Better Together?

I’ve been watching the Commonwealth Games with the zoned-out obsessiveness of a teacher finally on summer leave.  The BBC are getting a few things wrong recently, but in their even-handed appreciation of the home nations they have been exemplary.  The Games have shown the ease with which diversity can be integral, if the intention is genuine – from John Barrowman’s pantomime kiss to the incorporation of para-sports.  Watching the English and Scottish gymnasts mingle together in celebration then stand alone to collect their medals in a state of emotional national pride has caused me to reflect on the energy that’s released when we are separate, but together.***

The Games are about ‘legacy’ too:  a much mocked concept in the run-up to ‘Twenty-Twelve’ but exemplified by the thousands of middle-aged women who dusted off their trainers and went out for a run the morning after Jo Pavey’s triumph.  Likewise the overweight pizza-addicts (oops) inspired by Steven Way.  Legacy is about buildings and programmes, but it goes deeper than that:  it changes cultural attitudes.  That ‘fit’ is now sexy is maybe the most powerful way to convince legions of emaciated or obese young people to find their own sporting mojo.  Thirty years ago when I was at school, to be a sporty girl (not me) was only marginally more fashionable than being ‘brainy’.  There’s still a way to go with all of that, but progress has been made.

One of the privileges of this year has been my involvement with legacy projects at The Northern College, projects that not only deliver their outcomes but also teach us much about how to change education (and the world).  I wrote some of these, and wrote that expectation in, but the one which has most blown me away is the Thinking Differently Project (#WEAnewleaf), funded by the Education and Training Foundation, where we’ve partnered with three WEA regions and East Surrey College.  I love being surprised like this 🙂

Thinking Differently took as its starting point Ofsted’s challenge to WEA last year, to reduce the bureaucracy associated with their courses, under which both tutors and students were drowning. It brought together 36 tutors from across the organisations, to devise and trial new ways of working. We’ve called the outcomes ‘Treasure’ but it would take more than a long list of gorgeous teachery stuff – and more than a summer of reflexion – to capture all that’s been made possible. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that the biggest challenge of writing the project up is that, like Alice and the mushroom, it has excessively outgrown the constraints of the original bid.

Thinking Differently has been more than the sum of its parts.  Something catalysed when those hand-picked tutors got together, an energy was released which allowed the facilitators to step back and watch in awe.  I’m not being disingenuous.  We had a role to play and that was right at the start, when we created the conditions in which people could think well for themselves, and even better together: in short, a Thinking Environment.

Don’t be a hostage to fortune  There’s an art to writing bids and it’s the Impressionist’s art.  Too much of the finer detail and you could be left struggling with last year’s technology when you really want to try something new.  There wasn’t much of this – it was a good bid – but enough for a nod to the future.  Lesson learned 🙂

Get the leadership right  David Sutton Jones was the perfect project manager.  Why?  He attended to the detail and let the rest of us roam around the brief.  What more could you want on a creativity project, than to be given space to think and try stuff and make mistakes?  This meant too that when David asked us for something, we were happy to give; no-one needed to be chivvied for their final ‘Treasure’ or reflective report.  Though one of us may have been a day or so late…

Choose participants wisely  No disrespect, but this is no place for the ‘folded arms brigade’. Creativity needs to be freed from untrue limiting assumptions; unfortunately some people hold onto these like it’s their nearest and dearest.  Don’t waste energy trying to wrestle them away.  These are not the best people to either co-ordinate or participate in a project like this.  Luckily, we got it just about right.  The very few gaps could be plugged with ease, thanks to the hard-working determination of the many.

Allow time to equalise  Tutors met first of all in their organisational groups – by accident rather than design – and this proved significant.  The central issue was one that everyone had strong feelings about – the dominance of bureaucracy over pedagogy.  This meant that there was energy in the project from the start, but of a negative, destructive kind.  Put simply, we all needed a good rant to get frustrations out of our system, shifting a few untrue limiting assumptions along the way (“things will never change”).  This felt less disloyal in organisational groups.  I’d love to say we’d planned this, but hey, it just happened.  It cleared the air beautifully for the residential 🙂

Get everyone together – and then leave them alone  The residential at Northern College was a miracle of engineering (thanks again David Sutton Jones).  I’m smiling now as I reflect on how much energy went into planning the residential; planning a programme which we’d abandoned by the end of the first day.  Get together a group of talented individuals, give them space to vent, then create the conditions in which they can think for themselves.  It won’t surprise previous readers of this blog to learn that this meant creating a Thinking Environment.  More and more, I consider the Thinking Environment to be a sort of invisible corsetry (sorry); when it’s done well you hardly notice it’s there, you may even wonder what’s the point of it, but the proof is in the quality of the thinking – and this thinking was exponential.  To further explore the principles (‘the Ten Components‘) of a Thinking Environment:

Participants were briefed about what was expected:  simple, clear Information.

Encouragement was explicit and also implicit in the way that competition between organisations was gently discouraged.  This was modelled in the co-ordinators meeting, where the focus was on shared values; conversations which were important to present a united front.

Appreciation won out over praise, which always implies a hierarchical relationship, to me.  David and the co-ordinators were genuinely blown away by the focused creativity on offer and not afraid to let that show.

The cross-pollination of ideas was Diversity in action, as was the freedom and safety to critically befriend one another.  This element of peer review was seen most clearly in the the post-residential conversations on Yammer.

Giving Attention to each other at the very start of the residential in response to the Thinking Round question ‘What do you love about being a teacher?’, though unwieldy in such a large group, was time well-invested.  Connections were made and good listening modelled, as well as the opportunity to touch base with personal (and shared) values.

Feelings were expressed passionately in the pre-residential meetings, shifting them to one side to allow new, unboundaried, thinking.

Incisive Questions – a key element of peer criticality – easier to challenge online than face-to-face for many people, making the Yammer space invaluable for inviting and offering critique.

Making the residential compulsory was a master stroke.  The Ease of two days away from work, with nothing to do except think, was essential.

The project turned organisational hierarchies on their heads:  a powerful take on Equality.  Tutors were king here, with the role of the co-ordinator one of servicing the tutors’ thinking.  And look what came out of it.  More of this, please!

Above all, the good weather and gorgeous Place and space at The Northern College was a character in its own right.  Throwing out the plan on Day 2 resulted in tutors finding their own spaces to think and be.  No-one came back in the room without a fantastic idea.  It worked.

Don’t give it too much time  In reality, this project took two months from start to finish.  Had it been given two years, it would have taken two years and I’m not convinced more would have been achieved.  What it could have done with is more reflexion time between fieldwork and the writing up stage.

Pay people properly  Most of the tutors work sessionally and they were renumerated appropriately for this thinking time.  We exploit people in education through their own goodwill. This is not how it should be.

Find space for different voices  I’ve learned a lot this year which was reinforced by seeing how different voices were dominant each different space, from the pre-residential meeting, through the different combinations of people at the residential, and online in the Yammer space.  Starting everyone off with Yammer at the same time led to a quick and reasonably universal adoption of the space, with little of the usual grief around initial engagement – there wasn’t time for that.  Crucially, Yammer also allowed people to ‘lurk’ and stay engaged, even if they didn’t want to post and if affirmation was needed that this was a valuable role, that could be found online too.

Think ahead now  These ideas must go somewhere.  One of the very first frustrations expressed in the pre-residential meetings was that good ideas often got lost in the internal decision-making processes of organisations, a thought which was echoed time and again.  Work has already begun on presenting these ideas to organisations, championed by the co-ordinators in possibly their most important role.  We hope that the website emerging from this project will log that progress.  Watch that space.

I’ve a feeling that this post will grow and grow as we extend into the summer and my tired brain has chance to think more deeply, so this is for now.  I have a sense of education emerging into the light after years of being told what to do.  If that’s right, now is the time to take all these ideas forward, and keep working on more.  Creativity is about having the space to think, and the safety to make mistakes.  I want that passionately and so do most of the educators I know.  Let’s keep making it happen.

***Don’t read into this any political comment about Scottish Independence.  I’m watching with interest, but I don’t believe a Scottish birthname gives me the right to have a view 🙂

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Author: Alison Longden

Hard working educator with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything I've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. I work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

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