Can a community move past its history of conflicts, social injustices, and political polarization to find a common goal in building a better future? Every two or four years, we hope that civil society as a united entity will exercise its democratic job of electing new representatives that will lead us to this journey. But beyond that seasonal event, we are yet to develop a more robust, inclusive and participatory model of collective engagement in democracy.
(This article was originally written in December 2019 as a final paper for a Learning Sciences course. It was my second academic investigation about collaboration and civic engagement. See the first one)
Almost two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, described the ability of civil society engaging effectively as “knowledge of how to combine“, learning how to transform individual self-interests into common interests, to build bonds of solidarity, and to acquire the skills of democratic self-governance, including deliberation, decision making, accountability, strategizing, and taking action (Ganz & Reyes III, 2019). However, even today, the learning process for this kind of complex and deep knowledge in civics education, as well as in other subjects, doesn’t happen in traditional schools, more focused on memorization of facts and procedures. As a result, instructionism (Sawyer, 2014), how the traditional schooling approach can be called, has been failing to support learners to participate in 21st-century society.
Researchers of the Learning Sciences have been investigating for the past decades the learning environments that are favorable for learners to develop a deep conceptual understanding that is more useful, profound and transferable to real-world settings. Social interaction and collaboration play an important role in promoting this deep learning, especially when learners work together on finding a solution for a complex real-world problem, share their ideas, search and exchange information, negotiate among possibilities, argue with each other, reflect on the process, and construct shared knowledge (Krajcik & Shin, 2014). The proposal of active construction of knowledge where everyone is involved in a collective effort that will advance their community shared knowledge, and in that way, also support the individual learning process – a community of learners (Collings & Kapur) is addressed by the Knowledge Building (KB) pedagogy (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014).
This article explores the aspects of the learning community in the KB pedagogy and the case of civil-society-led Greensboro’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GRTC), the first of its kind to happen in the United States. My purpose is to provide insight into the characteristics of a successful collaborative knowledge building experience that aimed at social justice, in the hope of ultimately gather the aspects needed for setting a collaborative learning space that promotes deep shared understanding for participatory democracy.
Collaborative learning community
In my previous paper, “Engaged Classroom: collaborative learning for civic engagement“, I mapped aspects of a learning environment focused on critical thinking by studying the concepts of engaged pedagogy (bell hooks, 1994) and guided improvisation (Sawyer, 2019). In sum, an engaged classroom would be a dynamic, exciting and collaborative learning space that fosters deep shared understanding and is open for reflection on different individual perspectives.
For the Learning Sciences, deep learning is the most effective way of learning, that leads to creative knowledge, a kind of knowledge to approach new challenges, to think beyond the given information, and to find creative solutions to problems (Sawyer, 2019). In other words, it is an understanding of complex concepts such as Tocqueville’s “knowledge of how to combine” and being able to apply it and connect it to new situations. It is the knowledge to address the 21st-century challenges.
Differently from instructionism and its emphasis on individual learning, the Learning Sciences has found out that the best learning for creative knowledge results from a particular kind of social interaction, that is when a diverse group of learners works together in a situated activity to construct shared understanding (Krajcik & Shin, 2014). In a learning community approach, learners are encouraged to share their knowledge, work on problems together, researching, discussing their ideas, and ultimately learning collectively (Collins & Kapur, 2014).
Similarly, hooks points out in her proposal for an engaged pedagogy that the effort necessary for building a learning community is not a one-way street from teacher to students, but rather a dynamic exchange in the classroom (hooks, 1994). If it is always changing, there is not a default script to be applied to every class, just some goals, techniques and experiences to be used appropriately at each moment and situation. That leads us to the guided improvisation, as a pedagogy in which the support for this kind of learning that leads to creative knowledge should balance structure and freedom (Sawyer, 2019).
For informal educational settings, researchers have shown that effective learning can happen outside of formal schools if there is appropriate guidance (Nasir, Roseberry, Warren and Lee, 2014). In this case, the role as a catalyst and supporter for the collaboration, usually designated to teachers in traditional classrooms, is on the hands of facilitators, technology and/or the environment. Support for collaborative learning is important, because a rich collaboration is not a matter of putting people with different perspectives together, and just talking and working together don’t mean that people will inherently learn something (Miyake & Kirschner, 2014). The group activity should be structured so that “responsibility for learning is shared, expertise is distributed, and building on each other’s ideas is the norm” (Cindy & Howard, 2008).
Ideally, a learning community should have (Collins & Kapur, 2014) as main aspects: 1) diversity of expertise, 2) a shared objective, 3) an emphasis on the learning process, and 4) mechanisms of sharing what is learned. And its creative knowledge work is the one “that advances the state of community knowledge, however broadly or narrowly the community may be defined” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014).
There are several conditions needed for this collaborative knowledge building happen, as shown on this following list:
First, people must work on knowledge problems that arise from attempts to understand the world. Second, they must work with the goal of improving the coherence,quality, and utility of ideas. Third, participants must negotiate a fit between their own ideas and those of others and use the differences they find to catalyze knowledge advancement. Fourth, there must be collective responsibility for advancing the community’s understanding, and all participants must contribute. Fifth, participants must take a critical stance as they use various information sources. Finally, there must be knowledge-building discourse, which is more than knowledge sharing. In this kind of discourse, participants engage in constructing, refining, and transforming knowledge. (Cindy & Howard, 2008)
Hence, there is space for negotiation between different ideas in KB, with the ultimate collective goal of shared understanding. “Adversarial argumentation has a role, but collaborative discourse is the driver of creative knowledge work” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014).
It is important to highlight the role of the culture and aspects such as sense and belonging to allow that collaboration to happen. The creation of effective learning environments needs to address diversity to enhance learning, rather than something to overcome, while also addressing basic human needs for safety, belonging and identification, self-esteem, and respect (Nasir, Roseberry, Warren and Lee, 2014).
From a divided community to a learning community
The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GRTC) was not designed as a classroom or even intended as an informal classroom. But the way the citizens of Greensboro, North Carolina (US) worked together to create a shared understanding had similar aspects and conditions to the ones we’ve analyzed earlier.
On November 3, 1979, members of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party opened fire on an anti-Klan rally organized by a racially-mixed group of unarmed political activists and labor organizers in Greensboro, North Carolina. The local police were absent at the local, and the confrontation was recorded by news cameras. Five people died and 10 were injured, but criminal trials resulted in acquittals. Referred by some as “Greensboro Massacre”, it soon became ingrained in the city’s history as a controversial topic not to be discussed.
However, more than two decades later, a group of Greensboro’s citizens wanted to debate the episode, its context and aftermath, starting to form a Greensboro’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC) in 2004, modeled on the experiences of South Africa and other countries, such as Peru, Chile and East Timor.
There comes a time in the life of every community when it must look humbly and seriously into its past in order to provide the best possible foundation for moving into a future based on healing and hope. Many residents of Greensboro believe that for this city, the time is now. (GTRC Mandate)
- Shared goal of advancing the collective knowledge
“Shape the future by facing the past”, their motto, illustrates their shared objective of advancing the collective knowledge of their expanded community. Generally, truth and reconciliation commissions are created within some moment of political transition, investigating violations of human rights in the past and seeking accountability. In the GTRC’s case, they were inspired by other commissions but had their own motivations to initiate their work:
We believe that, while some transitions are dramatic, like countries emerging from a civil war or a period of repressive rule, others are more subtle. In Greensboro, we believe that this effort arises out of a willingness to honestly move from a less respectful and less tolerant city to one that is more democratic and more inclusive. (in GRTC Executive Summary)
Their purpose was to create an independent, democratically selected commission members that would conduct independent collective construction of the knowledge by investigating, researching, and documenting a material that would include different dimensions and perspectives – the story would then be shared with the community. It was an unofficial attempt (because it was initiated by civil-led organizations instead of the official authorities) with the logic that by confronting and elucidating the legacy of past human rights abuse, the community could build a more just, more stable, and more democratic future.
- Diversity of expertise among its members
It was a process initiated by groups related to the victims – the Beloved Community Center (BCC) and the Greensboro Justice Fund (GFJ), that connected and consulted with others, including the Andrus Family Fund (AFF) and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). And truth commissions are usually victim-oriented, offering an outlet for people to be heard in a new setting with new possibilities for understanding.
However, after the selection of the independent and diverse seven commissioners that were sworn in, the initial groups stepped aside to preserve the independent work of the GRTC. The selection panel included 14 interest groups from the community: political parties, religious groups, educational institutions, unions, and civic and neighborhood organizations.
The selected group of seven commissioners had an interdisciplinary profile, with people of different professional and personal backgrounds working together, which made a difference in bringing a different understanding from a traditional history or legal investigation. Their responsibility was for carrying out the program of research and community engagement ‘seeking truth and working for reconciliation’ for two years. “To get a commission that has broad acceptance you have to involve the widest number of different constituencies, but the problem is where and how to involve them” (Magarrell & Wesley, 2008).
In their report, the GRTC also explained that they were not victim-biased and their independent operation had some important results to create a most diverse account of facts. For example, being able to invite Klansmen for the public hearings. And decisions like this one would make the commissioners think of aspects such as creating safe space in a literal way (i.e. negotiating security with the police department, setting public hearings in a neutral space – city’s train station), but also creating a safe space for the inclusion and sharing of different perspectives:
“Once we agreed that we were going to applaud each person as a way of saying thank you, that resolved the problem, and so from then on we did that as a group and applauded Klansmen and we applauded former Communist Workers Party people and we applauded police officers and attorneys and whoever else spoke, just as a way of saying thanks”. (Magarrell & Wesley, 2008)
For the commissioners, working in a diverse group with a mandate (set in the beginning, that served as a guide throughout the process) helped them to seek a truth “that was not mediated by a tendency toward civility over reality”. In the end, the GRTC noted that they were able to speak plainly about the “elephant in the room”: about race and about the class lines that are implicit in any discussion of that topic. (M & W, 2008)
- Emphasis on the learning process
In general, truth commissions are viewed as one part of a larger effort to achieve social justice and it can take years, involving authorities, victims, people to be prosecuted, and the larger community within. The GTRC started as an idea to create activities to mark the 20th anniversary of November 3. It evolved to thinking through what a truth commission process would require and how it would work to achieve both objectives of truth and reconciliation. As their report tells, it also involved defining the relation of the project to official actors, to victims and to national figures, the kind of process and products they sought and reflecting on the factors that favored and challenged the potential success of the project.
As a learning community, the people involved, centered in the commissioners’ work, had to negotiate between different ideas and used their differences to catalyze knowledge and had to take a critical stance while using various information sources. One of the commissioners reflected on the challenge of the research process, saying: “What research process can actually capture the emotions and feelings? And yet without that, we can’t do our work” (M & W). In an example of negotiation of perspectives to the knowledge building discourse:
“Local organizer Joseph Frierson, Jr., had argued strongly for providing some background because not many people were as aware of the history as the initiators. “We need the background information to give a personal feel, particularly to youth who were not there”, he said at the October meeting. This was resolved through an attached document titled “Background, Meaning and Opportunity”. (M & W)
For the process that took two years, the main guidance in the structure of the process was provided by the GRTC Mandate defined in the beginning, that directed commissioners to examine the “context, causes, sequence and consequence” of the events of November 3. The finalized Mandate became the guiding “law” of the Commission, with a general statement of principle and purpose and an operative part that describes the Commission’s makeup, tasks, some key features of the process and the expected result. As the report says, it “served as a valuable tool for grounding us during many points in this difficult journey.”
We returned regularly to a few basic tensions that were addressed, but not completely answered, within the Mandate:
• Are truth and reconciliation opposing values, or are they inextricably linked?
• What is the difference between recrimination and establishing accountability? What is the difference between what we are doing and what happened in the three court trials around these events?
• Who were the victims from Nov. 3, 1979?
• How do we frame the “context, causes, sequence and consequence” of the events of Nov. 3, 1979, when the options are limitless?
• What does it mean to be an independent commission?
(GRTC final report)
There was also some eventual consultancy provided by the ICTJ, especially in the beginning to get the group of commissioners started on their collaborative work. In September 2004, the organization provided a retreat to help the GRTC work on a three-month plan and on a timeline for the work. They introduced the Sout African and Peruvian cases served as comparative examples the commissioners could adopt or reject according to local needs.
“The ICTJ warned that commissions tend to underestimate the intensity and time involved in producing a report. The Commission should start to define the report’s broad contours as research begins, and the report outline should start to take shape early” (M & W)
But beyond the early guidance and consultancy, the GRTC group of commissioners had the job to elaborate also their learning process. Given the grassroots nature of their initiative, they have faced challenges that official truth commissions have mechanisms to deal with, but they ultimately would focus on their unique process.
“Many (but not all) truth commissions were able to address gaps in information by using subpoena power that we, as a grassroots commission, did not have. However, we note that a subpoena is no guarantee that complete or truthful information will be produced. Moreover, we believe that the voluntary offering of statements by many parties who were openly suspicious or hostile to our process is more meaningful than forcing statement givers to the table; the fact that these people offered statements is a testament to the integrity of our process not only as a truth-seeking exercise but as a step toward reconciliation”. (GRTC final report)
Also, for the public hearings where they would include the expanded community of Greensboro to participate, the commissioners were responsible for setting the guidelines. Those hearings had multiple purposes, starting but not limited to giving victims and others a space for sharing their side of the story.
For the GRTC Commission, the public hearings were also considered as an event of public education and clarification, because it would bring their on-going work to the mainstream public discourse. They also mentioned it as a way to encourage the participation and the interest of the expanded community in their process, and avoid charges of bias by documenting the basis for conclusions in a public way.
By the end of their two-year work, commissioners also provided a reflection on the process, included in the report they created. Regarding their motivation: “Our individual and collective commitment to the truth helped us persevere. And the human stories and emotions we encountered along the way moved us to do our best to leave behind a legacy we hope will serve Greensboro for years to come”.
And also, reported their limitations: the GTRC “looked at a much bigger picture than any court has painted or than any group of people can tell”; “our efforts have taken us some distance away from the half-truths, misunderstanding, myths and hurtful interpretations that have marked the story until now”.
- Mechanisms of sharing what is learned
Besides the public hearings, the whole GRTC process and the report it produced were conceived of as tools for social change and for reconciliation. The complete report (530 pages including with annexes) reflects their assessment of the evidence gathered from “three trials, internal records from the Greensboro Police Department (GPD) and federal law enforcement, newspaper and magazine articles, academic literature, and over 150 documented interviews and personal statements given in private and at public hearings. (M & W).
Even though the final report notes that “would be not only arrogant but factually incorrect for any commission (or historian or scientist) to claim to have discovered the complete and perfect truth about any event’, the GRTC believed that they were presenting “a complex but important set of findings of forensic truth and also presented an array of narratives that together tell a deeper story “.
The GTRC was an example of a truth commission adapted to a city reality and this study doesn’t intend to set their example as a model that could be replicable everywhere. But this community’s efforts to move past its troubled history to search for a common goal in building a better future are a remarkable episode to inspire other civil-led initiatives that aspire to move past their differences. As they note in their report:
We have demonstrated this power in bringing to the table, against many dismissive predictions to the contrary, not only former communists, but former Klansmen and Nazis, residents of the Morningside neighborhood, police officers, judges, trial attorneys, city officials, journalists and citizens from all parts of the city. In the words of one attorney, we have demonstrated that this process can “begin to melt the ice” within which many in this community have been frozen and unable to reach each other. (GRTC final report)
This study also didn’t have the intention to analyze their results rather focusing on the building of a learning community. The seven commissioners led the shared construction of knowledge, expanding it to the participants of public and private hearings, news vehicles, and scholars.
Based on their reflections on the process of GRTC and KB principles, it would be interesting to design a framework for creating learning environments such as the GTRC providing support for collaborative learning by facilitators and technology. And for finding out what engaged communities are capable of, using the Knowledge Building answer (Scardamalia & Bereiter): “Let’s find out”.
Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver & Howard S. Barrows (2008) Facilitating Collaborative Knowledge Building, COGNITION AND INSTRUCTION, 26:1, 48-94, DOI: 10.1080/07370000701798495
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