Stepping Stones Information Form

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How does it work

Stepping Stones workshops are like a journey, or like a path of stones across a river. All the sessions use a participatory approach of non-formal learning through shared discussions and accompanying creative activities. All the exercises are based on participants’ own experiences. Role play and drawing exercises enable everyone to take part: no literacy is needed, so everyone relies on their own experiences equally. Participants discuss their experiences, act them out, analyse them, explore and consider alternative outcomes, develop strategies for achieving them and then rehearse these together and reflect on them in a safe, supportive group. Thus Stepping Stones moves well beyond simple “knowledge” programmes, to higher-order questioning and analysis, which enable all participants to develop powers of “critical literacy“, to understand why we behave in the ways we do – and to work out, assess the potential consequences, and rehearse together, ways in which we can change in future. This “higher order” learning process is described in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives. (See here also)

People feel safe because most sessions take place in groups of their own gender and age, with facilitators of the same gender and similar age. Participants also enjoy the sessions because there is a lot of fun and laughter as well as the more challenging work.

There are several distinctive characteristics of the Stepping Stones process:

To view a slide presentation explaining the background and structure of the Stepping Stones programme, click here.


Workshop Structure: Fission and Fusion

Here Alice Welbourn, author of the training package, describes the thinking and rationale behind the approach:

The package was designed in response to the vulnerability of most women, men and young people in decision-making regarding sexual behaviour, through men’s gendered patriarchal domination of women and older people’s generally repressive attitudes towards youth.

Thus the package was designed from the outset to work both simultaneously and separately with older men, younger men, older women and younger women in the community, in order to give them all private time and space in their own self-defined gender- and age-based peer groups. Here they could explore and analyse their own situations for themselves, without threat of domination or ridicule from others.

The diagram shown below explains how the original package was formed, with peer groups meeting by themselves for several sessions (defined by letters) and then meeting regularly in carefully facilitated plenary sessions to share and compare their own discussions, analyses and learning experiences, in a mutually respectful way. Thus the whole original workshop, which lasted for 18 sessions, spread over at least 9 weeks, was designed as a “fission and fusion” model, starting with, recognising and validating different experiences and perspectives and then enabling those to be brought together to find common ground and agreement.

The very format of the peer groups gives separate, equally recognised space to the different groups. Then the structure of the several plenary sessions, which bring all the peer groups together to share and compare what they have been doing, builds and steadily reinforces mutual care and respect between the different groups, across the generations as well as across the genders. The combination of these two processes, challenging gender and age norms together, lends a particular strength to the effectiveness of this work.



Working with community members

It is important to recognise that Stepping Stones depends entirely for its success on its grounding in local knowledge, locally defined current and historical context andlocal experience of that context, explored and analysed by local participants themselves, during the course of the workshop. Without this locally specific basis from the outset, the package would not work, and certainly would not travel.

Therefore, one key to Stepping Stones’ success is that it has been widely adapted and translated by many different organisations, mainly so far in Africa and Asia, but also in Russia and in Latin America. Click here for information about different language versions.

Firstly, Stepping Stones views all the people involved, both old and young, as actors central to their own lives, rather than as empty vessels for our endless health education messages to fill.
“Petrol pump” diagram, model of behaviour change:


Table 3 – pouring information into an empty head?
Abstain! Be faithful! Or use Condoms!

Throughout the workshop process they are conducting their own research on their own lives, exploring and analysing how local historically and culturally constructed contexts have shaped the way in which they identify themselves and relate to others around them. The facilitator who guides each peer group through the exercises in each session, guides this exploration.

The optional workshop video shows some examples of this.
It is important that the process of change is given the opportunity to happen at multiple levels. It is virtually impossible for individuals – especially women and young people – to change the way they relate to others by themselves, without the support of their peers, their family and their wider community.
Men also face huge peer pressure to conform to the norms of their peers. If they decide, for instance, to help with household tasks, or not to hit their wives, they can be jeered at and shunned by their peers. This is why the Stepping Stones process is structured to promote changes in attitudes and actions at multiple levels of the community, simultaneously, as shown below. This approach connects to the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who recognised that the best way to support behaviour change in all of us was for us all to work together to support one another in our mutual learning processes, based on our own understandings of our own local culture and context. This work of Vygotsky has developed to be known as the “social constructivist” school of thought. You can read more about this here.

In this diagram, which is also often referred to as the “socio-ecological model“, the sizes, shapes and strengths of these circles will vary with the gender of “me”, and with context and over time.


Using the creative arts

The skills that participants are taught help them use their own experiences to look with new eyes. Each facilitator helps the group to create experiential learning activities, which include role-play, discussions, tableaux and drawing exercises, to open up new ways of thinking about the world and their places in it. These exercises draw heavily on the creativity of the performing arts in us, using songs and dance also to break up the sessions and build on the learning. No skills in reading or writing are required during the workshops, so no-one who has little formal education is disadvantaged in this process.

During these exercises, the men have to act at times as women, or as young people, and vice-versa. They learn to see how life feels from these different perspectives of greater or lesser power than they normally experience in their own lives. They learn how both anger and aggression can not only harm others greatly, but can also be just as self-destructive as can passivity and submission. Meanwhile, by acting positively through role-plays, using positive body-language and positive verbal communication and listening skills, participants are using their eyes, their ears, their voices and their bodies, learning to behave differently in future in challenging situations. This combination of  “visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning” as it is known, is already well documented. For instance, using their bodies to role-play good strokes or kicks, professional tennis, football and cricket players are aided to perform well at their sports. In this context the combination of seeing, hearing and acting processes enables participants to “rehearse for reality” by acting positively in a situation by practising it first in the safe and supportive environment of the workshop.

All participants, old or young, male or female, can start to dare to take control of their own lives rather than feeling that their lives are in control of them. They learn to swim against the current, and to find the stepping stones across the river of life, which can and should be full of pleasure as well as pain, if only they have the means to find the pleasure for themselves.

The optional workshop video shows some examples of these activities.


Having fun

It’s also important to make the sessions funny, fun and enriching as well as challenging and painful. The main exercises of each session are sandwiched between warm-up games and other fun exercises, which often reflect in a humorous way the main serious learning process of the session. Participants are then easily able to remember the greater learning processes by referring to the fun games which made them laugh.

See the optional workshop video for an illustration of this.


Last but not least….

Please remember that the Stepping Stones programme can only form part of a journey for any community. Change does not happen overnight. All kinds of different influences are needed, as the socio-ecologic model above shows. After all, it took 60 years in Europe, after the dangers of smoking tobacco were known, for smoking to be banned in public places. We do believe that the use of the Stepping Stones programme in a community can create an enabling environment for change to take place. However, this then needs to be followed up with other activities – ideally led by the community members themselves. For more ideas about this, please see here.