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Community Problem Solving and Readers Theatre

What is it?

IN THE 1990s, the community ‘outreach’ department of Carnegie Mellon University completed a worthwhile and innovative project that involved creating ‘Community Problem-Solving Dialogues’ with young people.

Literacy outreach workers based in community centres invited young people to explore a local problem and write a report for ‘the community’. Although the precise development of each project varied, there were some common threads.

1. Young volunteers shared their own stories around an issue of concern to them and, with help from the outreach workers, gathered the stories of others and relevant information. They identified the main issues and wrote some initial responses – not only in the form of argument and information pieces but also dramatic scenarios or dialogues of ideas.

2. They sought out ‘rival hypotheses’ either by imagining differing views or by meeting with members of their local community including, for example, politicians, older residents or anyone affected by their chosen ‘problem’. All the participants accepted the guidelines of the project, which highlighted respectful dialogue and the sharing of views supported by reasons.

3. The young people produced a ‘report’ at the end of the process which brought together the arguments, scenarios, information and rival hypotheses. They also made proposals for future action. Members of the local community, including those interviewed during the project, came to the presentation and discussed the report and the proposals. Possibilities for further action were debated and plans made.

A good idea

It seems to me that the idea was a very good one and could inspire work today both in the community and in schools. Much of the success of the original project may have been dependent on the levels of trust the outreach workers were able to gain from the group. The out-of-school element of the project no doubt helped. Trust would be important because the young participants might have had something to lose from revealing things about their lives and opinions. Nevertheless, the basic methods of the project could be adapted in different contexts.

What has it got to do with P4C?

The ‘community of inquiry’ approach of P4C is very similar to the one adopted in this project. There is respectful listening but also attention to the duty of giving reasons and seeking out alternative arguments. ‘Community Problem-Solving Dialogues’ seems to be a good example of P4C in action, even though the expectation that a problem might be ‘solved’ is an optimistic one. At least it can be better understood.

Where does Readers’ Theatre come in?

I think that Readers’ Theatre could be used as a format for the final ‘report’ in the community problem solving process (see point three above’). It could incorporate testimony, argument from different perspectives and the dramatisation of possible alternatives. It would be a very good focus for the presentation to the audience and a structure for research, creative work and critical discussion during the whole project.

Perhaps there is something teachers and others can take from this.


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