Pre-Texts, a new way to encourage critical thinking

An innovative workshop on literacy and critical thinking will be part of the 2nd World Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace. It will be based on the Pre-Texts protocol, designed at Harvard University for a wide range of target audiences, from astrophysicists to prison populations. In this case, it will be targeted at social agents in Cañada Real.

A classical text can be turned into a rap, a fashion show, a choreography or a restaurant menu. It may sound weird, but this is what Professor Doris Sommer from Harvard University does in her workshops. She uses Pre-Texts, a pedagogical protocol, to promote literacy, coexistence in harmony and critical thinking.

We believe everyone can be an artist,’ Sommer says. She has travelled the world with Pre-Texts and now she is ready to come to the 2nd World Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace in Madrid. The Pre-Texts workshop was organised by the Vicálvaro Board for the social agents working in Cañada Real.

‘Pre-Texts can be used with all kinds of audiences, from little girls and boys, who can just listen to the texts and play with them, to grown-ups,’ Sommer explains. ‘Reading and writing are indicators of economic, political and emotional development, of health and wellbeing, etc. The most significant contribution we can make to equality and peace is achieving a good level of literacy, so that people can identify contents and speculate, imagine, discuss and reach agreements based on them,’ she adds.

The task goes beyond deciphering letters on a sheet of paper. The idea is to use these letters to think and create, to produce new interpretations and open one’s mind to new ideas. ‘We choose a text and use it in creative activities. We humbly adapt to the objectives and needs of participants,’ Sommer remarks. She believes in the notion of the ‘ignorant schoolmaster’, developed by Jacques Ranciere: she wants her students to learn on the basis of challenge, admiration and high expectations.

The Pre-Texts workshops have been conducted for astrophysicists, maths and philosophy teachers, prison inmates and shanty town residents. The results are different in each case, but they are all enriching experiences, changing one’s perspective and offering a new approach to art and literature. The protocol can be used to redirect youth violence and anxiety into artistic expressions, develop thinking and reasoning skills and build work teams.

One of the greatest lessons Sommer can recall came from a Peruvian youngster who made cardboard books. ‘You have to treat books as raw material rather than sacred objects,’ the cardboard book editor told her. ‘And so I realised that literature, text, is always recycled stuff. If words did not sound familiar to us, if they did not carry the traces of their previous users, we would not be able to understand them,’ the Professor concludes.

The Pre-Texts workshop at the 2nd World Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace will be the first conducted in Madrid. It will be open to 25 social agents, who will be given support for several months to apply the protocol to their work in Cañada Real. The workshop will unfold at the Vicálvaro Municipal Board from 5 to 8 November.

Ms Sommer will deliver her speech at the 2nd World Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace on Thursday 8 November at 9am. She will talk about violence from urban inequality and public spaces.

World Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace.