Some Reflections on Oaxaca, Guelaguetza, and the Jargon of Adult Learning

I’m writing on Labor Day, reflecting on my work.

A month ago, I was in the middle of helping to lead a 9-day Language, Arts and Culture Institute for Educators in Oaxaca. I returned to give several back-to-school presentations for teachers on educating English language learners, and in between I snuck in a nice vacation with my family. Now the trip to Oaxaca feels distant, but as I send my mind back to that experience, I realize it was a perfect hybrid of the rest of my month. It was both hard work and a wonderful treat, about both giving and receiving. My colleagues and I labored long and thoughtfully to plan and guide a great learning experience for the participants. We also enjoyed and learned from all the new interactions with our surroundings and our fellow educators/artists.

Oaxaca Images; Photograph by Olivia Mulcahy

To paint the picture: In the nine days we spent traveling in and around Oaxaca City we...

  • Climbed Monte Albán and contemplated the layers of cultures that have shaped that ancient site,

  • Heard a nationally renowned ceramicist relate her grandmother’s parables of feminism and freedom as she molded a mermaid before our eyes,

  • Sampled amazing flavors from mole and mezcal to chapulines (grasshoppers) and chicatanas (black ants), and explored some of the spectrum of culinary uses, politico-economic controversies, and socio-spiritual aspects of corn,

  • Created our own colografía “prints” (pressed impressions textured with local found objects and then embellished with design and color) to reflect upon, process, and represent our impressions (pun intended) of Oaxaca -- under the guidance of master printmaker, teacher, and new friend, Jesus Gerardo de la Barrera,

  • Visited famous potters, carvers, and weavers to learn about how they work with local clays, woods, and wools, and apply their knowledge of the chemistry of natural ingredients to create a stunning spectrum of sheens, paints, and dyes. (Did you know that Oaxacan black clay will take on a high shine when rubbed with quartz before firing - and that the locally revered Doña Rosa invented the technique to reignite consumer interest in ceramic housewares in the 1950s when plastics started to threaten the region’s pottery market? Did you know that the pomegranate skin offers a yellow hue made deeper with lime juice, and that the red seeds of this same fruit--surprisingly--offer a vibrant green when mixed with ground limestone?)

  • Discussed the pedagogical, cultural, and linguistic implications of the relatively modern trend of Mexican and Mexican-American immigration from the U.S. back to Mexico,

  • Explored emotions, risks, juxtapositions, politics, privilege, poverty, pragmatics…of learning and change-making in various contexts and through different lenses—as witnesses to teacher protest at the center of the Oaxaca de Juárez zócalo, and in meeting some of the young activist-artists at the center of the muralist collective, LaPiztola, to discuss their provocative work.

  • Enjoyed an epic showcase of the regional folkloric dances and songs of Oaxaca at the Guelaguetza festival and came to realize that the Zapotec word "guelaguetza" captures layers of meanings, most literally suggesting an offering or gift, but also implying the concept of exchange and reciprocity, an understanding within social etiquette that the practice of giving benefits everyone involved.

Guelaguetza; Photograph by Olivia Mulcahy

This idea of guelaguetza is actually a great metaphor for how I think of my work, once as a teacher of young students and over the years in providing opportunities for adult learning. My offering is information, strategies, guidance, to share the benefit of my study and experience...but it is reciprocal...my life is in turn enhanced and my own learning deepened by the interactions, relationships, perspectives, and realizations that emerge from these moments. Fresh from this most recent Oaxaca experience, I find myself thinking about how this particularly memorable and rich experience fits into the larger context of my professional life, thinking about what I taught there, what I learned there, what merits further reflection...

When I reflect on the work I do, often focused on the education of English language learners, I find that my mind naturally veers to thinking about the language of the profession itself; how we talk about teaching and learning, how the jargon changes over time or varies in different contexts, the implications of our word choice in describing this work of educating others. Just as I counsel classroom teachers to carve out time for “metalinguistic moments” with students to analyze and discuss the way we use and think about language, I believe that we all can benefit from these. So I invite you to have a quick “metalinguistic moment” with me now, inspired by a sound bite overheard in Oaxaca:

Mid-way through the institute, after the first several days of powerful excursions, at the conclusion of a tour of a palenque where we have learned about the cultivating and processing of the indigenous agave to produce mezcal, a staple product of the local and export economies, our group of 40 teachers, administrators, and artists sits together. And those among us who choose to, sample the beverage for ourselves. Glasses are raised and one participant shouts out: “This is the best PD EVER!”

The alcohol-inspired aspect of this exuberance aside, I heard it and thought, this trip is a pretty darn good PD experience for all of us, if I do say so myself! But why? What makes for truly good PD and what is PD, anyway? Which leads me to the metalinguistic moment in which I would like us to engage in some contrastive analysis of two common terms in the education biz: “Professional Development (PD)” and “Training.”

These are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. At other times they are used differently, assuming different degrees of substance (and I’ve heard both, “training” used to suggest a more rigorous learning than in “PD”, and “PD” used to imply a deeper learning than “training”). To me, these terms are neither synonymous nor hierarchically relative to each other. To me, it is most useful to think of PD and Training as two sides of the same adult learning coin. They represent different approaches that are each appropriate depending on the nature of the content and the desired outcome.

Before I go on, first let me acknowledge a basic difference. “PD” is part of a jargon in certain professional settings. Training is perhaps a more familiar term because we use it to describe a range of things in everyday life (a stubborn cowlick, climbing vines, a young puppy, a diapered toddler) which we “train” to achieve the desired result (a certain hairdo, a garden trellis, an obedient pet, appropriate potty use).

I’ll also acknowledge my own bias against the word “Training” as used in the field of education because of my aversion to its Pavlovian, Behaviorist connotations—paradigms in pedagogy that rely on things like external motivators and environmental conditioning.

Finally, I’ll acknowledge that the term “PD” carries a range of connotations as well, among them the perception that it can seem “fluffy” or extraneous to the essential nuts and bolts of executing the tasks of a particular profession.

In my current thinking, I tend to think of “Training” as an approach to teaching a specific skill (e.g. navigating the features and functions of a computer program) and “Professional Development” as an approach to guiding a more exploratory or generative kind of learning (e.g. how to use a computer program creatively for different purposes in the classroom). For those of you who are into leadership and change theory, the way I look at these terms is in many ways parallel the schema that Ronald Heifetz introduced in terms of how leaders address Technical Problems vs. Adaptive Challenges. And like Heifetz, I think that a variety of approaches, matched strategically to the situation, have their purpose and place in our practice. It isn’t that one (Training or PD) is superior or more valuable, but that they each need to be selected thoughtfully and applied dependently upon which approach best suits the needs and goals of the learners. The infographic offers a lens on how I’ve teased this apart in my own mind.

As you examine these terms through this lens and your own, I encourage you to consider:

  • What associations do we have with the terms “PD” and “Training”?

  • Of the kinds of learning I may need to enhance my practice as an educator,

  • Which require Training?

  • Which require PD?

  • Which require both??

  • How does my language about adult learning influence my thinking about adult learning?

  • What relationships exist between how we talk and think about adult-educator learning and how we talk and think about youth-student learning?

As I examine the Oaxaca trip with these terms in mind, I’d say it definitely employed more of a PD orientation than a Training model. Though certainly it included specific content, skills, arts techniques, strategies that could be taken back to the classroom and retransmitted (i.e. introduced elements that could have led to further “training”) there was more of a focus on experiences and how these might potentially transform one’s practice, discussions that sparked continued discourse, interactions that generated new ideas and strategies. And that was appropriate to our main goal—not to make participants expert in all things Oaxacan in 10-days-or-less, or to be able to replicate the trip for their students, but—to invite participants into a set of experiences that would nourish their practice in both anticipated ways in the areas of arts, culture, and language and in unexpected, evolving, and ongoing ways depending on each person’s personal and professional intentions. Was it the best PD ever? I don’t know, but by many accounts it was a pretty potent way to get ready for this school year.

To everyone who went on this trip with me, many thanks to you. It was truly a guelaguetza! To all of you reading this post, I wish you a happy new (school) year full of great teaching, learning, and gifts for everyone involved!

Oaxaca Dichos; Photograph by Olivia Mulcahy

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