Growing A Learning Environment:The UFCW Training Centre
by Margerit Roger
The UFCW Local 832 Training Centre started short
on paperclips but long on dreams. The building
had been newly renovated, so the offices had brandnew
unmarked desks, the empty bulletin boards
begged contributions and the shiny white coffee cups
looked terribly obedient in the cupboards.
We walked around the place, trying
what it would be like filled with learners. Excited at
the potential, we were aware of the responsibility of
growing a labour-based learning centre from the
ground up. UFCW Local 832 had negotiated company
contributions for an educational trust fund to finance
the centre for many years. Now we were ready to
open our doors to the members.
The dream was to have a training centre where
working adults could access interesting, useful
upgrading opportunities that would make a
significant difference in their lives. These might be
shop steward courses, ESL, adult high school credits,
literacy upgrading or food safety courses.
Often it was the dynamic relationships
between elements that were the most
revealing and informative, not the
elements in isolation.
Whether they were learning
to write an essay or a single sentence, we wanted workers to
feel safe and
respected. We wanted their experience as workers to
matter both in content and approach, and wanted
them to know that their growing self-confidence and
personal development were valuable. Seen another
way, we wanted to find ways to make lifelong
education enticing and rewarding to workers,
knowing that many of the people who passed
through these doors would have had difficult
experiences with education in the past.
Because we are a labour-based training
centre, we also hoped the workers would take their new
knowledge, skills and
confidence to look at the
world around them and to think
analytically about it. Through reflection in
a supportive learning environment, we hoped
the learners would become more interested in
contributing to a more democratic society that was
good for many, not just a few. At the very least, we
hoped workers would feel more able and empowered
to deal with challenges in their own lives.
But there was no blueprint
for achieving these goals. We had an unusual mix of ingredients to work
with: a labour context, a highly diverse group of
members, visions of alternative teaching approaches,
and hopes of making a real difference in people’s
lives. Existing models of workplace, vocational or
academic education didn’t fit, either for structural or
philosophical reasons. If anything, we wanted to build
a community, not an institution. And so we turned
to community development strategies.
Rather than taking “building blocks” from
existing sources and importing them into our centre, we
based our development on a process of inquiry and
discovery that mirrors the reflection/action cycle
underpinning transformative education. This wasn’t
intentional, but rather a result of wanting to
develop a responsive learning environment that
could address the needs of its members. As it turns
out, it not only gave us an excellent decision-making
process, but suited our overall approach to learning.
We looked around us, asked questions, gathered
information from a wide variety of sources,
considered it from all angles, and then acted,
making constant changes as they became necessary.
We didn’t rely on external experts, but trusted our
own experiences. This helped us to get to know the
workings of the educational environment we were
creating in its “natural state”, while at the same time
helping us to build an effective program selection
and a strong community of supporters.
Of course, we kept our eyes on the “big picture”. We
read provocative articles and books, went to
conferences and met with other practitioners from
across the country to talk about how our ideas might
look in practice. We tried to see how our centre fit into
the larger context of labour, workplace and adult
education, as well as how it might be affected by larger
policy changes, market trends or demographic shifts.
In the end, we used intuition,
musings and “eureka moments” as
often as we used the results of
external opinions or expertise.
To get feedback from union leadership, employers,
union reps or rank-and-file members, we used more
specific information-gathering opportunities like
surveys, organizational needs assessments, focus group
interviews, advisory committees and union policy
conferences. At the annual policy conference, for
example, sixty people elected at the executive level of
the union discuss what’s working and what needs
improving at the training centre. We also drew on our
own professional backgrounds and experiences as
instructors, facilitators and program planners to
implement or change programs.
But without a doubt, some of our most valuable
information came through informal, non-academic,
non-scientific routes. We discovered those whenever we
put aside tidy theories and particular ways of doing
things and just took a good look at what we were “growing” at the training
centre itself. Suddenly, the facts sprang to life. Spirited discussions over
us fresh insights into things that happened behind the
scenes at the training centre. Finding out about a deaf
learner’s struggles led us to ideas for supports for other
members. Disappointing attendance at an Open House
made us aware of faulty assumptions we had about
members’ interests. A very positive reaction to a
workshop on alternative teaching approaches, on the
other hand, sharpened our understanding of the role
of education in social change.
In the end, we used intuition, musings and “eureka
moments” as often as we used the results of external
opinions or expertise. This strengthened the centre.
Anomalies and disappointments were accepted for
what they might reveal, and processes were allowed to
unfold. In short, the inquiry process remained fluid
and thereby allowed us to create the right kind of
programming for our members, not just to offer
programming or services that had worked elsewhere.
As well, it validated the grassroots realities of the community of learners
and teachers for whom and with whom we were growing in the training centre.
The “growth” metaphor is not chosen by
coincidence. It summarizes the very organic
relationship that research and practice have had in the
development of our centre. By not editing out
information that came from informal and often
unexpected sources, practice and research became
inextricably linked. The training centre started to seem
like an educational ecosystem which not only
responded to changes in the external environment, but
itself caused changes to which it then had to respond.
Structured, “scientific” research alone would not have all owed us to see
some of the interconnections that we
found, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. Often it was
the dynamic relationships bet ween elements that were
the most revealing and informative, not the elements in
isolation. If we had begun with predetermined
educational models to prove or dispel, we might have
missed exactly those understandings that eventually led
us in more productive directions. Nor would we have
been as likely to engage in the kind of critical thinking
and reflection with others that builds community.
In fact, if we had relied
primarily on quantitative research methods to gather
and interpret information,
we might have been busily removing pieces that didn’t
“fit” instead of acknowledging them as legitimate and
necessary elements in our training centre. To use the
ecosystem analogy, we included even the unruly,
unexpected “weeds” in our research, knowing that they
might in fact be tomorrow ’s healing plants. In essence
then, it was the informal research of the first five years
of the training centre that allowed us to maintain a
cohesive, consistent relationship between the parts and
the whole, instead of removing the parts and
examining them out of context.
In five years we’ve developed a healthy,
worker-centred, labour-oriented learning environment that
can respond to new needs as they arise, without
losing vital links to formal research and external
influences. The ebb and flow of programs will match
the changes that will come in the form of new
learners, issues or theories. As long as we keep
listening and looking, we will be able to adapt to
what “grows” in our learning environment.
Margerit Roger, M.Ed. is Program Developer
at the UFCW Local 832 Training Centre in Winnipeg. She has been
involved in workplace education as a program coordinator, curriculum
developer, industry instructor and practitioner trainer. Prior to that,
Margerit developed curriculum and materials and trained teachers in
government, educational institutions and national cultural organizations
for German language learning and ESL.