Unique amongst the Documenting Dissent project community groups was the group of young men at Lancaster Farms Young Offenders Institute. Whereas other groups went out to research and attended events and meetings, the young men at the Farms participated by attending a series of workshops in the prison. This article briefly shows how participatory learning, including the Philosophical Enquiry method, combined with the Documenting Dissent stimuli successfully engaged young offenders in learning, critical thinking and self-reflection.
LEARN, DISCUSS, THINK, CREATE through Documenting Dissent at Lancaster Farms Young Offenders Institute
Posted by Anthony Finnerty, Global Link
Two education workers from Global Link offered four sessions to explore and to respond to the history and heritage of dissent in Lancaster. A total of five individual young offenders (learners) took part. The sessions shared learning from the Documenting Dissent project about various historical groups and individuals involved in political or religious dissent/activism in Lancaster. Using the Lipman/Philosophical Enquiry method the sessions then engaged the learners in a discussion around the nature of dissent and ‘good’ citizenship, justice and human rights.
The sessions resulted in the group creating their own responses to the issues for the project website. One wrote an article reflecting on his own experience of being in the courtroom in Lancaster castle in the light of what he now knows of the history of the place. Two others created digital art pieces incorporating the questions arrived at during the philosophical enquiry.
‘Can the prison system really work?’
Despite the challenges of working in a prison where the population was in flux, the sessions went very well and were well supported by the education service in the prison.
The level of engagement amongst the learners was very high and the seriousness with which they participated was compelling. Members of the education team remarked on how successful the sessions had been from their perspective and how one learner (who has been resident at Lancaster Farms several times) showed more commitment to and involvement with this project than any other programme during the various periods he has spent in the prison.
The discussion was particularly successful in that staff and learners were ready to participate and listen throughout and, upon going round the circle again at the close of the discussion, it was plain that views had developed, if not changed, and wider concerns were now being considered (for instance, the notion of ‘prison working’ for the relatives of victims of crime, or for wider society, was voiced beyond just a consideration of how well prison works for prisoners). The range and depth of the questions that the learners had initially come up with -e.g. ‘Does equality exist?’, ‘Can dissent be a good or a bad thing?’ and ‘Why do people need to dissent to achieve what they want? [Are there] alternatives?’ – also revealed a certain level of analytical thinking and reflection.
‘Dissenting can actually make a change. I used to think that it didn’t really help - like screaming in a soundproof room.'
The range of style, from light-hearted quiz, to serious debate, to creative activity, and the use of space – gathered around a single table, moving around to create questions and distribute votes, and then to settle in front of a screen or work one-to-one with a tutor – gave a richness to the sessions and served this group of learners particularly well. Learners were keen to write or develop artwork in response to what they had learnt and thought about.
The learner evaluations reveal the very positive response of the learners to the work. All said the work had been ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyable’ and ‘eye-opening’. They commented particularly on its participatory style and the fact they had developed their speaking and listening skills. Two of them noted, for example, that the work had invited them to listen to other people’s perspectives in a way they might not normally do. In response to the question, ‘What was the most important thing you learned about dissent during this project?, one learner wrote: ‘That dissenting can actually make a change. I used to think that it didn’t really help like screaming in a soundproof room.’ Another said: ‘Many people have purposefully broken laws with the aim of changing that law. Before this project, I thought people just campaigned for change. I never realised that lives were given to improve my human rights today.’