Learning from Experiences: A Brief Reflection on the Cartagena Assembly

By Karin Rönnerman

    Learning from Experiences: A Brief Reflection on the Cartagena Assembly

    About the Author

    Karin Rönnerman
    Professor Emerita, University of Gothenburg
    Gothenburg, SE
    1 Article Published
    Karin Rönnerman

    Karin Rönnerman is professor emerita in Education at University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her main area of research is action research, a field she has worked in for 25 years in developing strategies for collaboration between practitioners in schools and in universities with the purpose of strengthening the practitioner’s professionalism. She was one of the founders and leaders of the Nordic Network for Action Research as well as one of the coordinators of the international PEP network. In both networks the issue of collaboration has been in focus as well as developing ways to create and nurture new knowledge together in democratic ways.

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    Part 2: Reflections on the 2017 Cartagena Assembly for Knowledge Democracy

    In the Nordic countries we have a concept closely related to education and understood as an open-ended educational ideal involving growing as a human being to participate in society as a democratic citizen. This concept is bildning in Swedish and is hard to translate into English. Most often the German word “bildung” is used. In this essay I draw on the concept to discuss an experience with knowledge democracy five years ago. I will use the Swedish word throughout this essay reflecting briefly on my experiences of taking part in the first Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy in Cartagena, Colombia in 2017.

    Bildning relies on an interplay between self-formation and the world and aims to bridge the known and unknown. In this bridging a metaphor for travelling (Gustavsson, 1996) can be used. There are different ways of travelling; on the one hand you can choose a pre-booked package with everything included and on the other hand you can pack your rucksack and go on a tour by yourself. In the latter you will face challenges to be sorted on the way and when you return to your home you are not the same person as before you began your travel. To be able to travel by yourself you need to get in contact with other people to find the way, to book new tickets or just to sit down for conversations. In that way new impressions and experiences have been merged with your old ones; you have linked unknown knowledge to what you already know and have by that grown as a human. In this growth, some beliefs might have to be reconsidered and new ways of understanding appear. This is what bildning can be about (see also Lindhult, Social Publishers Foundation 2022).

    Dialogue is in the centre of bildning, being able to speak freely and discuss with others what is happening around you but also being in the process to create new knowledge for acting in a better society. In other words, bildning stands for promoting democratic practices and nurturing social justice. It is sympathetic to local agency and reflects a confidence in and recognition of human being. A Swedish professor in the history of ideas expresses it in these words: “Bildning contributes to keep the society together. We need to know more together” (Sörlin, 2019, p. 212). So, what did I bring back as experiences from participating in the GAKD in Cartagena and how has it contributed to my understanding of knowledge democracy?

    I left Sweden as a representative for the Nordic Network for Action Research, established by scholars from Sweden, Finland, and Norway in 2004 to scrutinise educational roots for action research in our own culture and traditions. I am also part of the Pedagogy, Education, Praxis (PEP) network, one of the Assembly sponsors, and had regular conversations with Christine Edwards-Groves, Co-Chair of the Assembly, in preparing and collecting conversations with participants in the network to bring forward in the coming conversations in Cartagena. Being part of the PEP network, holding conversations on Nordic traditions was one of the main focal points for gathering information prior to the Assembly, and that effort emerged from and later resulted in several publications. Specifically, for us coming from the Northern countries we could mirror our understanding of action research in the Anglo-Saxon traditions of practitioner research (see e.g. Rönnerman & Salo, 2012; 2017; Rönnerman et al., 2015). With these understandings and knowledge, I began my travels to Colombia to participate in the ARNA-conference and in the 1st Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy in the traditions of Paulo Freire and Orlando Fals Borda.

    In reflection on my memories from the GAKD I want to raise the question of languages when coming together in such events. But not just the languages (voices) we speak, rather how we use concepts established in one context and transferred to another. Both during the ARNA conference and the assembly English and Spanish were the primary languages; my own language was only spoken by one other person at the event. In the sessions I attended where papers were presented during the ARNA conference either English or Spanish language was used by presenters. Sometimes there was a person in the room who voluntarily translated what was said to the audience members that did not speak the language of the presenter(s). In such a way we all got to know the message of the presentation. Such translation assistance was often provided by someone attending from South America who was bilingual and who cared about all attendees being able to participate in what was presented and by that being able to take part in the discussions that followed presentations. Representing the global north, this is an issue to be more aware of in the future. That is, if more voices are to be heard in discussions so that participants can get closer to social justice in striving for global knowledge democracy, then more planning is needed to insure multivocality.  

    The language issue took another turn during the Assembly when we all gathered around round tables to share experiences. I agree with what Ruth Balogh mentions in her essay (Social Publishers Foundation, 2022); the Assembly became a moment of presenting yourself as a ‘whole’ in an action research-context, not just attending an academic event as the ‘educationalist’ you normally present. The participation of whole persons took various forms and involved important choices. For example, with leadership by a large group of Latin American Assembly attendees, participants ended up at one point walking around the large conference hall while tapping their hearts without knowing, at least for the English speaking participants, what was being said (in Spanish) but relying on a trust among all these people around you. A similar procession took place at the ending of the assembly when music was played, and people started to dance instead of listening (or both and) to a formal farewell speech. The dance took over and continued out in the street where all who wanted to be included to finalise the global assembly in a language all understood and could express took part.

    My second point on language refers to how concepts are used when being transferred from one context to another. The concept I was struck by is the contextual nature of ‘being participatory.’ After being part of the GAKD and coming home, I  wrestled with the recognition that ‘being participatory’ had another meaning than what I ordinarily experience in a Global North perspective. Being part of the assembly also opened up new understandings of ‘oppression.’ In the Assembly, through a different kind of participation, oppression was given another meaning, more than merely an abstract understanding, and we all could witness what it really means. Many examples were present in the Assembly discussions and built on presentations of participatory action research included in the conference. Participatory action research could be seen as not just collaboration; it goes beyond. This contributed to a deeper meaning of democracy and social justice at several levels.

    The experience also contributed to a greater understanding of cross-cultural learning. For example, based on the eye-opening experience of experiential learning at the Assembly I was able to put Doris Santos work in another perspective (e.g. Santos, 2015). Doris Santos was one of the organisers of the full ARNA Conference in Cartagena. She has presented on how she organised scholars at Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota to work in rural areas and to participate with practitioners in different practices for understanding and acting for a better society. Scholars left the university to participate with practitioners in local communities with the purpose of giving citizens a voice and improving community-based practices. This work goes beyond education in schools, which had been where I found myself mostly ‘collaborating’ with practitioners. In this view I find there is a difference between ‘participatory’ and what I might call ‘collaboratory,’ concepts that often are used interchangeably.

    In this brief essay I wanted to view my experiences from the GAKD in the light of bildning, a Nordic concept capturing collaboration for knowing better together. In another essay Erik Lindhult (2022), also a participant in the 2017 Assembly, has given examples on strategies used in the Scandinavian context to enable knowledge democracy in practice. What I brought back from Cartagena is a deeper appreciation for how knowledge democratisation practices are context-bound in complex ways. I have raised the question of language in two ways; the actual language(s) used in global events and how to understand one another and the meaning of concepts in different contexts. To conclude my journey of bildning I will become more observant in how to understand translations from one language to another and how to use concepts in different contexts. There has to be a deeper understanding to make meaning of complex constructs cross-culturally and by that be able to learn more together.


    Balogh, R. (2022, May 20). ‘I want to know what’s going on over there! This could never happen in Harvard’. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/i-want-to-know-whats-going-on-over-there-this-could-never-happen-in-harvard/

    Gustavsson, B. (1996). Bildning i vår tid. Om bildningens möjligheter och villkor i det moderna samhället [Bildung in our times. On the possibilities and conditions of bildung in modern society]. Wahlström & Widstrand.

    Lindhult, E. (2022, March 29). Toward knowledge democracy – Scandinavian examples. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/towards-knowledge-democracy-scandinavian-examples/

    Rönnerman, K., & Salo, P. (2012). ‘Collaborative and action research’ within education. Nordic Studies in Education. 32(1), 1-16.

    Rönnerman, K. & Salo, P. (2017). Action research within the tradition of Nordic countries. In L.Rowell, C. Bruce, J. Shosh & M. Riel (Eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research (pp. 455-469). Palgrave Macmillan US.

    Rönnerman, K., Salo, P., Furu, E.M., Lund, T., Olin, A., & Jakhelln, R. (2015). Bringing ideals into dialogue with practices: on the principles and practices of the Nordic Network for Action Research. Educational Action Research24(1), 46-64. doi/full/10.1080/09650792.2015.1069751

    Santos, D. (2016) Re-signifying participatory action research (PAR) in higher education: what does ‘P’ stand for in PAR?, Educational Action Research, 24(4), 635-646, DOI: 10.1080/09650792.2015.1103658

    Sörlin, S. (2019). Till bildningens försvar. Den svåra konsten att veta tillsammans [To the defence of bildning]. The difficult art of knowing together]. Natur och Kultur.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Rönnerman, K. (2023, February 4).  Learning from experiences: A brief reflection on the Cartagena Assembly.  Social Publishers Foundation.  https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/learning-from-experiences-a-brief-reflection-on-the-cartagena-assembly/  

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