last week, 26 individuals and I experienced education by living with the communities affected by dams, not simply studying them. We had already completed a course that focused on food rights in Thailand; however, our group had no unity, and lectures on dams’ construction had failed to focus the energy of these many individuals. Personal issues were creating animosity within our group, and a lack of interest in the subject matter made large discussions difficult and unproductive. So, we began our five day “field trip” under a cloud of uncertainty. Was this large group education model going to succeed? Does anyone here really care about dams?

One of the first stops on our trip involved interviewing a member of the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The students had practiced their line of questioning, and were mentally prepared to prod this person’s mind to determine the government’s reasoning behind building dams. For me personally, during this interview is when I began to feel creativity and excitement flow from my classmates. One of the defining moments in triggering our group process was when the EGAT official responded to a question about villagers by saying, “If they don’t understand, we make them understand.” In an intermission break, students began to confront each other and share opinions about the EGAT official’s viewpoint. I watched my classmates begin to unite their individual interests around a single topic. What days of lecturing had failed to produce, a quote had done in mere seconds. Twenty-seven minds bounced ideas back and forth like a pinball machine, and our group finally began to learn together. 

Following the EGAT interview we visited local communities, witnessed heated discussions between those benefited and those affected by dams, and viewed government corruption and exploitation first-hand. Members of our group pursued what topics interested them most, but since we were learning together every person was exposed to everyone else’s thoughts. Finishing our 5 day tour that focused on dams, not one single student was left without a strong opinion, or the passion to learn more. The staff at CIEE was forced to form “hot topic” groups to try to capture the overwhelming energy that our group now possessed. Some students even went so far as to give up their 4 free days to return to the communities we had toured in the hopes of learning even more.

I honestly can say that before I came to Thailand I was content with learning through traditional means of education and within the teacher-student relationship. I struggled with the concept of “group process” to the point were I questioned why I had chosen to willingly come to Thailand and subject myself to this form of education. Reflecting on this past week, I am forced to recognize the power of a collective conscious working together and feeding off itself. I know, and can never be convinced otherwise, that books, lectures, and years of formal education cannot generate interests and emotions like hands-on experience. 

I have been able to better understand myself and the issues I have been studying because of my choice to be involved in the previously described “group process.” I have witnessed individuals who truly did not care about dams become so driven to act that they have given up personal time to further research solutions.

I know the concept of group process may seem unclear to you, and you may believe that “field-trips” are the best way to understand an issue. I encourage you to write me and share your stories and opinions that relate to either learning as a group, or building group unity. What experiences have you been involved in that have really pushed you to act and explore? Do you understand what I mean when I say “group process?” Let me know.

Matt Palamara - University of Colorado at Boulder


Ari said...

Matt, I absolutely adore this piece. After reading it, I found myself all riled up again, and ready to further explore the many issues that came up during the water unit. I'm sure that when the CGE students read this, not only will they better understand the content of our program, but they will also feel challenged to consider the model of education to which we are all exposed in the States, and how we might better our learning by using alternative models, like the one we use here in Thailand. I appreciate your insights on exactly how, why, and when group process really started to work for us, and what we, as a group, were then able to achieve throughout our remaining time in the water unit. I think that many of us had some sort of epiphany during the EGAT exchange, and it's exciting to think that these many individual realizations then translated into a very powerful moment for the whole group.

Suzanne said...

I must admit that I came into this program thinking that in all likelihood, I would love group process despite the fact that I had no idea what it is. I was under the misconception that group process meant we were going to talk about our feelings and analyze ourselves and our role in society especially when dealing with issues of globalization, development, human rights, etc. It was through this unit on dams that I too began to see the true power of using the group to educate and learn. When you have a group of twenty three students ranging from 19-22 years old, the opinions are going to vary greatly if only for the fact that not every person has been raised with the same values, beliefs, and ideas. Using the group to mesh many diverging views together creates the most dynamic discussions, debates, and ideas. Learning the facts and figures from the pre-departure lectures pail in comparison to the value of the discussion that occurred after EGAT said if someone disagrees with them, they will “make them understand.” Upon completing the dam unit, if I could recommend two words to Corporations like EGAT that take on large scale development projects and consequently cause protests, unrest, and economic losses, it would be group process.

Kellyn said...

It is a refreshing why and when I have enjoyed the group process model. Sometimes I struggle with whether it is the group process that I enjoy or the alternative mode of education-education through experience. Perhaps they are inseparable.
On another note, I found that we as individuals, while we wrestle with the incessant amount of time we spend together, and the struggle to maintain our unique individualities in the midst of the collective conscience, it is in these struggles that we grow the most. Not only as students exposed to the interests and passions of other intellectuals, but as people who must learn to encourage, be aware of, listen to, and challenge the rest of those in our immediate community.
No doubt, we will probably never been in another situation where we will be "forced" into such a model. And I admit, I fear the return to reality-to the original mode of education, and even individualized lifestyles. But I look forward to seeing what exactly I have learned here, and how it has changed me and how I relate to others and my communities at home.

Cloe said...

In reading your blog, then personally reflecting on what I've seen our group accomplish through "group process" over the last two months, I am both blown away with our progress and a little hesitant to say this would work wonders for other groups as it has for ours. We have come a far way since our first exchanges where we attempted to create flows and designate roles among group members, then struggled to come up with strong and intriguing questions for our speakers. Since this point, we, as group members, have become more aware of our roles in the group and how to monitor actions in order to be more effective group members. However, it’s important to remember there was a time when our group was not moving forward progressively and we each decided once and for all that we were dedicated to this educational model and would carry it out to the best of our abilities while here in Thailand. I truly believe this was a turning point for our group in that we each devoted ourselves to the model. From this point onward, we dove more strongly into the material and let ourselves get emotionally involved with the content matter as well as each other. It has done wonders for our learning abilities, and I agree completely that I have learned more from this experience than my standard educational model at home where I resentfully soaked up information in lecture halls. I believe though, that this model has flourished for us due to our dedication and if someone were to be forced to accept this model, it would not have the same effect.