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About the Spiral Model of Education

The spiral model from Education for Changing Unions

The spiral model illustrates several important principles of popular education:

  • that it begins with the experiences and interests of the participants,
  • that the content of the educational process flows from their experience,
  • that new information is needed,
  • that through a collective process of dialogue participants explore their experiences and identify problems they wish to address,
  • that the participants themselves are the source of the strategy for action and must develop the skills for taking action,
  • that action is part of the learning process.

Emily Schnee first introduced me to this model and I have used it as a basic framework for thinking about popular education ever since. In putting together this handbook I used the spiral model as scaffolding, with Chapters Two to Six corresponding to the steps in the spiral model above. Chapters One and Seven deal with important parts of the educational process that are not represented in the model.

In the beginning, there is something. Before the spiral begins, there is a context -- where we are, who we are, how we got there, where we want to go. As I have worked in labor education, the importance of context in shaping the content and possibilities of popular education has become clearer and clearer, so I now think of the spiral as including a kind of pre-step in which the context is determined. Chapter One of this handbook looks at the problem of context and offers activities to help educators and activists think about it.

Step One is a combination of sharing experiences and building trust. In order to move forward, participants need to establish a collaborative working relationship and begin a democratic dialogue. (Chapter Two in this handbook corresponds to this step.)

Out of the shared experiences, themes emerge -- issues that people share, problems they face, differences of opinion. Step two is to identify these themes (find patterns) and analyze them. How do these problems work? Where do they come from? (See Chapter Three for more on this.)

Step three is adding/acquiring/mastering new information. Some of this information comes via the facilitator and or the sponsoring group. Some of it comes from other sources. Some comes from research carried out by participants themselves. A crucial part of this step is learning how to use the new information and seeing how it affects the analysis of problems carried out in the previous step. (Chapter Four.)

The fourth step is planning for action and practicing skills. This is where people are creating strategy and tactics, thinking about what they want and how they plan to get it. (Chapter Five.)

Step five, action, is crucial. I think the image in Educating for a Change is right, the connection between education and action is not a solid line. It is not so predictable. Any given educational process may not produce action. Or it may take a long time, or come up in an unexpected way. The educator may or may not have a connection to that step and certainly does not control it. (Chapter Six looks at action and how it relates to the educational process.)

But, looking at the diagram above you might think that action is outside the learning process, the possible application in practice of whatever was developed in the previous steps, rather than an integral part of the learning process. The authors of Educating for a Change see action as part of the spiral, and other images in Educating for a Change reflect that. But, to emphasize the point and because there are important questions and useful educational tools that follow action, in this handbook, there is an explicit sixth step: reconstruction and assessment. That step overlaps with the first step of a new spiral. (Chapter Seven.)

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