On 27 March 2014 ten scholars met together in the Pathways Centre in Lincoln. The session began with a number of scholars sharing their most positive learning experiences. This was very insightful, and the ways in which the experiences were presented to the group were quite creative, as the following will show.
Lucy presented a collage of various pictures: a sock, a bag, a playing card, a VW Camper Van, and a sign. She said that her grandma (who has been a massive influence on her life) had taught her to sew, and that the sign presented her core value: “Make Do and Mend”. Instead of always using new bags, reuse the one you already have; if clothes get holes in them, patch them up. (As clothes are so cheap today, one scholar asks, why not just replace them?) Lucy’s grandma had also taught her to cook, and when the family went to the caravan together, there was never a dull moment. Grandma would always be there to lovingly guide and encourage her granddaughter, and to play Gin Rummy. Nowadays, Lucy finds sewing meditative and therapeutic, always thinking fondly of her grandma whilst doing it. Other scholars commented that it was such a shame that the art of sewing seems to be dying out, but that it has been superseded by other skills which are seen as more essential in the modern world.
Laura presented three drawings to the group. These showed the places where she goes to learn, the people she meets in association with her education, and the interconnected relationships of her learning activities. Education is important to Laura, and the people she works with in association with this allows the process of assimilation and creative development to flow easily. This has become such a routine that if any part of it were temporarily cancelled it would cause a certain amount of disorientation and upset the whole quotidian of her week.
Andrew explained that he had had some bad experiences at school. There was one teacher who would make each pupil get everything out of their bags and place them on the desk in front of them. Whatever a pupil touched during the lesson would be confiscated. (If you were a nervous person, this would mean being temporarily parted from many of your possessions.) Andrew then presented a paper which he had co-written with a colleague, explaining that the death of this person had deeply affected him. This particular colleague “had given the most incredible critiques”. Andrew also told us about his son, Alex. Alex is disabled and has had many operations in his life. He now lives with a lot of uncertainty about the future. Even so, he has no sense of self-pity, is well-read, and has a family of his own. Andrew says that he can and should learn a lot from his son’s stoic nature.
Paul presented a plan of the room in which the SSC group meets at present. and explained that he found the whole experience of facilitating to be a positive learning experience. He comes from “a deeply introverted background”, but he enjoyed directing a discussion on subject that he had only recently been introduced to. The experience, he says, was helped by the SSC having a calm and safe environment, a friendly atmosphere, and a co-operative nature (i.e. group-work). Paul also commented that although the facilitation was not perfect, the experience had been a real joy and had planted a seed from which, hopefully, more good things might grow. Another scholar added that what Paul had prepared had been relevant and to the point: “facilitation should be felicitous!”.
Joss explained that whilst studying for his undergraduate degree, he would often spend 9-to-5 in the library, immersed in solitary study (the same period that he had previously devoted to paid employment). He loved the opportunity to devour whole volumes of knowledge. He said that this same love of reading and learning seemed to be showing in his young daughter, Gracie. Joss had brought along a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which Gracie had both read and meticulously extracted information from. Next he produced a large piece of paper on which Gracie, in four columns, had recorded (1) the names of Hogwarts’ students; (2) the names of Hogwarts’ teachers; (3) the places that the book mentions, and (4) the spells that are used. Joss added that he very much enjoys (and has always benefitted from) the one-to-one relationships which are characteristic of mentoring, and that when he was a student he didn’t get much out of (banking concept-orientated) lectures.
Sarah then showed us a collection of photographs which had been taken at significant points in her educational history. She explained that she did not like school at first, and that after spending a period away from formal education, she still felt mostly the same way. However, there was one teacher whose strange teaching method intrigued her. Marking out significant moments in world history on a long strip of till-receipt paper gave her something to compare her life to. She was also encouraged in her learning by her grandfather, through their trips out together and by the gentle exchange of knowledge that tends to take place within close, familial relationships. Subsequently, she spent much of her time in the Library of Congress, learning about the American Civil War and Black Liberation. (She recommends Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway.) She also praised a colleague who, every time Sarah wrote a draft for a university assignment, would give very long and detailed critiques. Sarah has adopted this practice, so much so that people often ask her why she is writing so much!
Mike Neary told us about how “demoralising” his undergraduate education was. He explained that after university he had worked with the young unemployed and young offenders on community education projects in South London. He went back to university to do an MA where he learned about Capital and the power of money. Mike then ripped up a five pound note as a protest against the power of money. He told us about the time when, in 1994, The KLF set fire to a million pounds, which provided a potent image and invoked strong reactions. Another scholar referred to Mike Neary and Graham Taylor’s Money and the Human Condition as a most useful and realistic text on the monetary system.
Jane described a “tremendously exciting” and “extremely influential” learning experience. She once took a short course in teaching English as a foreign language. The teacher was dynamic and had a very unusual teaching method. Upon entering the room, he greeted his students in Arabic! The students were astounded (mainly because they couldn’t understand what he was saying), and the teacher just kept repeating the same salutation until someone replied. For Jane, this was extraordinary, and to her mind this was a good example of a teacher “embodying” their pedagogy. She is always trying to emulate this. Jane refers to Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, a book which emphasizes such an “embodiment”.
The first part of this session proved to be quite insightful, giving space to some very interesting personal testimonies. From this “[amazing] range of experiences” (Jane’s words) we may find various themes, including: the passing on of skills through family generations, lifelong learning, a problematic monetary system, bad school experiences, the joy of co-operative learning, and the interconnectedness of our learning experiences.
SET TEXT AND THE SSC
For tonight’s session we had been asked to read ‘Why we still have a lot to learn’, the seventh chapter on the Trapese Collective’s Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing our World. Six scholars took it in turn to read one one of the defining principles of “popular education” on p. 109. It was unanimously agreed that all six apply to the SSC.
There was then a discussion on what “popular education” actually means. The phrase has no real meaning in English. In Spanish and Portuguese, however, “popular” means “of the people”, and popular education refers to the self-education of the working-class. Since the second half of the twentieth-century there has developed a strong tradition of popular education in Latin America, for which Paulo Freire was just one of many influences.
The discussion then turned to the nature of the SSC. These are some of the ideas that were discussed (and some of the questions that we were left to ponder):
- The SSC is a fertile learning ground in which new ideas can be discussed and developed, and where alternatives pedagogies can be tried out.
- One scholar who is a lecturer at the local university said that they were proud of the way in which all contributions at the SSC’s sessions are given equal status and that any sense of academic hierarchy is “dissolved” within the group.
- Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing Our World was used by the SSC’s founders to help define its parameters.
- “Are we complicit in our collaboration?”
- No single person acts as a teacher here – the role of a teacher gives the sense of authority. There will be a discussion on “authority” at a later date, but it may be helpful to give a flavour of what was said at this session regarding this subject. What determines a teacher’s office depends upon the authority with which the subject they teach is invested. If this authority-invested tradition pushes a teacher forward, then the teacher becomes a part of that authoritative tradition and is able to contribute to it from within. Having authority may also mean that one is able to understand, discuss and critique different ways of seeing and interpreting something. At the SSC, the understanding is that the scholars collectively embody this teaching role, and teach from the point of view of their own personal experiences (c.f. the first part of tonight’s session).
- We are not experts, we are scholars – there will be a discussion on “expertise” at a later date.
- There was a recent article in The Guardian newspaper that referred to the SSC, entitled ‘Is a Co-operative University Model a Sustainable Alternative?‘: a heading which some scholars saw as not suited to the content.
Miscellainious: something useful to remember
- “We can’t hear the way people listen to us”.
For next week
Read ‘How to inspire change through learning’, the eighth chapter of Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing our World, pp. 120-138.