Learning on the edge

Yesterday I went to the London Festival of Education. It kicked off with Michael Gove being questioned on ‘what does an educated person look like?’ and that was the main theme for the day.

Many 100s of teachers and people otherwise interested in education packed into the Institute of Education. In our goodie bags was a mug, which I assumed was provided for us to drink from in an environmentally responsible manner. It turned out I was the deviant, but nobody else was copying me. I found only one other person all day not using throwaway cups. (Incidentally, that was David Rycroft from the Mind with Heart charity, which develops mindfulness and compassion in education.)

I was there to talk and discover about the potential to promote positive deviance in education and to discuss ideas for how the Council of Europe/EU Edgeryder‘s initiative could support learning for resilience, in the coming crisis. Positive deviance is an approach to development work, started by Jerry Sternin, that identifies nonconformist behaviours with successful results (e.g. parents giving children food not normally considered suitable for children, during times of famine). The model encourages communities to share their positive deviant behaviours to overcome challenges. Deviance isn’t about being weird, it’s about being responsive to changes in the environment and trying out tactics to see what works.

Michael Gove purports to give teachers freedom to be positively deviant (though he doesn’t use that term), which is his main lure to schools to leave local authority control and become academies. At the same time, he is creating a wholly new framework of curriculum, assessment, inspection and funding that encourages conformity to a very traditional and academic paradigm. Although Gove had a surprising amount of applause in his interview at the Festival, there is a growing movement in the educational establishment (not just the deviants) criticising Gove for being out of touch. For example, Louise Robinson of the Girls School Association (private schools) said that schools should prepare pupils for the ‘Star Trek society’ not the bygone days of the 1950s.

Although I agree that education needs to be future-facing, in my session, I questioned this sparkling vision of a Star Trek society. I pointed out that exploiting people and natural resources to accumulate wealth have spawned a comprehensive disaster that is not so much imminent as unfolding now. Although we might be able to imagine the most educated people of the future with lovely resilient, peaceful, benevolent and creative qualities, it might be more accurate to say that in 20-50 years time, we will identify the most educated people by the fact that they will still be alive. The utter priority for those of us who care about how children will become these still-living people is how to engender resilience, how to help them get the means to thrive in a world where there may not be jobs or ready access to food, and when the default mode of relationship may be conflict over few resources.  The utter priority for our leaders will be to create safe spaces for humanity and biodiversity to thrive.

This process will be full of tension and uncertainty. In the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, the teacher talks about a coming flood due to melting ice caps, telling the kids they’re going to have to learn how to survive. The survival teaching that follows swings between ‘beasting’ (being strong e.g. in hunting and killing animals) and ‘caring for anything sweeter and smaller than yourself’. They, as we all do, have to navigate both. We can misunderstand each other’s intentions when we decide to beast or to care. This relates to a bigger challenge to human identity: Are we beasts who depend on eating other beasts for survival, or are we animals with a distinctive responsibility as stewards to regenerate nature?

Edgeryders is a ground breaking initiative from the Council of Europe and EU, focusing on how young people can thrive in the economic and environmental crisis, given difficulties for Europe’s young people including rising unemployment and homelessness. It began with a social network and conference and is now widening its mandate, creating a ‘platform’ to support projects that develop resilience in areas to do with education, skills, social enterprise, technology and so on. This photo is from the first conference, at which there emerged two quite different political worldviews:

Social democracy: If you don’t give people jobs, houses and cheap energy too many people will suffer and there will be social unrest. (In this view, education is about preparing you to play a role in a functioning society.)

Radical: Yes, we need the means to survive but not if it involves privatisation and loss of freedoms. If you give people jobs and houses but in the process destroy green space, deplete nature and worsen climate change, that means billions of people dying and maybe all of us. (In this view, education as currently organised can’t hope to prepare us for a non-functioning society.)

The first worldview is the most mainstream, but is still often considered by Conservatives as radical. The second worldview, the ‘even more radical’, relates to what I think of as positively deviant behaviours, for example, reusing empty shops, growing food in forgotten pieces of land or educating children outside of school.

The challenge now is for an accommodation to be reached between mainstream social democracy and alternative radicalism, and Edgeryders is shaping up to be a vehicle for that process. Part of this work needs to address how educational institutions can support ‘learning on the edge’. In discussion with some other contributors to Edgeryders, such as Eimhin David, and based on my own research, described below are three dimensions of ‘learning on the edge’.

Just to clarify what is meant by edge, it has two aspects. One refers to crisis – it is the precarious edge of ‘business as usual’ that we are walking tentatively along, which we could cling to, clamber down from (managed descent) or jump off. The other dimension refers to margins of systems, the places between. It’s well known by ecologists that where ecosystems merge into another (e.g. sand dunes edging onto marshes) there is the richest biodiversity. So, edge is both critical and full of potential.

1. Emotional learning

Conservative (or neo-liberal) education policies seek to produce two groups of people (or people who can adopt both positions on demand of their employers): those who are compliant within the industrial system and those who are psychopathic – able to exploit human and natural resources without the interference of compassion. In response to this ‘learning on the edge’ promotes emotional intelligence.

An educated person would ideally have:

  • Capacities of compassion (able to act with care and love)
  • Bioempathy (able to empathise with other species of life)
  • Emotional resilience (able to keep well)
  • Constructive depolarisation (able to defuse conflict).

2. Contextual learning

Conservative education policy places great emphasis on knowledge that is abstracted from real contexts: from particular places and ecosystems, from what matters here and now, from the variabilities and uncertainties of existence, from young people’s passions…and so on. (My thoughts on this were reinforced in a session run by Anthony McCann, who proposed that learning is all about increasing awareness of ‘being here’.)

So, in response, ‘learning for the edge’ would be supported by a greater emphasis on the contextual.

An educated person would ideally have solid experience of:

  • Peeragogy – or paragogy, learning horizontally between peers
  • Praxis – Learning from practical experiences
  • Heutagogy – or creative, self-managed reflection on your own learning
  • Learning through ecology and place
  • Connectivity – connections with many others enhanced by technology.

3. Playful learning

Conservative policies on education promote a single and fixed canon of knowledge. Very often these canons don’t admit the blurring of boundaries between disciplines or between taxonomical categories.

The Govian revision of the Primary Science National Curriculum is much more didactic than the previous iteration, stating more definitely what facts should be taught. It sets clear boundaries, leaving little space (if you follow it to the letter) to explore the grey areas between categories, for example, animals that perform photosynthesis or rocks made from sedimented marine life. Moreover, Gove places little value on the arts as a means by which to live and learn. At the Festival, when questioned about why the arts are to be excluded from the EBacc, Gove only talked about music as an important enrichment. Education is most effective in generating resilient capacities if a) all the arts practices are valued, including design, digital creativity, film, visual art, drama, dance and literature/poetry and b) if learning across the curriculum is enlivened with play and creativity.

An educated person would learn through the following dimensions of play:

  • Enjoyment with others
  • Making
  • Rapid prototyping
  • Freedom to imagine
  • Flipping dilemmas and thinking creatively about problems.

In my session, we followed this introduction with some discussion about whether ‘learning for the edge’ would become inevitable or whether it is too radical to get any purchase. My belief is that these ideas about learning are not common currency, and in particular, not understood or supported outside the education profession, so they may be too radical for purchase without strong encouragement. We need policy programmes that will encourage ‘learning for the edge’, which is why Edgeryders is a very positive move. If you have ideas on what they can support and how they can tap into existing initiatives, please do join the Edgeryders community and get in touch.

Overall, I enjoyed the Festival. I was riled by Claire Fox who abhorred schools dealing with ‘the state of the planet and other fashionable issues of the day’ and who ‘hates social and emotional learning’. I was amazed at a teacher who said she was offended to hear that children were suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. I was encouraged by Munira Mirza, Deputy Mayor for Arts & Culture in London, explaining that the London curriculum would enable greater access to heritage and culture. But I also found her classical humanist vision of education, inspired by Greeks and Jesuits, promoting discipline and canonical knowledge, very dispiriting and regressive. I was disappointed that there was so little embrace of ecology and recognition of the planetary crisis in any of the talks I saw, apart from in Anthony McCann’s session. I was frustrated that education is heading in a direction in which it is more about assessing skills for employment than about nurturing happy people.

My final summation would be: Let’s educate for wisdom (the conscious, ethical application of knowledge) rather than for the performance of intelligence.

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One thought on “Learning on the edge

  1. really good to hear your thoughts on the day, bridget. there’s a direct link to sarah amsler’s thinking that “we have to learn how to learn in the borderlands of reason, comfort and intelligibility if we are to understand anything about what it means to learn at all” in her aptly entitled paper ‘learning at the edge’: http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/5813/. looking forward to further dialogue!

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