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A Classic Nonformal Education

Reimagining Nonformal Education and Social Justice Through Experiential Learning Course: This past summer, American University (AU) School of Education (SOE) students took part in a learning expedition that both enhanced their knowledge and strengthened one of the school’s courses.

By Lumumba Dunduza | January 12, 2023

The American University School of Education International Training and Education Program (ITEP), now in its 40th year, is a unique master of arts offering in that its students gain a strong foundation in the theory, principles, and practice of intercultural learning and the intricacies of project management and training design. The program includes a range of courses that cover topics such as decolonizing traditional teaching curricula, managing global nonprofit organizations, and the integration of out-of-school learning in international settings.

ITEP Program Director Dr. Elizabeth A. Worden and Scholar in Residence Dr. Michael Gibbons recently launched a pilot elective course on nonformal education, entitled Nonformal Education for Social Change. As an added boon, this new course included an ingredient that was a huge hit with its students and faculty.

A View from the Highlander Center

In 2020, Worden, Gibbons, and Beck Waghorne (ITEP ’22), decided to not only create a course focused on nonformal education but include an experiential component at the historic Highlander Research and Education Center (formerly known as the Highlander Folk School), located on an Appalachian mountainside of Tennessee. The Highlander Center has a rich legacy of community building and civil rights activism. Founded in 1932 by Appalachian educator and activist Myles Horton – along with educator Don West, Methodist Minister James A. Dombrowski, and others – Highlander initially served as a vehicle to provide Appalachian Mountain people (“Highlanders”) with practical education imbued with community organizing to facilitate their solving their own problems. 

Over its 90-year history, the center expanded its aim and played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement and in innumerable labor rights struggles involving immigrants, migrant workers, and other groups grappling for social justice. It was one of the leading organizational locales for renowned civil rights figures, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Septima Clark, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others, whose extremely courageous advocacy for desegregation, racial justice, and equity positively evolved the world. Highlander was the sanctuary where many of their protests were strategized.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Highlander Center

According to Dr. Gibbons, “Highlander is a very special place. In some ways, it is the mother of our commitment to antiracism at the School of Ed. So, we really wanted to go back to our roots of where this idea of combating racism comes from and what we could learn as a School of Ed from an unusual education institution devoted to that.”

Upon arrival at Highlander, students and faculty immediately immersed themselves in the center’s culture: lodging at one of its rural campuses, studying the center’s history of education work for social justice, and spending time in its historical archives. Each day with Highlander staff, led by Education Director Trina Jackson, the group enthusiastically took in the center’s methods and lessons learned.

Jackson taught students six core social justice methods that Highlander has long used and refined: Intergenerational organizing; Language justice; Land, legacy, and place; Participatory action research; Popular education; and Cultural organizing. Students were able to fully absorb the concepts and use them as raw material for the discussions they took part in throughout the week, often while seated in rocking chairs in a 40-chair circle in an octagonal classroom overlooking a mountainside, an arrangement that is the heart and soul to Higlander’s approach to dialogue education. 

Highlander Room with Rocking Chairs

ITEP student Michelle McKeever was moved by the learning experience: "This was the best course I have ever taken. Its creativity in shaping an experiential learning environment was bar none. At the Highlander Center, we learned as a global community. We immersed ourselves in the Center's longstanding principles used to build and fortify communities and practiced these methods in real-time. We studied and broke bread together and formed powerful relationships rooted in a passion for social justice. The course etched knowledge and memories into the very fabric of our beings, helping us to recognize that we all bring something valuable to the table, forever changing us for the better."

The educational experience was further enriched by the daily opportunity to meet online with representatives of other nonformal education programs based around the world – Tostan International, a Senegalese-based NFE program; Global Learning Partners, which integrates principle-centered instruction processes to ensure optimum use of limited training resources; and Beautiful Trouble, a US-based activist training network. The cross-program dialogues were uniquely insightful, rendering a profound effect on students individually and as a group, and even enriching the experiences of Highlander staff.

Gillie Haynes, a student of the course who is also an AU School of Communication adjunct professor, stated that, “The history and perspectives presented to myself and my colleagues during our immersion experience at the Highlander Research and Education Center has already had an impact on how I view and process information, and I see the value of including my informal experiences in my professional space. The experience solidified that nonformal education is an invaluable way to welcome every community of learners to our ever-expanding world table of knowledge.”

Photographs: Beck Waghorne / Archival Photograph: Highlander Research and Education Center
For more information about AU’s ITEP program, visit