This post is part of a series on informality in practice, to be published at regular interval on the ATS blog.

Vacant houses, Baltimore (Photo by Flickr user cranky messiah, Creative Commons license)



Or: tapping into the latent potential of people

Straight from the epic tv series “The Wire”: how do you teach something to West Baltimore’s worst “corner boys”?

Corner Boyz | “One of the corner kids, ah…?” “Yeah, they do step up when you need them, don’t they?”

These black kids come from the projects, the second or third generation of a resident community that has survived pretty much every possible form of social hardships – poverty and unemployment, dysfunctional families, trafficking and violent crimes, racism and segregation, drug abuse and mental illness.

Conventional classroom training (i.e. filling their heads with useful information about things they don’t know) is meaningless and they won’t take it – and why should they? They know that they will end up like their dads and moms, their brothers and sisters. So, public schools are the stage of a farce: the kids pretend to learn and the teachers pretend to teach. And generations of disadvantaged students are thus sacrificed on the altar of standardized testing.

Really, the futility of it all seems to be clear to everyone here.

And on the other side, the only role model of the ghetto are drug dealers like Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell – for the boys, the only job on the market, and the only real career perspective is standing on the corners.

The only decent offer I got | “You come up under my wing – you ain’t gonna do nothing but rise, man. I don’t even know why you talking ‘bout quitting… Look, check it out: why don’t you just come down here after school – and just work these rush hours for me?”

Then, unexpectedly, ghetto life turns out to be a possible vehicle for educational experimentation.

These kids sit silent in class while showered with information to be used in tests – well, not always silent. In fact, some of them are so not-silent that a special class (as opposed to the school’s gen pop) has been arranged for them to develop basic socialization skills. They resists like political prisoners, refusing to give any chance to the educator. Then someone asks them “what makes a good corner boy?”, and the class explodes in a burst of passionate and circumstantiated debate on the deontology and practice of professional drug trafficking.

When education does not give them information, but starts from what they already know as a practice of daily life, a window of opportunity seems to open. Dice games are a popular form of entertainment in the projects? Then you can maybe teach the boys math by starting to let them discover, to their amazement, that rolling two dices there are only three ways to make a four, and six ways to make a seven.

Dices | “You trick them into thinking they aren’t learning… And they do”

Last year ICS participated to an application for an Urban Innovative Action lead by the municipality of Amadora; it was a project to support the integration of immigrant residents in the local labour market. Part of the project was based on the concept of “back-fill vocational training”. Simply put, it’s the (quite old) idea that a teacher should always start from what the students know or are interested into, instead of just start hammering notions into their heads.

Specifically, Amadora’s immigrants already have skills and competences; but the match with the local labour market is difficult, because the CV the immigrants have to offer is often invisible, non-standard, or of difficult certification.

So the idea was to select a sample of immigrant residents and put them into a special program of professional training based on two principles: that training would start from a thorough assessment of what the participants knew, from their talents and past experiences; and that the program would them offer some 360 degrees support in the form of a physical space that the participants could self-manage to some extent – and they could use for some basic services (e.g. child care); for meetings and events linked to professional training; and for recreational purposes.

Back-fill Vocational Training – “What makes a good corner boy?”

In the end we did not get the UIA money – and in 2017 the number of murder victims in Baltimore was still at a staggering 342 in a city of 600,000 residents.

But to end on a more optimistic note, the idea here is that that people already know a lot of things that are sometime invisible, sometime even to them – a latent potential on which you can build. And that you can develop that potential by doing things that have little (the dice maths) or nothing (childcare) to do with formal training, but belong to the ordinary and daily routines that make up social life.



Wu-Tang Clan | A Better Tomorrow from the album Wu-Tang Forever [1997]

BONUS TRACK 2: discover how The Wire has more citations than you


Marco Allegra is postdoctoral researcher at ICS-ULisboa.



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