Virtual Unknowns: Poverty, Culture and Class on the Internet

When I read this in Adult Learning: An Overview by Stephen Brookfield (1995):

After criticisms that the emphasis on self-directed learning as an adult characteristic was being uncritically advanced, that studies were conducted mostly with middle class subjects, that issues [concerning] the quality of self-directed learning projects were being ignored and that it was treated as disconnected from wider social and political forces, there have been some attempts to inject a more critical tone into work in this area.

it reminded me of a Bridges out of Poverty training I once attended and how there has seemed to be something missing in the theories of adult learning that I have explored so far. Despite the attention to tailoring the learning experience to a learner’s roles and experiences, there may be an assumption in the background that fails to factor in the complexity that poverty adds to needs of adult learners.

I raise this as a point to consider because the Bridges out of Poverty training identified profound differences in how various populations process information, communicate and make decisions. As the summary of a related book by Dr. Ruby K. Payne points out, these differences tend to be “virtually unknown” to people with middle class or wealthy backgrounds, which does make me wonder about how the impacts of class divisions and poverty have been considered by adult learning theorists.

The Internet seems capable of making class divisions more profound and acute. There is already a sharp divide between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. As the field of online education develops, it seems important to acknowledge the class-based differences of learners in order to reduce the risk of replicating and strengthening class divisions that can exclude populations from the educational opportunity of the internet.

This site has a description of the Bridges out of Poverty book:

Bridges Out of Poverty is a unique and powerful tool designed specifically for social, health, and legal services professionals. Based in part on Dr. Ruby K. Payne’s myth shattering A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Bridges reaches out to the millions of service providers and businesses whose daily work connects them with the lives of people in poverty.

and a description of A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Dr. Ruby K. Payne:

How does poverty impact learning, work habits and decision-making?

People in poverty face challenges virtually unknown to those in middle class or wealth—challenges from both obvious and hidden sources. The reality of being poor brings out a survival mentality, and turns attention away from opportunities taken for granted by everyone else.

These perspectives and the supporting research are valuable tools for the development of online resources. The ‘daily work’ of the internet is to connect people, including those who live in poverty and those who seek to eradicate poverty.

This is a promotional video for the Bridges out of Poverty DVD Series:

There is another layer of complexity that the Brookfield article highlights in its critique of adult learning concepts:

These myths (which, taken together, comprise something of an academic orthodoxy in adult education) hold that adult learning is inherently joyful, that adults are innately self-directed learners, that good educational practice always meets the needs articulated by learners themselves and that there is a uniquely adult learning process as well as a uniquely adult form of practice.

As noted earlier, the development of the field of child education seems to be tracking concepts from adult learning theories, apparently as something of a response to the observed changes in how children learn in the context of their immersion in the online environment.

When thinking about how to design a site that provides information and links to community resources for survivors of crime, one of the main issues that stands out from Brookfield’s critique is that it is not “inherently joyful” to learn about victimization and exploitation, particularly if the community does not offer many resources. In addition, a crisis situation or the effects of trauma may impact how ’self-directed’ a learner is, as this adult learning concept may assume that someone is free from barriers such as fear, stress and anguish as they attempt to find information and resources related to their difficult situation.

This makes the development of online educational resources more complicated, but the Internet has the potential to create options for learners based on their needs. Information can be presented in a variety of ways and the Internet allows the user to navigate to the information that meets their needs. Development of an online educational resource can look to adult learning concepts for design ideas about how to present the information options.

Brookfield also raises the complicated factor of culture and the learning process:

Mezirow’s early work (conducted with women returning to higher education) focused on the idea of perspective transformation which he understood as the learning process by which adults come to recognize and re-frame their culturally induced dependency roles and relationships.

… More recently he has drawn strongly on the work of Jurgen Habermas to propose a theory of transformative learning “that can explain how adult learners make sense or meaning of their experiences, the nature of the structures that influence the way they construe experience, the dynamics involved in modifying meanings, and the way the structures of meaning themselves undergo changes when learners find them to be dysfunctional” (Mezirow, 1991, p.xii).

… Applications of Mezirow’s ideas have been made with widely varying groups of adult learners such as displaced homemakers, male spouse abusers and those suffering ill health, though his
work has been criticised by educators in Nigeria, the United States, New Zealand and Canada for focusing too exclusively on individual transformation (Collard and Law, 1989; Ekpenyong, 1990; Clark and Wilson, 1991).

One of the ultimate objectives in the background of a site that collects resources and information for survivors of violence is a re-framing of culturally-induced dependency roles and relationships. It may look like information about how to file for child support, how to apply for a restraining order and other ways to alter roles and relationships, but fundamentally it is a foundation for a cultural shift – the available resources help show that there are alternatives to a culture based on abusive roles and relationships.

I had never considered traditional empowerment to be “committing cultural suicide” in the manner discussed by Brookfield, but it does seem like a decent fit for what happens (or is intended to happen) when presenting certain kinds of information to survivors of violence. For example, the culture tells a survivor various myths, such as the attack being all their fault due to the clothes they wore, or that if they were intoxicated “they had no idea whether they gave consent or not,” or that men can’t be raped or be considered victims of domestic abuse. Part of the educational materials on these subjects would include a “myths and facts” component and it is ultimately aimed at changing the culture. This presentation of information asks the learner to abandon cultural understandings they may have about their experiences. (Which is a tricky thing, because survivors often are inclined to cast abuse or assault as their fault because it lends an artificial sense of control to an otherwise overwhelmingly uncontrollable experience). Thinking through the design of a site that collects resources for survivors of violence brings up several issues about the nature of adult learners and the vast differences that exist due to a learner’s experiences, including culture, class and financial resources.

I think it is interesting how Brookfield believes that a more thorough “understanding of how people experience episodes of critical reflection” and how they cope with this “cultural suicide” would help educators “respond to fluctuating rhythms of denial and depression in learners.” From my perspective, it seems that every learner is going to be different and have a unique set of cultural understandings, cognitive skills and emotional resources, but it seems logical to suggest that people appear to go through stages when they are learning.

Brookfield talks about how “a language needs to be found to describe this process to educators,” yet in some ways he already may be speaking it when he talks about “denial” and “depression.” What Brookfield discusses as “perspective transformation” sounds in many ways similar to the grieving process. From this perspective, “suicide” seems like the wrong word to use to describe a “transformation,” because the term “suicide” implies an ending, while a “transformation” implies a rebirth.

The “grief process” analogy may be particularly important to the content of the site that focuses on education related to domestic violence and sexual assault, because the shedding of cultural concepts and the acceptance of new ones can be fundamental to the recovery, and it seems that what Brookfield highlights in learners in general also happens with survivors in a much more visible and profound manner.


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