Moattari, Murphy Explore Participatory Learning in Annual Alden Teaching Award Lecture

December 8, 2020
By: Guest Contributor


Students are not empty vessels to receive knowledge, but should be full participants in academic inquiry, according to Timothy Murphy, Ph.D., associate professor in the of Urban Studies, and Syamak Moattari, M.D., D.Phil., associate professor of health sciences. The two winners of the 2019 Alden Excellence in Teaching Award gave a joint talk on Friday, Nov. 13, via Zoom, discussing “Community-Based Participatory Learning and Action.”

“Students add so much to the educational process. To see them as mere vessels, to absorb knowledge that you are going to give to them, it assumes they are all identical, that they’re devoid of any meaningful life experiences, and it also suggests they have nothing to contribute to the process,” Murphy said. To be effective teachers, “We must meet students where they are. We have to understand the educational process is one you must engage students, not doing unto their students.”

Moattari recounted that while a medical student, he founded an NGO called Green Front to focus on environmental issues, work he continued throughout the ’90s ’00s with other NGOs in Europe, Asia, and Africa. He cited a TedTalk by Van Jones, who said people will feel that when dealing with the environment, they must make a choice to hug a tree, or hug a person. “Guess what, I decided to hug both of them.”

This work led him to understand the importance of engaging and learning from communities.

“What if we can work with the community, find some solutions and actually save the environment at the same time. So that was the kind of work that we were interested in doing,” he said.

Small is better when considering projects that will empower a community, he added.

“For 25 years, critics of macro-economic model promoted by the World Bank Group and IMF, International Monetary Fund, have called for a fundamental shift away from top-down policies and mega projects to allow space for more appropriate approaches to economic life that respect the local social and economic context of the of the community or their target site.”

Murphy noted that his academic training led him to a philosophy similar to Moattari’s, despite the differences in their experiences and disciplines.

“As an anthropologist, I’ve been trained to not only be critical of a top down approach to community engagement and student learning, but also to just employ the very opposite, much more of a bottom up approach,” Murphy said.

The objective of cultural anthropologists is to be immersed in the language and the culture of people, “to try to understand from the inside out.” He said it’s important to pay attention to ethnocentrism, or the attitude that the culture you are most familiar with is better. “Just be mindful to kind of put our baggage aside, our assumptions aside, and maybe a sort of superiority complex aside.”

Moattari said Participatory Learning and Action research is used to gain an in-depth understanding of community or situation and is always conducted with the full and active participation of community members.

“Most of the time we are looking at the type of research that is community driven. The research question actually comes from the community because the answer to the research would be a solution for a better life,” said Moattari, adding that it emphasizes reversals in power relations between communities and outsiders.

“In some projects, you have to stay there for a long period of time to actually understand what is going on,” said Moattari. “Building trust between outsiders and community members, it’s time consuming. It’s not happening overnight. You have to spend time; you have to spend the resources.”

Moattari explored how he uses participatory learning research ideas into the classroom, including taking am “asset inventory” of students and what they bring to the classroom as part of their lived experiences.

“I am not the one who knows everything,” he said. “We are going to learn from each other. In order to do it this way, you need to come down from a position of power and basically put yourself out there as a co-learner. . . And this is the kind of mentality of a person that is learning all the time. And in this case, I realized that students understand it. And they love it because they see I respect them.”


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