Monday, November 22, 2010

Is Grassroots a dirty word?

by David Lloyd

Teachers have been greatly empowered over the last twenty years. This first started with a group of mavericks who stumbled across a new tool, something called the "Internet". I say "stumbled across" because -  up until the end of the 20th Century - no one in the Ministry of Education seemed to realize that the Internet existed. In the now infamous "Tomorrow 98 (Mahar 98)" campaign set up by the Israeli Ministry of Education to - among other things - computerize Israeli schools, there was only a half page mention of the Internet, in what was otherwise a very long and detailed document.

Actually, it wasn't so much that the Ministry of Education didn't know that the Internet existed, but rather it felt that this was a bad dream which would hopefully fade away. Why did they wish it away instead of seeking to harness its clear educational promise? Because it threatened the whole infrastructure on which the Ministry of Education is built - "top-down management" - in which a few at the top decide on policies that will dictate to all those below.

The rapid spread of Internet use didn't just threaten the authoritative control Ministry of Education, but also that of all types of organizations which, until then, had a monopoly over the distribution of information in their field. As Sir Francis Bacon once said - "Knowledge is power" - and the people in positions of authority had learned how to hoard knowledge in order to achieve and maintain power.

When I first presented the idea of a virtual English teachers' network to the CALL ("Computer Assisted Lanaguage Learning") Ministry committee in 1995, one member of the committee responded to my idea of having teachers share lesson plans and teaching ideas over the Internet by saying - "Teachers shouldn't do this. This should be left to us professionals."

Well, there was a reality check. Here I had thought that teachers were professionals. What constitutes a professional, then? Here we are, after going through teacher training, some of us have worked in the field for over twenty years ... when can we be considered professionals? Or is this something a teacher can never achieve in the eyes of the Ministry?

I was very fortunate at the time. Although the members of the committee didn't believe that a virtual English teachers' network could ever happen, for most teachers at the time didn't even have a computer at home and teachers ... well ... teachers weren't used to doing things for themselves other than following the suggestions laid down in teacher guides and ministerial commands ... I knew differently. I realized that there was already a rich infrastructure in place through which English teachers traded information about their teaching styles, lesson plans, and new ideas. This infrastructure was called ETAI (English Teachers Association in Israel) which, at the time, ran one or two conferences during the year where English teachers presented their ideas to other English teachers. A real "grassroots" organization. I remember hearing teachers say at the end of such conferences - "I wish we could have this sort of thing every day, and not just once or twice a year." And I thought to myself, "Why not?" At the time I had introduced the first Freenet into the Ramat Negev region and had set up the first website in Hebrew for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing aimed at serving as a framework for mutual assistance. Why couldn't I introduce this experience of a virtual community to English teaching as well, especially since teaching was my main calling.

And so ETNI came into being. And I truly believe that virtual grassroots movements, such as ETNI, have led to a greater democratization of the process. And although the Ministry still kicks and groans, it has been forced to recognize this new world and try to adapt itself to the new reality. Official information is no longer found at the end of dusty corridors, but can now be accessed at the click of a mouse. No longer are we totally dependent on information and ideas that are officially dished out - we have access to other sources. And there are many examples where teachers have had a say in new policies (such as the creation of the New Curriculum, where the Ministry asked for teacher input through the virtual airwaves) and where teachers have managed to successfully challenge Ministry policies which didn't take the teacher's input into account (such as the new Literature program and the decision to abolish the Immigrant teacher program).

So, although there are people who still cringe and shudder when they hear the term "grassroots", all in all, I think this term has served us well.


  1. Well written. The answer to the question is, of course, no. There's a lot to say about this, but I'll start with just a few words on the subject of sharing.
    There is no longer room for unique "owners of the truth (and information)". That may have been possible (that doesn't mean 'right") a few years ago, but with the arrival of the Social Media (Web 2.0 tools), people can now do thing that were not possible not long ago.
    Teachers (those of us who are on the field)have much to say. We can (should) also use these tools in our work, given proper conditions (that includes training and fair recognition of our work and effort, among a few things).
    Yet that's not the main point of my post. I'd like to share something:to better understand this new situation, we can check what's going on by browsing endless sites, blogs, etc.. However, for those who like to read a good book on this subject, I suggest one (or all) of the following (I liked the third book the most):
    1. Rheingold's book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution
    2. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, published in 2004, is a book written by James Surowiecki
    3. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations Clay Shirki


  2. This article reminds me that the Center of Scientific and Technological Information (COSTI) was put out of business by the Internet.

    When I worked at COSTI it was a subdivision of the Prime Minister's office. Its primary service was the acquisition and distribution of information about journal articles, conferences, seminars, and workshops. Its customers included most of the Israeli research community. Medical information was handled by Hadassah Hospital. Defense related information was handled by the MOP library of Misrad haBitahon.

    The research community eventually discovered that it could find such data easier, faster and cheaper via the Internet.

    Israel A Cohen
    Petah Tikva