REFLECT is an approach to learning and social change. Key to the REFLECT
approach is creating a space where people feel comfortable to meet and discuss
issues relevant to them and their lives. REFLECT aims to improve the meaningful
participation of people in decision that effect their lives, through strengthening their
ability to communicate.
Reflect started in October 1993 when ActionAid began a two year action research
project to explore the possible uses of Participatory Rural Appraisal techniques within
adult literacy programmes. Based on the theories of Paulo Freire, the Reflect
approach focuses on the development of locally relevant learning materials through
the construction of maps, matrices and diagrams that represent local reality
systematize the existing knowledge of participants and promote detailed analysis of
The Evolution of Reflect
Reflect was originally conceived as a fusion of Paulo Freire’s theoretical framework on
the politics of literacy and the participatory (particularly visualisation) methodologies
developed by PRA practitioners. At first Reflect was very focused on linking adult
literacy to empowerment. Groups of adult learners (“participants”), convened to
learn literacy, would develop maps, matrices, calendars and matrices analysing
different aspects of their own lives – social, economic, political or cultural issues.
Reflect has evolved rapidly, based largely on the variety of organizations who started
to use the approach and adapt it to their own needs and contexts. The Reflect
approach has now spread through the work of at least 350 different organisations
(including NGOs, CBOs, governments and social movements) in more than 60
countries. In 2003 the International Reflect Circle was awarded the United Nations
International Literacy Prize for the way in which Reflect has “revolutionised” the field
of literacy in the past 10 years.
There have also been many diverse developments with Reflect, taking it in wholly
new directions beyond its origins in literacy, for example
• Linking Reflect with the Stepping Stones methodology in order to create a
systematic approach relevant to working in a world where HIV affects almost
every aspect of people’s lives (called STAR).
• Linking Reflect to governance and accountability –Reflect is positioned as an
approach to “creating spaces” in contrast to the ever more prevalent (but
limited) “invited spaces”.
• Critiquing the evaluation of empowerment:– showing how the power
dynamics around evaluation are much more complex than many of us
• Linking Reflect and Information Communication Technologies: there is a DFID
funded action research initiative in Uganda, India and Burundi exploring how
to ensure that poor and excluded people can both choose and sustainably
access appropriate information and communication technologies.
• Adapting Reflect to work in schools – eg. using the citizenship curriculum as
an entry point (Get Global)
• Using Reflect on a large scale - eg after the fall of the dictator Fujimori the
Women’s Ministry in Peru’s transitional government launched a national
Reflect programme reaching 180,000 people across the country.
• Using Reflect within institutions: there is a growing body of work looking at
how Reflect adapts to organisational change processes. Eg the Participatory
Methodologies Forum in Bangladesh 2001.
• Applying Reflect to ourselves: subjectivity; in much of Latin America,
influenced particularly by feminist theory, Reflect practice is now centrally
defined by a strong focus on personal behaviour - and ensuring consistency
between work and home life.
• Using Reflect within coalition building and campaigning:– bringing together
diverse NGOs, parents associations, teachers unions, the women’s movement,
child labour or debt campaigners etc – into broad-based platforms to place
education higher up the political agenda and provoke public debate around
the role of education.
Despite this immense diversity of Reflect practice there are common threads to all of
this work, united through national and regional networks and the global International
Reflect Circle (CIRAC). This makes it possible to draw out some core principles and
elements that underline all Reflect practice which identified ten key principles or
1. Reflect is a political Process: it is an approach that seeks to help people in the
struggle to assert their rights, challenge injustice and change their position in
society. It is action oriented, not passive, neutral or detached. It involves working
“with” people rather than “for” them.
2. Creating democratic spaces: Reflect involves creating a democratic space – one
in which everyone’s voice is given equal weight. This needs to be actively
constructed as there is almost nowhere in which people have equal voices (people
everywhere are stratified by gender, age, hierarchy, status, ability etc). As such it is
counter-cultural – always challenging local culture to the extent that power
relationships and stratification have created inequality.
3. Intensive and extensive processes: usually groups meet at least twice a week
for at least two years This intensity of contact on an ongoing basis may be uniquely
feasible for something broadly framed as being about “education – and is seen as
one of the fundamental ingredients for a process that seeks to achieve serious social
or political change..
4. Starting from existing experience / knowledge: Reflect involves starting with
respect for people’s existing knowledge and experience.. However, this does not
mean accepting people’s existing opinions or prejudices without challenge. The key is
to give people control over that process, and confidence in their own starting point -
so that they can be critical and selective as they access new information and
knowledge and as they expand their analysis.
5. Reflection / action / reflection: Reflect involves a continual cycle of reflection
and action. It is about the fusion between these elements and it can start with
either. In this process “action” may be in the “public” or “private” sphere; it may be
“collective” or “individual”; it may be small scale or large scale – so long as it is
linked to a continuing process or cycle.
6. Participatory tools: A wide range of participatory tools is used within a Reflect
process to help create an open or democratic environment in which everyone is able
to contribute. Visualisation approaches are of particular importance. However, many
other participatory methods and processes are also used from theatre to role-play,
songs, dance, video, photography etc. There are no unique “Reflect” tools.
7. Power analysis: All participatory tools can be distorted, manipulated or used in
exploitative ways if they are used without sensitivity to power relationships. Reflect
is a political process in which the multiple dimensions of power and stratification are
always the focus of reflection and actions are oriented towards changing inequitable
power relationships – whether that inequity is a result of gender, class, caste, race,
physical or intellectual ability, hierarchy, status, language, appearance etc.
8. Enhancing people’s capacity to communicate: Reflect is a process that aims
to strengthen people’s capacity to communicate by whatever means of
communication are most relevant or appropriate to them. Although part of the
process may be about learning new communication skills, the focus is on using these
rather than technical learning. The new global resources on Communication and
Power have resources pages on the spoken word and images as well as the written
word and numbers.
9. Coherence: Reflect is an approach that needs to be used systematically. It is not
just for use with others but for use with ourselves and within our own institutions.
The same principles and processes need to be used with facilitators, trainers,
managers or national coordinators as are used at grassroots level. Our starting point
should be with ourselves and our own institutions though we should not become self-
10. Self-organization: The focus of Reflect is towards promoting self-organization
- so that groups are self-managed where possible rather than being facilitated by (or
dependent on) an outside individual or organization. In many contexts the starting
point will be a process initiated from outside, but over time Reflect practitioners seek
to construct spaces for people to organize for themselves based on their own
analysis and their own agenda.
What is Reflect?
Reflect (Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community
Techniques) emerged as an approach to literacy and social change, which fuses the
political philosophy of Paulo Freire with the methodologies of Participatory Rural
Appraisal (PRA). Other significant influences have been the discourse on human
rights, power, and gender justice. More recently, some Reflect practitioners have
also tried to integrate the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci into the Reflect practice.
Paulo Freire (1921 - 1997) was a Brazilian educationalist and progressive thinker. His
book entitled “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is currently one of the most quoted
educational texts (especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia). Freire was able to
draw upon, and weave together, a number of strands of thinking about educational
practice and liberation.
Paulo Friere was one of the first thinkers to link literacy to social change. He
criticized existing literacy teaching, which was based on primers:
There is an implicit concept of man in the primer's method and content, whether it is
recognized by the authors or not. It is the teachers who chooses the words and
proposes them to the learners the students are to be ‘filled’ with the words the
teachers have chosen. It is the profile of a man whose consciousness must be filled
or fed in order to know.
Freire condemned this “banking” concept of education:
As understood in this concept, man (read human) is a passive being, the object of
the process of learning to read and write, and not its subject.
Freire recognized that the people who are normally the passive objects of literacy
classes should be seen differently:
Agronomists, agriculturalists, public health officials, cooperative administrators,
literacy educators; we all have a lot to learn from peasants, and if we refuse to do
so, we can't teach them anything.
However, for Freire most non-literate people are unable to assert themselves. As a
result of oppression they are immersed in a ‘culture of silence’:
In the culture of silence, to exist is only to live. The body carries out orders from
above. Thinking is difficult. Speaking is forbidden.
What is Conscientisation?
Through what Freire called “the pedagogy of the oppressed” the learners would
“perceive the reality of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit,
but as a limiting situation which they can transform”.
Freire called this “conscientization”- the process of learning to perceive and
understand social, political and economic contradictions and taking action against the
oppressive elements of reality. It is only when people are conscientised – aware of
their situation through a process of self-analysis – that they can collectively act to
achieve rights and development.
Freire recognized that learners needed to “gain a distance from” their everyday lives
so that they could see their situation in a new way. He suggested that this could be
done through a process of codification.
According to his methodology, “codifications” are pictures or photographs produced
after extensive research in a local area, which in their images capture essential
problems or contradictions in the lives of the learners. The learners reflect upon
these images, first of all describing them and then through problematising, analyzing
their deep structure, until they come face to face with their own lives. The
codification is thus an instrument for this abstraction; being able to see reality
clearer by taking one step away from it. The process of analyzing a codification is
called “decodification” and involves “dialogue”.
Freire saw dialogue as fundamental. He defined it as a coming together of the
teacher/educator and learners/students (educatee):
“We are advocating a synthesis between the educator's maximally systematized
knowing and the learner's minimally systematized knowing; a synthesis achieved in
Freire sometimes mystifies “dialogue”. Effectively it is a discussion, but not just any
discussion: rather it is a discussion where people reach below everyday life, open up,
and come face to face with new understanding and awareness.
But why link literacy to all of this? Freire was sure about the need for poor people to
learn to read and write the world, at the same time as, learning to read and write the
Learners must see the need for writing one’s life and reading one’s reality.
Freire believed that literacy alone is of no use if there is no other process of change,
which can help to lift the culture of silence. Having engaged in dialogue over a
codification the next step for the literacy class is the introduction of the word. Not
just any word is chosen, but a carefully selected “generative word” which is arrived
at after “investigating the vocabulary universe” of the learners. The word itself is the
focus of further dialogue.
Once a generative word has been introduced, Freire advocated breaking the
generative word into component syllables and syllabic families; but always asking
questions of the learners, not doing it for them (only having prepared the learners
critically for the information so it is not a mere gift). Having done this the educator
should ask the learners something like: “do you think we can create something with
For Freire, “this is the decisive moment for learning” as the learners “discover the
words of their language by putting them together in a variety of combinations”. This
ends the mystique of written language.
For Freire, the process outlined above would lead to conscientization, giving students
a sense of purpose so that they would really be able to "know" the world:
“The act of knowing involves a dialectical movement that goes from Action to
Reflection and from Reflection upon Action to a New Action.”
This was the struggle, which could result in political change. The process is called
“praxis” and Freire stressed that: “Action of men (read human) without objectives is
not praxis; it is action ignorant of its own process and of its aim”
Key aspects of Paulo Freire’s work
i. First, his emphasis on dialogue has struck a very strong chord with those
concerned with popular and informal education. Given that informal education
is a dialogical (or conversational) rather than a curricula form this is hardly
surprising. However, Paulo Freire was able to take the discussion on several
steps with his insistence that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve
one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other.
Too much education, Paulo Freire argues, involves 'banking' - the educator
making 'deposits' in the educatee.
ii. Second, Paulo Freire was concerned with praxis - action that is informed (and
linked to certain values). Dialogue wasn't just about deepening understanding
- but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-
operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen
as enhancing community and building social capital and to leading us to act in
ways that make for justice and human flourishing. Informal and popular
educators have had a long-standing orientation to action - so the emphasis on
change in the world was welcome. But there was a sting in the tail. Paulo
Freire argued for informed action and as such provided a useful counter-
balance to those who want to diminish theory.
iii. Third, Freire's attention to naming the world has been of great significance to
those educators who have traditionally worked with those who do not have a
voice, and who are oppressed. The idea of building’ pedagogy of the
oppressed' or a 'pedagogy of hope' and how this may be carried forward has
formed a significant impetus to work. An important element of this was his
concern with conscientization - developing consciousness, but consciousness
that is understood to have the power to transform reality'.
iv. Fourth, Paulo Freire's insistence on situating educational activity in the lived
experience of participants has opened up a series of possibilities for the way
informal educators can approach practice. His concern to look for words that
have the possibility of generating new ways of naming and acting in the world
when working with people around literacies is a good example of this.
v. Fifth, a number of informal educators have connected with Paulo Freire's use
of metaphors drawn from Christian sources. An example of this is the way in
which the divide between teachers and learners can be transcended. In part
this is to occur as learners develop their consciousness, but mainly it comes
through the 'class suicide' or 'Easter experience' of the teacher.
Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)
Participatory Rural Appraisal has roots in a reaction to the Western model or the
"modernisation" approach to development. It is an approach to use against those
who believe that there are simple or prepackaged technological solutions to
development, which can be imposed by external professionals. PRA practitioners
have a desire to start from the lives of communities themselves.
But what tools are there to find out about the priorities of the poor themselves?
Questionnaires are clumsy, structured from outside, and take a long time to process
(often collecting a lot of irrelevant information). Participant observation from the
school of anthropology is often too long and drawn out; and is still extractive; often
being used for academic papers rather than feeding into action.
PRA practitioners start from the recognition that poor communities have a wealth of
technical and social indigenous knowledge. They have survived often through
centuries in difficult environments with limited resources. What we need are
techniques to enable non-literates to articulate their knowledge; as building on this
knowledge and the reality of the poor must be the starting point of any effective
PRA practitioners have developed a wide range of techniques based on the idea that
visualization can help participation. The starting point is thus the collective
construction of maps, matrices, calendars and diagrams on the ground using
whatever materials are locally available. However, as a set of techniques, PRA is not
enough. If those who practice it do not have a real respect for, and a real
commitment to, the priorities of the poor then it is often still extractive.
Some PRA facilitators make copies of the maps constructed by the community and
simply take them away for their own planning purposes. In such circumstances there
is often a big gulf between what the community articulates and what the external
agency subsequently designs. Some agencies nominally use these methods to say
they have consulted with communities; but then proceed with their own priorities.
Moreover, PRA is often, or even usually, done only on a short-term basis, for
example over just two or three weeks; and is usually done only in selected
communities. PRA techniques have been applied to broad appraisals, to detailed
diagnoses of health needs or local agriculture but they have not been applied in the
past in literacy programmes. The three pilot projects (in Uganda, El Salvador and
Bangladesh) that enabled the evolution of the Reflect practice are the first attempts
to use PRA techniques systematically for adult literacy. This may seem surprising
because the link between PRA and education would appear to be strong. As Barton
(1994) says, "Learning is the active construction of knowledge." PRA has developed
a range of techniques, which facilitate this construction.
Why not place these techniques within an extended learning process? Perhaps the
links have not been made because we have come to see education as something
different. Barton observes that with the coming of the printing press, "The pursuit of
truth ... became the discovery of new knowledge rather than the constant effort to
recover and preserve traditional knowledge". If education encompasses the latter (as
well as the former) then PRA can play a useful role. Fuglesang is helpful on this
point: "Western educationalists have been blind to the oldest and truest pedagogical
rule: start with what the students know, not with what you know."
Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1937) was a leading Italian Marxist. He was an intellectual,
a journalist and a major theorist who spent his last eleven years in Mussolini’s
prisons. During this time, he completed 32 notebooks containing almost 3,000
pages. These notebooks were smuggled out from his prison and published in Italian
after the war but did not find an English-language publisher until the 1970s. The
central and guiding theme of the Notebooks was the development of a new Marxist
theory applicable to the conditions of advanced capitalism.
He was born in a little town on the island of Sardinia in 1891, one of seven children.
His was one of a very small minority of families on the island that could read and
write and because of this he did well at school finally winning a scholarship to the
University of Turin.
Italy was then, as it is now, a country divided between North and South. The South
being overwhelmingly rural with a large illiterate peasantry and the North essentially
industrialized with a well-organized and politically aware working class.
The organized workers of Turin had a very combative history. For the first twenty
years of this century, Turin was to witness countless demonstrations and a number
of general strikes until finally in 1919, there began a movement for the occupation of
the factories and the setting up of factory councils to run them. It was this sort of
atmosphere that welcomed Gramsci to university life and was to affect his thinking
for the rest of his life.
Gramsci had already become a socialist through reading pamphlets sent home to
Sardinia from the mainland by an older brother. His political thought was expanded
by his experiences at university and in his new home city. What Gramsci was to
develop, however, was not just an ability to propagandise or to organise political
activity. He became the first Marxist theorist to work with the problems of
revolutionary change in 20th century Western European society and the first to
identify the importance of the struggle against bourgeois values ie an ideological-
Gramsci’s significance for informal education lies in three realms. First, his exposition
of the notion of hegemony provides us with a way of coming to understand the
context in which informal educators function and the possibility of critique and
transformation. Second, his concern with the role of organic intellectuals deepens our
understanding of the place of informal educators. Last, his interest in schooling and
more traditional forms of education points to the need not to dismiss more traditional
forms. We will look at each of these in turn.
Gramsci accepted the analysis of capitalism put forward by Marx in the previous
century and accepted that the struggle between the ruling class and the subordinate
working class was the driving force that moved society forward. What he found
unacceptable was the traditional Marxist view of how the ruling class ruled. It was
here that Gramsci made a major contribution to modern thought in his concept of
the role-played by ideology.
The traditional Marxist theory of power was a very one-sided one based on the role
of force and coercion as the basis of ruling class domination. This was reinforced by
Lenin whose influence was at its height after the success of the Russian Revolution in
1917. Gramsci felt that what was missing was an understanding of the subtle but
pervasive forms of ideological control and manipulation that served to perpetuate all
He identified two quite distinct forms of political control: domination, which referred
to direct physical coercion by police and armed forces and hegemony which referred
to both ideological control and more crucially, consent. He assumed that no regime,
regardless of how authoritarian it might be, could sustain itself primarily through
organised state power and armed force. In the long run, it had to have popular
support and legitimacy in order to maintain stability.
By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system
of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status
quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an “organising
principle” that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life.
To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population it
becomes part of what is generally called 'common sense' so that the philosophy,
culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of
Marx’s basic division of society into a base represented by the economic structure
and most Marxists familiar with the concepts accepted a superstructure represented
by the institutions and beliefs prevalent in society. Gramsci took this a step further
when he divided the superstructure into those institutions that were overtly coercive
and those that were not.
The coercive ones, which were basically the public institutions such as the
government, police, armed forces and the legal system he regarded as the state or
political society and the non-coercive ones were the others such as the churches, the
schools, trade unions, political parties, cultural associations, clubs, the family etc.
which he regarded as civil society. To some extent, schools could fit into both
categories. Parts of school life are quite clearly coercive (compulsory education, the
national curriculum, national standards and qualifications) whilst others are not (the
Gramsci's analysis went much further than any previous Marxist theory to provide an
understanding of why the European working class had on the whole failed to develop
revolutionary consciousness after the First World War and had instead moved
towards reformism i.e. tinkering with the system rather than working towards
overthrowing it. It was a far more subtle theory of power than any of his
contemporaries and went a long way to explain how the ruling class ruled.
Now, if Gramsci was correct that the ruling class maintained its domination by the
consent of the mass of the people and only used its coercive apparatuses, the forces
of law and order, as a last resort, what were the consequences for Marxists who
wished to see the overthrow of that same ruling class? If the hegemony of the ruling
capitalist class resulted from an ideological bond between the rulers and the ruled,
what strategy needed to be employed?
The answer to those questions was that those who wished to break that ideological
bond had to build up a ‘counter hegemony’ to that of the ruling class. They had to
see structural change and ideological change as part of the same struggle. The
labour process was at the core of the class struggle but it was the ideological
struggle that had to be addressed if the mass of the people were to come to a
consciousness that allowed them to question their political and economic masters
right to rule. It was popular consensus in civil society that had to be challenged and
in this we can see a role for informal education.
Overcoming popular consensus, however, is not easy. Ideological hegemony meant
that the majority of the population accepted what was happening in society as
‘common sense’ or as ‘the only way of running society’. There may have been
complaints about the way things were run and people looked for improvements or
Gramsci saw the role of the intellectual as a crucial one in the context of creating a
counter hegemony. He was clear that the transformation from capitalism to socialism
required mass participation. There was no question that socialism could be brought
about by an elite group of dedicated revolutionaries acting for the working class. It
had to be the work of the majority of the population conscious of what they were
doing and not an organized party leadership.
The revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 was not the model
suitable for Western Europe or indeed any advanced industrialised country. The
Leninist model took place in a backward country with a huge peasantry and a tiny
working class. The result was that the mass of the population were not involved. For
Gramsci, mass consciousness was essential and the role of the intellectual was
Gramsci’s notebooks are quite clear on the matter. He writes that "all men are
intellectuals" [and presumably women] "but not all men have in society the function
of intellectuals". What he meant by that was that everyone has an intellect and uses
it but not all are intellectuals by social function. He explains this by stating that
"everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do
not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor".
He identified two types of intellectuals - traditional and organic. Traditional
intellectuals are those who do regard themselves as autonomous and independent of
the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the population at large. They
seem autonomous and independent. They give themselves an aura of historical
continuity despite all the social upheavals that they might go through. The clergy are
an example of that as are the men of letters, the philosophers and professors. These
are what we tend to think of when we think of intellectuals. Although they like to
think of themselves as independent of ruling groups, this is usually a myth and an
illusion. They are essentially conservative allied to and assisting the ruling group in
The second type is the organic intellectual, which grows organically with the
dominant social group, the ruling class, and is their thinking and organizing element.
For Gramsci it was important to see them for what they were. They were produced
by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in
society. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over
the rest of society.
Having said that what was required for those who wished to overthrow the present
system was a counter hegemony, a method of upsetting the consensus, of
countering the ‘common sense’ view of society, how could this be done?
Gramsci, in his Notebooks, maintained that what was required was that not only
should a significant number of ‘traditional’ intellectuals come over to the
revolutionary cause (Marx, Lenin and Gramsci were examples of this) but also the
working class movement should produce its own organic intellectuals. Remember
that Gramsci said that all men (read: human) were intellectuals but not all men have
the function of intellectuals in society.
This sounds as if he was exaggerating the possibilities but what he was really trying
to convey is that people have the capability and the capacity to think. The problem
was how to harness those capabilities and capacities.
Gramsci saw one of his roles as assisting in the creation of organic intellectuals from
the working class and the winning over of as many traditional intellectuals to the
revolutionary cause as possible. He attempted this through the columns of a journal
called L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order), subtitled "a weekly review of Socialist culture".
This journal came out at the same time as the huge spontaneous outbreak of
industrial and political militancy that swept Turin in 1919. This outbreak mirrored
events throughout the industrial world that shook the very foundations of capitalist
Gramsci wrote that "the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist
in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer,
"permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator.
The creation of working class intellectuals actively participating in practical life,
helping to create a counter hegemony that would undermine existing social relations
was Gramsci’s contribution to the development of a philosophy that would link theory
with practice. His approach was open and non-sectarian. He believed in the innate
capacity of human beings to understand their world and to change it.
Reflect and Gender:
Until recently women's literacy was not given particular priority; despite the fact that
levels of illiteracy amongst women are much higher than those amongst men
worldwide. Between 1960 and 1985 the overall number of illiterates in the world rose
by 154 million and of those, 133 million were women. Along with other factors,
illiteracy increases women's marginalization from power. Yet, in the past most
literacy campaigns have had male themes and male issues as dominant.
This is despite the fact that more and more research suggests the critical importance
of women's literacy (see Brown's work "Women, Literacy and Development"
ACTIONAID 1990). In a rural area, women are more likely to retain skills in the
community for the good of the community (and pass them on to children) whereas
men's literacy particularly in rural areas often causes migration (as they see literacy
as an urban skill enabling them to get work).
When literacy programmes have focused on women, particularly in recent years,
they have often placed an emphasis on issues affecting the domestic role of women;
whether nutrition, child-care or hygiene; ignoring and even undermining the
productive and community roles of women. Existing roles are thus usually reinforced.
Where there is a conscious attempt to challenge existing roles the result is often a
very didactic approach with outsiders lecturing women about their oppression. It is
very rare to find a programme that will provide women with space to Reflect upon
their roles and come to their own conclusions through their own analysis.
This shift towards recognizing the importance of women's literacy may however
impact negatively on men. Recent evaluations of the government literacy
programmes in Uganda and Namibia note a growing trend for literacy to be seen as a
"women's thing" which directly or indirectly excludes men. It is important to avoid
this and to see the literacy process as something relevant to both men and women;
ensuring that all themes are handled in a gender sensitive way.
In some contexts there is a strong case for women's only groups. If these are
supported, parallel access to separate classes for men should also be considered.
The importance of literacy within the wider process of women's empowerment has
become increasingly apparent in recent years. In the Cairo Conference on Population
women's literacy was agreed as one of the most effective (and least controversial)
means to reduce population growth.
The Beijing Conference reiterated this and placed women's literacy at the centre of
the empowerment process. However, all this support in theory has rarely been
translated into practical support; because large question marks remain over the
effectiveness of adult literacy programmes. Whilst most adult literacy programmes
are failing, the rhetoric delivered at international conferences will be of limited value
as it is unlikely that any new resources invested in women's literacy will have a
Ideological approach to literacy:
Literacy is no longer seen as a simple skill or competency but as a process. It is
more than just the technology in which it is manifest. Street argues that it is a social
process in which particular socially constructed technologies are used within
particular institutional frameworks for specific social purposes. This is the "ideological
view" of literacy.
This ideological approach has certain implications for literacy methodologies. The
primer as a prefixed "external" text would appear to limit literacy practices and be
consistent with the traditional or autonomous approach, seeing the need for a fixed
body of knowledge to be transferred. To be consistent with the ideological approach
a methodology would have to, for example:
• emphasise writing rather than passive reading of fixed texts;
• emphasise creative and active involvement of participants;
• build on existing knowledge of participants, respecting oral traditions and
• focus on learner generated materials (not prepackaged texts)
• ensure that the process is responsive and relevant to the local context.
Over the years of experimentation, Reflect has attempted to build on these elements
in order to develop a methodology which is consistent with the ideological approach.
Much work has been done by Fugleman, UNICEF Nepal and others exploring people's
abilities to read and interpret pictures. In development work we take a lot for
granted. We assume that people can understand the posters and leaflets we produce
if we use lots of pictures instead of words. The images we use seem obvious to us.
However they are often not clear to people with little exposure to seeing two-
dimensional visual images and who are unfamiliar with their conventions. Photos are
often too cluttered. Line drawings and cartoons are full of conventions (bubbles /
arrows etc); even perspective (which did not appear in the West until Renaissance
As a result of these analyses some work has been done on how to deliver
development communications most effectively; how to make pictures easily
recognizable or "readable" to people with little exposure to two-dimensional visual
images. However, no concerted attempt has been made to develop a programme,
which will in the process help to make people visually literate. The link between
visual and alphabetic literacy is much more eloquently argued by Fuglesang (1982)
in the following quotes: "At the basis of all writing stands the picture"
"What medium may enable the community to evaluate its own reality in a way that
will precipitate new judgments or formulations about it? What medium will trigger in
the community a dialogue about its reality that will possibly lead to decisions and
actions to alter that reality? In my experience the issue of literacy and social
transformation must start with the picture; the imitative reproduction of reality".
Picture is the link between the oral and the written lifestyle and the first step on the
way to written abstraction. The picture is the bridge from a basically imitative to a
digital mode of communication" "People learn to read pictures just as they learn to
read the pages in a book. This is not recognized because education in reading
pictures is an informal process. It goes on automatically in societies where a variety
of pictures are presented daily through a variety of media. In social environments
with no pictorial tradition or very few pictorial representations; the situation in
remote African villages; the informal process of learning to read pictures simply do
not occur. It is important to understand that perspective is nothing more than a
pictorial or artistic convention which appeared in European painting as late as the
Most literacy programmes either overlook numeracy or treat it as being of secondary
importance to reading and writing words. Even the more radical and progressive
literacy programmes rarely adapt the teaching of numeracy to adults and most fall
back on traditional methods; treating adults like children. This is a serious problem
because most adults already have considerable numeracy skills.
The learners know oral counting and some mathematical structures and have an art
of mental arithmetic more or less adequate for their daily life. Some non-literate
people (especially those involved in trade) may be better at mental arithmetic than
"educated" people. You do not have to teach people to speak before you teach them
to read and write. Likewise you do not need to teach people to count or add up
before you teach them written numeracy.
So what is the value of written numeracy? It is necessary primarily because people
are aware of the limitations of memory for keeping numbers in mind and for
memorizing daily events involving numbers. With complex calculations people lose
track of the sub-totals in their heads. Being able to write down numbers in such
situations is a huge help; but it is not a matter of knowing how to write 1 or 6 or 10;
rather, the need is usually to be able to write down larger numbers. A numeracy
programme must reach this level of teaching useful skills at an early stage. It should
also focus on numeracy encountered in written form in people's daily lives and in
helping people with different types of record keeping they might be of practical use
to them (household accounts / small scale business accounts / projections etc).
To develop a numeracy programme suitable for adults, the starting point should be
people's daily experience (the actual situations and types of calculation they have to
do). This requires a socio-mathematical survey prior to starting the numeracy
programme; but this is very rarely done.
Efforts should be made to reinforce (rather than undermine or replace) mental
arithmetic skills, so that there is a substantial improvement in the way that people
carry out existing required calculations at the point in everyday life that they need
to. A well targeted numeracy programme drawing on such approaches may be just
as empowering as or more empowering than literacy; as it can give people very
practical skills for their everyday life. The Reflect approach seeks to build in such
elements, respecting adults as adults, and focusing on practical numeracy.
Reflect is used in different ways in different places, but all practitioners emphasize
the importance of transforming power relationships, through a social process that
strengthens peoples’ (individuals and social groups) capacity to communicate.
Paulo Freire REFLECT