The Reflect approach has been used in Laos in since 2003. Training was provided to prepare trainers, and a number of pilot projects were launched with Community Learning Centres. The impact on the nonformal education sector has been positive. Activities have become more dynamic and learner participation has increased. Use of the approach in Laos has led to modifications in the methodology itself. In many cases, however, the changes tend to be relatively superficial. Approaches such as Reflect enliven the practice of education and help to strengthen confidence, especially in women. Real change, however, takes time.
Although the Lao people today enjoy peace, political stability and reasonably high economic growth, the predominantly rural population still faces considerable hardship. Those in remote and hard-to-reach areas, often inhibited by a diversity of ethno-linguistic groups, suffer from severe poverty and marginalization. Women are particularly vulnerable. This is reflected in low literacy rates: in the 56 educationally most disadvantaged districts identified by the Lao government, the literacy rates among women are only 37 %; in some of the ethno-linguistic groups even less than 5 %. (Ministry of Education 2010: 7) One of the most pressing problems for the poor is food insecurity, which affects about two thirds of the rural population.
Non-formal Youth and Adult Education, focusing on literacy, life skills as well as basic vocational skills training, is considered by the Lao government as one possible means of overcoming marginalization and the vicious cycle of poverty. For a long time, however, non-formal Adult Education was mainly limited to the provision of detached literacy skills, taught in a school-like fashion with little opportunity for active learning of relevant information. In effect, to date non-formal Adult Education is still not sufficient; by and large, relevance and content do not meet the needs of target groups.
The introduction of the Reflect methodology to adult learning in 2003 was heartily welcomed in Laos, because of its innovative attempt to engage participants in self-directed learning processes. Reflect fuses the philosophy of Paulo Freire with the methodology of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and other creative learning methods. Following the Reflect approach, no external curriculum or pre-given primers and “textbooks” are supposed to be used, as participants are encouraged to choose topics and develop their own learning materials reflecting their needs. Above all, Reflect promotes “transformative learning” and aims at the “empowerment” of participants and communities, by linking literacy learning with wider (community) development initiatives and developing the means of communication, including literacy, necessary to shape their lives.
Reflect in Laos was first piloted in 2003 in the context of an ActionAid Vietnam cross-border initiative in eastern Laos. Several Lao Reflect Master Trainers were instructed and later, with ongoing support from Vietnamese experts, in turn trained facilitators in two more pilot projects in northern Laos, including one attempt to implement Reflect circles in the framework of revitalised Community Learning Centres. A fourth attempt to pilot Reflect in southern Laos is currently in process, with support by DVV International, which recently opened a Regional Office in the Lao capital Vientiane. During the preparatory phase of this latest Reflect pilot project, DVV International and its partners tried to gain information in order to learn about experiences made in the existing Reflect projects in Laos. In the course of several study tours and intensive exchanges with participants, facilitators, village and district authorities, as well as the Department of Non-formal Education (DNFE), which coordinates these projects, it was learned that the Reflect methodology apparently brings about new impulses in the NFE sector. The feedback given by all the various partners involved in the pilot projects during the study tours and beyond is predominantly positive. Reflect indeed helps to foster lively discussions as well as more active and meaningful learning in the communities. Compared to the conventional adult literacy classes, a clear improvement can be discerned. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge the numerous challenges facing the implementation and practise of this innovative approach in marginalised communities in Laos. Further improvement and perhaps even an integration of Reflect in the Lao NFE policy depend on how these difficulties are dealt with. In addition, it is particularly worthwhile to shed some light on ways in which the Reflect methodology is not only adapted but apparently transformed, which indicates that methodologies are highly dependent on contextual factors.
To be sure, diversity of practice is in fact a strength and actively encouraged in the framework of Reflect. However, even fundamental characteristics and principles of the approach are hardly recognisable in circles in Laos. The most prominent innovations of Reflect, like the abandoning of pre-given primers and external curricula and the use of PRA graphics, are affected. For instance, primers are still widely used in Reflect circles in Laos in combination with PRA tools promoted by Reflect. The reasons for the continuing use of primers and textbooks are many-fold. First of all, participants as well as facilitators expressed their wish to use these books as they find it immensely difficult, especially for non-literates, to learn (and teach) literacy skills without the help of textbooks. Many participants and facilitators report that they actually prefer a mixed methodology, with primers supporting the learning of literacy skills, particularly in the beginning, while continuously introducing the use of participatory and innovative learning methods. A Reflect evaluation from neighbouring Cambodia1 indicates that similar attitudes among facilitators and participants towards the use of primers are known there as well.
Reflect circle in Laos
Source: DVV International Asia
The extremely poor literacy environment in these remote, rural areas in Laos where Reflect was implemented may also contribute to the fact that participants and facilitators resort to the use of primers. Reading materials, like newspapers, pamphlets, letters, not to speak of books, are scarce or non-existent in most households and in many of the target villages as a whole. Larger settlements and district towns are often a day’s walk away, or more. Primers provided by the district education offices are among the few written materials accessible for many of the Reflect participants in rural Laos. The establishment of village libraries is hence crucial and in many villages where Reflect was piloted this has been done.
Apart from those challenges at village level, it is also important to note that the process of gaining acceptance at national, provincial and district level of such a novel approach to adult literacy and learning apparently takes time. The pilot projects in which Reflect is being tested are rather small, while the whole institutional environment in which they operate is still shaped by the notion that adult literacy learning is fundamentally based on primers, in accordance with the current national NFE policy. The external expectation to continue to use primers is hence still strong, even in the pilot projects where a different approach is tested.
Likewise, with regard to the use of a curriculum a similar situation prevails: although in Reflect circles participants are invited to jointly create lesson plans – a freedom which they highly value – this practise is possible only up to a certain point. The official NFE curriculum continues to be an important reference point. Lao NFE policy envisages that roughly half of the topics in adult learning classes, be that in a Reflect circle or a “traditional” adult literacy class, are taken from the national curriculum, while the other half is chosen by facilitators and participants themselves according to their needs. This policy is put in place in order to ensure that, upon completion, participants of NFE programmes are able to obtain equivalency certificates to primary schooling.
Source: DVV International Asia
Observations of Reflect sessions also indicate that teaching and learning is still conducted very much in a school-like fashion, although certainly more discussions, active learning, games and fun is involved compared to conventional literacy classes. Participants are usually asked to give comments and express their ideas; nonetheless, the Reflect “facilitator” appears to continue being the “teacher” who still tends to have control of the knowledge. Following the discussions, conventional “copying from the blackboard” is still common in some circles. In addition, it was observed that facilitators give marks throughout the learning process, in order to motivate the learners. Again, this practise seems to stem from mutual agreement between facilitators and participants as it reflects the common understanding of education as schooling in rural areas in Laos (and beyond). Reflect circles are still to a great extent perceived as just another form of schooling. Change of this perception comes very slowly, even though Reflect facilitators are continuously exposed to different messages.
The difficulty of creating a meaningful participatory learning process which is supposed to be initiated in the Reflect circles is also apparent when looking at the use and impact of PRA graphics. The production of these is certainly enjoyed by participants, and facilitators are also proud to facilitate analysis and discussions with the help of such new methodology, even though the use of local materials to create these tools is not popular, flipcharts and blackboards are clearly preferred. In effect, an array of maps, matrices and calendars often decorate the walls of the “classrooms” in which the Reflect participants meet. When it comes to the actual impact of those analyses, there is however little evidence that these indeed enhance a profound learning process and trigger community action. Analysis tends to be somewhat superficial; development messages conveyed in the Reflect circles hardly differ from those in the conventional adult literacy classes, although due to more discussions and input of participants they are more relevant to the context of the participants and perhaps more likely to be accepted. After problems are analysed and solutions discussed in the sessions, participants usually promise to change their old habits according to this new knowledge before moving on to the next topic. “Action Plans” are rarely carried out; it is reported that occasionally participants inform their neighbours about the needs to improve a certain hygiene practice, like boiling water or the advantages of building toilets. Though livelihood skills training and income-generating schemes like pig and poultry raising or weaving are, or were, implemented in many circles in the Reflect pilot projects, they usually did not originate from any sophisticated analysis conducted in the circles and their implementation depended heavily on external support.
What are the implications of these experiences with the Reflect methodology in Laos? One issue is obvious: the need for more and better training of facilitators and Reflect Master Trainers is crucial. It can be argued that from the very beginning of the transfer of the Reflect approach from Vietnam, there was a lack of proper appropriation and adaptation to the Lao context.
Poor understanding and training, however, may not be the only reasons for the challenges described above. The experience with Reflect in practice in Laos resonates strongly with findings of ethnographic studies on adult literacy programs elsewhere, including one in-depth research of Reflect circles in the framework of ActionAid projects in Bangladesh and Uganda (Fiedrich & Jellema, 2003), which indicate similar challenges when introducing new approaches and methodologies. In her UNESCO-award winning ethnographic research on different approaches to adult literacy in Nepal, Anne Robinson-Pant (2000: 76) for instance found that “literacy approaches in practice look very different from in theory”, because they “can be transformed in the implementation stage – not because facilitators are insufficiently ‘trained’ in these approaches but because they respond to local circumstances and demands.” (158) Hence, she observed how “specific educational innovations, such as LGM [Learner or Locally Generated Materials], may be transformed by the users, who in reality employ a mixture of teaching methods and interpret materials according to the local context and beliefs.” (157) The researchers who closely observed Reflect circles in Uganda and Bangladesh come to a similar conclusion; they too observed how educational innovations of Reflect were often distorted and transformed on the ground. Furthermore, the authors argue that
“even with flawless application of Reflect methods in every circle, the meaning and hence the ‘impact’ of literacy programmes would still have been beyond ActionAid’s control. Literacy classes have to be actively invented and negotiated by those involved, within a particular institutional and cultural context.”
(Fiedrich & Jellema 2003: 182)
New methodologies are apparently only one factor in a given literacy programme, and it cannot be assumed that aspired learning processes can be achieved by implementing a certain methodology. This is also true with regard to intended outcomes such as “empowerment”:
“Planners cannot assume that a particular literacy approach is linked to a certain development outcome (e.g. Freirean literacy leading to empowerment or functional literacy leading to health awareness).” (Robinson-Pant 2000: 107)
Literacy course in a community learning centre
Source: DVV International Asia
As far as it has been observed and reported, Reflect circles in Laos can hardly be described as the forums for empowerment which the Reflect approach is supposed to create. There is little evidence that emancipatory or transformative learning, or “concientization”, take place to any meaningful extent. The literacy programmes which piloted the Reflect approach in Laos are obviously much more of a functional literacy approach nature. Reflect evaluations from many other countries indicate that this is not unusual. In the case of Laos this is not surprising given the dominant discourse of functional literacy focusing on increasing productivity of learners and the assumption that literacy, understood as technical skills independent of the context of application (“autonomous model” of literacy) is a magic bullet to many other development outcomes like improved health.
Nonetheless, Reflect evaluations from Laos and elsewhere continue to praise the empowerment gains, especially for women. This is possible partly because empowerment “has tended to become identified with learner-centred and directed activities in the classroom” (Robinson-Pant 2000: 33) and is furthermore often simply “equated with ‘functional’ in the literacy context or ‘confidence’ in relation to women.” (Robinson-Pant 2000: 45) Indeed, many female participants in Laos, which usually make up the vast majority in the circles, report that they enjoy more confidence and respect in their communities. The symbolic value of being literate appears to play an important role as it allows the participants to step up a rung on the status ladder. Women also report that they are now better able to “give comments” in groups, and particularly the improved language skills in the official language, Lao, for those belonging to one of the many ethno-linguistic groups who speak another mother tongue, is a valuable gain. While all this is very important, it does not necessarily follow that the inequitable gender relations are questioned or openly challenged. Given the contextual constraints facing most female participants, this seems not to be their priority; although it is surely possible and has been observed in the context of Reflect projects elsewhere that resistance against gender inequalities take place in more hidden spheres.
Above all, the women (and men) in the Reflect circles in Laos seem to be most concerned with overcoming food insecurity and often report that they hope for the chance to attend basic vocational skills training to improve cultivation practises or start animal raising activities, or else learn and improve skills for off-farm activities, such as weaving or food processing. Inasmuch as such skills training is part of the Reflect projects in Laos, as it is for instance the case in the context of the Community Learning Centres, the knowledge and skills regarding these issues are also valued higher than the “mere” literacy skills. In the Lao context, a major challenge lies in implementing effective ways of combining literacy learning with basic vocational skills training. While Reflect methodology is certainly a starting point, it’s particularly the provision of non-formal basic vocational skills training that has to be further improved and expanded. As that training offers the learners a direct chance for improving their livelihoods, it is presumably also in this sphere that learning literacy skills makes sense for participants and thus has a chance of becoming a more sustained practise. An interesting discussion and review of experiences of the issue of integrating literacy and basic vocational skills training can be found in Oxenham et al (2002).
The notion that women in the Reflect circles initiate a bottom-up mobilisation around their practical and strategic gender needs and influence service delivery, like the provision of needed vocational skills training, is currently a hardly realistic vision in the context of rural Laos. As mentioned above, Reflect evaluations worldwide show that this is very rarely achieved. Often Reflect circles are instead turned into self-help groups, and participants and communities have to rely solely on their own resources to build roads or schools. This is not unproblematic, as it tends to place the onus of poverty reduction on the poor alone. “You are not responsible for being down, but you are responsible for getting up” (Ulrich Bröckling), may describe the motto of the empowerment ideology in practise.
The introduction of Reflect in Laos is an enormous step in the right direction. It has been, however, not sufficient to profoundly change the conventional practises and beliefs around education and literacy in Laos. In order to tackle these, advocacy at all levels and constant support of facilitators is necessary. Change is not expected to come at a fast pace. In the meantime, it is important to acknowledge the local teaching situations and beliefs about education and the distortions in practise of approaches like Reflect, which are the result. Labels like Reflect, just as before the “Freirean approach”, as well as terms like empowerment, which all come along with high expectations, have to be used more carefully to describe adult literacy programmes and their anticipated outcomes:
“There is a danger otherwise, that such terminology remains at a symbolic rhetorical level particularly in plans and reports, only serving to widen the gap between policy makers and implementers.” (Robinson-Pant 2000: 158)
Fiedrich, Marc and Jellema, Anne (2003): Literacy, Gender and Social Agency: Adventures in Empowerment. A research report for ActionAid UK. London: ActionAid. Available at: www.dfid.gov.uk/r4d/PDF/Outputs/PolicyStrategy/paper53.pdf Ministry of Education (2010). National Socio-Economic Development Plan, Education Sector 2011-2015. Vientiane: Government of Laos. Oxenham, John, et al (2002). Skills and Literacy Training for Better Livelihoods: A Review of Approaches and Experiences. Washington: The World Bank. Available at: www.worldbank.org Robinson-Pant, Anne (2000). Why eat green cucumbers at the time of dying?: Women’s literacy and development in Nepal. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education. Available at: www.unesco.org/education/uie/pdf/robinson.pdf
1 Numerous, mostly unpublished Reflect evaluations from Laos, Cambodia and other countries referred to in this article can be retrieved from the Reflect Basecamp, an online platform for exchange and discussions on Reflect. For more information see www.reflect-action.org
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