What Could Equity Look Like for Informal Learning?

A Knology researcher discusses lessons learned from a pair of meetings on informal learning in science and STEM field

by Knology
Nov 1, 2021

A lot of Knology’s work focuses on informal learning, which includes pretty much every way that people are constantly learning outside of structured schooling. You know: public parks, games, news media, museums, podcasts, makerspaces, Twitter, libraries, talking to one another…

Schools are hegemonic: they maintain existing hierarchies because they don’t value the kinds of knowledge and skills that minoritized people learn at home, or even the ways that those people learn at home. And we’ve known for quite a while that informal learning can face the same problems.

  • Sometimes informal learning isn’t culturally responsive, so minoritized people don’t feel welcome or safe.
  • Sometimes physical spaces aren’t located where minoritized groups can easily access them.
  • Sometimes informal learning doesn’t follow universal design principles to make it accessible to people with a range of physical and cognitive needs.
  • Sometimes informal learning is addressing a narrower audience than its practitioners intend.
  • Sometimes it doesn’t meet the needs people see for themselves.

If you care about equity in informal learning, and particularly in science and STEM fields, October 2021 was an exciting month. Two events, the Inclusive SciComm Symposium (Oct. 14-16) and the AISL Awardee Meeting (Oct. 19-21), focused on the types of enormous change informal learning has long needed.

The goal of the Inclusive SciComm Symposium is to push back against the dominant cultural norms of STEM, which treat white, male, western, and privileged norms as if they were universal. Every single session was brilliant; but the show-stopper was Dr. Max Liboiron's Keynote on land relations in research.

They started with a land acknowledgement recognizing that they are an uninvited visitor on land that is the rightful home of Beothuk, Mi’kmaq, Inu, and Inuit people. Doing so set the stage for a discussion of the many benefits of land acknowledgments. In addition to “explainin[ing] why your campus is so haunted,” land acknowledgments provide a way to foreground land relations in everything we do. What is the building where you are reading this made of? Where does the water come from, and where does the sewage go? The sheer materiality of our existence is grounded in the land, whether we think about it or not. The land is a participant in quite literally everything we do.

So, they argued, we have a choice: our land relations can be colonial or anti-colonial. Land, for Liboiron, is a broad term: it includes the people who live on that land, eat from that land, and care for it.

Two extremely common practices in science and science communication that retain colonial land relations are firsting and inclusion.

Firsting is a practice so common you might not know there’s a name for it, and it’s exactly what it sounds like -- claiming to be the first person to see, understand, explain, discover something. But as Liboiron points out, settler colonialism is based on exactly this principle: to claim someone else’s land for yourself, you must define humanity in a way that excludes those people. And “discovery” in the scientific sense is “like someone coming into your kitchen and discovering your coffee cups.” That is, it’s always a question of treating knowledge as individual, something that can be owned and claimed.

Even if you’re the first person to publish on the topic in an academic journal, there are other ways of knowing -- and thus others who may have known first. Western science’s claims to universalism push other ways of knowing out of sight. As Liboiron writes writes, “The problem with universalism is that it is less a way to access timeless truth than it is an argument positioning a particular worldview as the only worldview, a particular way of knowing as the way of knowing.”

And inclusion - surely including people is a good thing? But Liboiron pointed out that bringing people into spaces that aren’t designed for them and don’t value their contributions or their goals is unpleasant at best, extremely painful at worst. Without a critical mass of minoritized people, they simply aren’t heard; the environment is violent. And inclusion can itself be colonial: Liboiron defines settler colonialism as “non-Indigenous access to Indigenous land for non-Indigenous goals, desires, and futures.” What happens if you replace land with ideas? The problem with inclusion, for Liboiron, is that it so often leads to co-optation.

And that is what Liboiron suggests anti-colonial land relations must do: create spaces for refusal. Refusal means, simply, that researchers and participants decide together what is appropriate to share more broadly. Community peer review is one such model: communities that are impacted by academic work provide input on the work, and they can block the work’s publication if they find it harmful. As Liboiron noted, the assumption that researchers are entitled to access land for scientific purposes is fundamentally colonial. This model also ensures that the value of research is shared between academia and communities, rather than simply advancing the career of a small number of individuals. That is, good land relations are accountability, obligation, and reciprocity.

Further Reading

On the hegemony of schools:

  • Heath, S.B. 1983. Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge University Press.
  • Philips, S. U. 1982. The Invisible Culture: Communication in Classroom and Community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Longman.

The following references were shared by Liboiron in their talk.

On firsting:

On inclusion:

  • Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.
  • Kanter, R.M. 1977. Some effects of proportions on group life: Skewed sex ratios and responses to token women. American Journal of Sociology, 82(5).

On refusal:

Photo by Anderson Schmig on Unsplash.

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