Notes from Social Science Imagination Week 11: Co-operative Learning (1)

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.

CollageLucy 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 Other scholars commented that it was such a shame that the art of sewing seems to be dying out, but that it has been superseded by other skills which are seen as more essential in the modern world.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. Map 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):

  1. The SSC is a fertile learning ground in which new ideas can be discussed and developed, and where alternatives pedagogies can be tried out.
  2. 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.
  3. Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing Our World was used by the SSC’s founders to help define its parameters.
  4. “Are we complicit in our collaboration?”
  5. 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).
  6. We are not experts, we are scholars – there will be a discussion on “expertise” at a later date.
  7. 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.

SSI course reading for week ten

Is it week ten already?

We’ve extended the course a further week to accommodate some scholars’ availability and will use the extra week to read more relating to the history of the co-operative movement. This Thursday, we’ll be discussing the following:

Facer, K. Thorpe, J and Shaw, L (2011) Co-operative Education and Schools: An old idea for new times? The BERA Conference, September 6th 2011, London, UK.

The History of the Co-operative Movement: Knowledge should be distributed like tea and flour…

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Introduction:

We returned to the Co-operation and Education course this week after a ‘half-term break’ to explore the history of the co-operative movement. This excellent session was facilitated by Lucy and Mike to whom we are all grateful.

The session was split into three sections:

  1. Recap of the previous session, Co-operative Principles and Values;
  2. Read and discuss Woodin’s Co-operative education in Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: context, identity and learning;
  3. Explore how the history of the co-operative relates to the SSC.

1. Recap of the previous session

At the start of the evening we took some time to remind ourselves what we had covered before ‘half-term’. The previous session had focused on co-operative values and principles and, to help us remember what we discussed, we found it helpful to take it in turns to read aloud from the class notes. We found this process useful and, as one scholar commented, it allowed us to “replay the session in our minds.”

2. Read and discuss…

For the second part of the session we agreed to read over Woodin’s text and highlight a sentence(s) and explain why it was meaningful to us. Woodin (p. 78) argues that education has been central to the co-operative movement for the last two centuries, yet education within labour and social movements remains an under researched area. What followed was an insightful discussion about precisely that. Below are some of the comments made by scholars and ensuing discussions by the group:

  • After reading Woodin’s text, one scholar was surprised to learn that co-operative education had a much longer history than formal state education and, in fact, that co-operative education had played a significant role in influencing the provision of state education. However, Woodin (p. 78) adds a word of caution here and argues that the uniquely co-operative ideals and practices that have been contributed to by co-operative and private working-class education are often lost when written about this way. As one scholar commented, “state education closed down radical/alternative education…and through this process co-operative education is managed out of existence.”
  • So important was education to the early co-operative movement that in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers had proposed that 10% of their surplus income should be devoted towards it. Although this proposal was ultimately disallowed by the Registrar at the time and a much lower figure of 2.5% was finally agreed.
  • Another scholar commented that before the Elementary Education Acts 1870 to 1893 there were a number of different experiments with education, which included the Sunday School Movement, independent schools and, interestingly, the Socialist Sunday School Movement.
  • One scholar commented that there has been a long history of ‘radical education’, ‘self-help’ and working class autodidactism. Indeed, before the industrial revolution, weavers had higher literacy rates than the general population and often read books as they worked. Both Jonathan Rose and E.P Thompson provide good accounts of this.
  • One scholar commented that, in places, extreme left-wing working class areas were referred to as ‘Little Moscows’ with the Chopwell Soviets cited as an example.
  • Another scholar commented on the importance of the built environment as part of the co-operative movement, which could “inspire awe and pride” (Woodin, p. 81). That the “built environment of the co-operative movement offered a “visual resource, a distinctive grammar of construction and design, that provided a continuing induction into the palpable identity of the values of co-operation.” (Woodin, p. 82)
  • One scholar commented that the co-operative movement helped to create and/or point towards alternative subjectivities and “incubated social transformation…” (Woodin, p. 79) and that there was an “interconnection between ownership, learning and common identity…” (Woodin, p. 81) and that “co-operation was a way of life in which individuals might be immersed from birth and subjectivity was fostered through participation in such a way that the co-operative movement ‘produced’ distinctive types of people.” (Woodin, p. 89)
  • One scholar argued that within the co-operative movement that ‘alternative subjectivity’ was often a ‘gendered subjectivity’ with many skilled and semi-skilled males finding it difficult to accept women. An example of this is provided by Woodin (p. 84) who quotes ‘A True Co-operator’ who complains about the “coarseness and popularisation” of co-operative movement that occurred with the appearance of women:

Times have changed; for whereas the meetings used to be of a few working men, who sought for knowledge and instruction – now the meetings are large to excess, composed principally of women, babies and youths of both sexes, tempted by rich got-up tea…

  • One scholar commented that being part of the co-operative movement itself was a form of learning that could be considered as practice or a rehearsal for life in a post-capitalist society:

…co-operation could serve as an educative force. Learning within a democratic social and economic movement was thus connected to wider purposes of social changes.

  • One scholar identified within the text a tension between ‘liberal’ and ‘vocational’ education’; however, Robert Marshall (cited in Woodin, P. 89) argued that this was a false dichotomy:

The old definitions are no longer accepted, that the ‘social’ student is concerned with ends and the ‘technical’ student with means. Both are concerned with ends and means; and technical studies can be the opportunity of educating that familiar figure in educational addresses ‘the whole man’.

We concluded this section by discussing that whilst the co-operative movement had a radical history it had a tendency to become consumerist rather than the labour controlled co-operatives that were envisioned by the early pioneers of the co-operative movement. Instead, we discussed how the co-operative has come to be associated with dividend points and passing mercantile savings on to consumers and, as one scholar reminded us, “Co-operatives were an experiment for social change; not about shopping, but a new social form.” One scholar commented that you could trace the radical roots of the co-operative movement in Lincolnshire back to Robert Parker who founded the Lincolnshire Co-operative in 1861 with 74 members.

3.    How does the history of the co-operative relate to the SSC?

The third and final part of the session invited us to consider how we could relate the history of the co-operative movement to the SSC. We probably created more questions than we answered, but it was a useful and interesting discussion.

Again, we revisited the importance of the SSC having its own permanent physical space that offers “a visual resource, a distinctive grammar of construction and design that provided a continuing induction into the palpable identity of the values of co-operation.” (Woodin, p. 82) One scholar described the original idea for the SSC with a bakery and café and SSC courses going on upstairs. One scholar mentioned a community interest project in Newcastle that might be useful to consider, the Star and Shadow Cinema. Another scholar questioned whether private property would change the nature of the SSC and whether occupying the city was more important than a permanent physical place and whether the SSC more exciting because it is nomadic? We considered alternatives to ownership, such as stewardship, passing through and being a habitant.

We considered our relationship to other co-operatives and how we might work together. One scholar cited Mondragon as an example of how a number of different co-operative could work together. Other scholars mentioned other co-operative projects that they are involved in, such as the Co-operative Abundant Earth Community and the Hospital University project.

We concluded that the history of the co-operative is its strength, but also serves as a warning. As one scholar pointed out “Co-operatives are not the future, but might be vehicle to something else. Creating new forms of social being; creating something that wasn’t there before it’s on the way to communism – we need to reclaim that language.”

 

 

 

 

Notes on the SSC Course, January 30th 2014 Week 3: Mainstream Education

The scholars taking the lead for tonight’s session were Peaceful Warrior and Yaroslav. They had suggested that we read Liberal Readings on Education, a collection of papers edited by Stefan Melnik and  Sascha Tamm, translated by Ritu Khanna 2008, published by Ideas on Liberty in Berlin.

This was an unusual reading for SSC classes as it was written by economists who favour neo-liberal economics.

We started with a short quotation from the book,  something Hayek (1899 – 1992), the guru of free market economics, had said about education: ‘ Inflated education opportunities harbour the danger of creating an “intellectual proletariat” which will entail unpleasant political consequences.’

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We thought a bit about what that might mean, without coming to any conclusions. It sparked a debate about the meaning of liberalism and neoliberalism.  Liberalism promotes the sovereignty of the individual against the state, promoting the notion of freedom from constraint, as well as the right to chose.  This is contrasted against forms of society where choice is thought to be constrained, e.g. socialism. Then we looked at the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism. Classical Liberal thinkers, like Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), accept the importance of the economy as a form of social regulation, but maintain that there are other reasons why people chose to lead their lives, not least for moral and ethical concerns. Neo-liberalism, on the other hand, maintains that all social life is subordinate to the power of markets and money.

8-20 Adam Smith

We all agreed that Liberalism and Neoliberalism  are political and economic theories which need to be taken seriously, rather than trivialised as propaganda or ideology. Being very clear about our relationship to these ideas is important, not only because they are the hegemonic concepts of our age, but also because they appear to be so appealing and seductive. Who isn’t for freedom!

One of the group had ‘an extreme reaction’ to the reading, not least because none of the authors were women, and because of the reactionary nature of what she was reading. Nevertheless she was not against having had to read it.

Peaceful and Yaroslav  produced a paper where they set out the meaning of mainstream education. One of the useful aspects of the paper was that it gave us a sense of the historical development of education.

A key question was how can we who live in a world dominated by liberal thinking be critical of liberalism and neoliberalism. The question was raised as to what extent the Social Science Centre is part of this liberal hegemony, a form of free school outside of the state system ran entirely by volunteers. Is the Social Science Centre not a form of social activity promoted by the Big Society?

Someone said part of the problem is that the principles we espouse as being radical, e.g., equality and democracy, are liberal principles and have already been achieved. In the capitalist world equality is found in the principle of  universal suffrage and our rights as citizens and  legal subjects.  The work of Jodi Dean, e.g.,  Democracy and Other NeoLiberal Fantasies, was suggested as someone who throws light on all of this. She argues that in order to overcome liberal thought we should be fighting not for democracy or equality, but the abolition of capitalism.

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The point was made that we are only able to consider equality as a universal human right because we live in a profoundly egalitarian society. In the modern capitalist world hierarchy is not the dominant principle, people do not obtain their position based on who they are: their personhood, but on their ability to work and to make money. Money is the universal equivalent and possession of money renders people equal. In the UK even the Royal family must go to work, and appear to be good value for money. The Monarchy is an exception to the general rule of equality: a ‘feudal relic’ with extraordinary powers which must be abolished. A part of these extraordinary powers is the imposition of equality on the rest of society (Seamus Milne Guardian July 2013).

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In contemporary society money and the capitalist state are the organising principles which bind all human relationships together. Other forms of human relationships do exist in many complex ways, and people suffer repression due to reasons of race, gender and poverty, but none of that undermines the power of money and the value and values which it represents. Money is not just an economic device, nor is it the only reason or measure or motivation for why people behave and take action,  but money is the supreme form of social power: an essence that cannot be ignored, either as a theoretical or practical political issue. At the root of these discussions are the relationship between Marxist social theory and other post-structural perspectives. The group took some time to make sure that others in the group were not getting lost or overwhelmed by the discussion.

To aid our understanding the group is developing a Glossary of key words. This week we are definitely adding the words ‘hegemony’ and ‘proletariat’.

The mood lightened when reference was made to William Morris’s News from Nowhere, a book about a Utopia, written at the end of the 19th century which imagined a Socialist alternative to capitalist society.

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We enjoyed listening to different interpretations of this important book. Morris had been one of the first people in England to study Marx’s critical political economy and had lectured on it,  finding a way of getting beyond a liberal critique of liberalism. Reference was made to a biography about Morris: Romantic or Revolutionary written by another English Marxist, E P Thompson. Thompson describes Morris’  turn to Marxism in Morris’ own words as ‘crossing the river of fire.’

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This led us to having utopian thoughts about education and what alternative radical forms of teaching might look like. We discussed the difference between education and learning: education was regarded as constrained learning, to learn skills to get a job, whereas learning was much more open ended an involved learning about learning; even a form of spiritual emancipation. Someone mentioned Steiner education, and the very different model of human life and education on which it is based. We talked about the principles and practices of Steiner education and why people like Steiner get described as a ‘mad genius’ without fully exploring the nature of his work, and taking it seriously.

This set us up nicely for next week’s session on alternative forms of education to be led by Gary and James.

Co-operation and Education – Week One

SSC logoThe SSC’s new course, Co-operation and Education, began this week. The course, which runs from the 16th of January to the 20th of March 2014 on Thursday evenings between 19.00 – 21.00, was attended by 16 ‘scholars’ at the Pathways Centre on Beaumont Fee in Lincoln. The room was quite tight with this number of people and we are thinking of other venues to use, as we expect up to 20 people attending some weeks.

The session started with people introducing themselves to other members of the group. Half of the class were new to the SSC, which was wonderful to see. There was a fascinating blend of people, which included members of the SSC, undergraduate students, employees from Framework, academics, people involved in other co-operative projects (Lincoln Hackspace and Abundant Earth Community), members of the local community and some Ph.D students. It was heartening to see some new faces and this helped to create a sense of energy, excitement and curiosity as people were interested to learn more about each other.

Joss provided an introduction to the SSC and explained the rationale and nature of the Co-operation and Education course. He made it clear that if anyone wanted to be assessed on the course, that experienced members of the SSC would help design an expanded curriculum and methods of assessment appropriate to the level they are interested in. We also spent some time outlining the importance of the course as a way of helping us to think, co-operatively, about the SSC. We considered how the discussions we have on the course might be used to inform the content of a co-operative conference that SSC intends to host in March 2014, to write a collaborative conference paper to be presented at the the Royal Geographical Society Conference in August 2014 and to help think about and refine the SSC’s constitution and working practice at our AGM in May 2014.

As part of this process we are looking for volunteers to form a working group to help organise the SSC co-operative conference in March as well as help write, collaboratively, the paper to be submitted to the Royal Geographical Society.

The first task of the session was to read the SSC’s FAQ document, which is two pages long. Some people volunteered to read paragraphs from the text aloud.  After some time for reflection we asked ourselves six questions to help us think about the nature of the SSC and its limits as a new model for higher education. One scholar noted that this is a very traditional method of getting students to think about a text. In this case, it provided a ‘safe’ and familiar approach to stimulating discussion among people new to the SSC and to each other. The questions were:

  1. Describe the SSC in your own words

  2. How is the SSC organised? What’s important about that?

  3. How does the SSC approach teaching and learning? How is it different?

  4. What was the context in which the SSC was created?

  5. How can people be engaged in the SSC? What does it involve?

  6. What are the limits to the SSC as a new model for higher education?

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, people thought about the SSC in different ways. Some people thought of it as a ‘political project’, others as a ‘university without walls’ or as a way of ‘hacking’ the best parts of a university from a form that no longer works and reconstituting one that does.  Other words used to describe the SSC were, ‘organic’, ‘responsive’, and ‘flexible’.

We spent some time discussing the co-operative form of the SSC, consensus decision making and how this works in practice. One scholar said that ‘democratic, non-hierarchical, consensus decision-making’ was put into practice across all members for issues relating to governance, but that the day-to-day running of the SSC often relies on a small group of 4-5 people coming to agreement. When participating in the course, this aspiration is embedded in the pedagogic methods that we try to use.

There were some interesting discussions about how the SSC approached teaching and learning with the conversation centering on the importance of questioning and challenging the ‘traditional’ distinction between teacher and student and, instead, appreciating that both have a lot to learn from each other, but that somehow, this is often lost in ‘traditional’ forms of teaching and learning. Questions were raised about assessment and about how this might work in practice in terms of supervision, assessment and receiving some form of qualification. Whilst the SSC has always intended to offer some form qualification for the courses it offers, it has never done so in practice, although some scholars on the Co-operation and Education course showed an interesting in pursuing this.

We discussed how people could get involved in the SSC with one scholar noting that it was actually unclear in the SSC’s FAQ how people could engage with the SSC. A number of questions were raised by new scholars about the SSC which are not clear from the FAQ but are implicitly understood by some some members who helped set the co-operative up. Understandably, similar questions are asked when people first engage with the SSC and we need to prepare responses to these questions in a more explicit way.

Whilst some commented that the limits to the SSC were financial support and teaching and learning space, two scholars commented that the SSC was ‘limitless’.

The second task of the session (during the last 30 mins of the class), was to read the International Co-operative Alliance’s ‘Co-operative Identity, Values and Principles Statement, which were informed by the principles developed by the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society. Again, we gave ourselves time to read and think about the document and organised our discussion of it around three questions:

  1. Pick one value from the text that is important for you and tell us why

  2. Given the context of its creation, how should we read this text?

  3. Pick one principle from the text and state why you think it is important. How could that principle be used to inform the work of the SSC?

We discussed the importance of education, training and information to help think critically about running a co-operative and organisational forms beyond co-operatives. One scholar stressed the importance of concern for the local community and how co-operatives encouraged this. We considered the nature of democracy and its different forms and how this differed from consensus decision making. It was noted that there is no appreciation of ‘class’ in the document.

We concluded the session by starting to think about some of the themes that came out of the discussions with the aim of starting to develop concrete themes that we will examine for the rest of the course.

Download the class plan for our first session.

In preparation for next week:

  1. Produce a 300 word statement or equivalent that reflects on the first session and starts to concretize some of the key themes from reading and discussing the SSC FAQ and the ICA statement.
  2. Read Chapter Two of Paulo Friere’s  Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which we will discuss next week.