For the second year running, we had chance to study with Rosi Braidotti at Utrecht University. Since our visit there in 2015, which we blogged about here and elsewhere, we have been developing a Posthuman Curriculum to layer over the TeachNorthern teacher education programme at The Northern College. We didn’t pretend to understand it all (maybe 10%) but there were enough startlingly, provokingly new concepts to transform our work. This time, it made more sense and – from being people who rarely spoke to anyone but each other in 2015 – we found the courage to present our work to Rosi and the conference as a whole in 2016. These are our notes – rough, pretty verbatim – offered here and on Kay’s blog to invite your freshest thinking.
- Who are we and what is our work?
We work at The Northern College in Yorkshire in the North of England. The college has a social purpose mission around the transformation of individuals and communities and we run a teacher education programme which is focused on social purpose pedagogies. For the past year, we have been redeveloping our curriculum along posthuman lines.
The Northern College was founded in 1978 as the ‘Ruskin of the North’. Labour movement politics was written into its DNA and whilst the College has moved away from having an explicitly political mandate, forms of dialectical thinking endure. Developing a posthuman curriculum affords us opportunities to get beyond the many ‘us’ and ‘thems’ endemic in UK society.
Our teacher education students are all in-service; that is, they are already teaching. Rarely do they teach in schools. They tend to work with young people and adults in non-traditional settings: in community work, rehab, family learning, refugee work, trade unions. Some do work in Colleges and Universities; these are in the minority. Most work directly with people on the margins of our society; some come from those margins themselves.
Interestingly, given the focus of the previous presentations, Northern College takes pride in the fact that students who declare disabilities do better than those who do not. It’s a statistic to be proud of and one that hides the fact that the level of support we give to individuals is not replicated elsewhere. We just have to hope that we do enough for individuals to demand what they need when they move on.
We do not have any particular freedoms in our work, save those afforded to us by being in an organisation which still believes in teacher autonomy. Our financial survival is reliant on us successfully offering standard qualifications; but control of the curriculum is ours as far as we can make it so.
Rosi talks about ‘projects’, by which, I think, she means our life’s work, rather than time limited workstreams. We don’t lack ambition. Our life’s work is to change education.
- Why a posthuman focus?
We work in an education system that is over-regulated and over-inspected. Many teachers feel that they have little autonomy over their curriculum or pedagogy, and regardless of whether this is the case or not, it provides a powerful narrative that roots us in a place of pain. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves or failing to join it despite gaining the relevant qualifications. In this context, as teacher educators we have been concerned to provide a place of sustenance and support, which has at its heart an affirmative belief in our own power and agency to enact change.
Working environments for our students are often technocratic and managerialist. Standardised testing, identikit lesson plans and tick box approaches to qualifications are the order of the day, not only in FE but now increasingly found in other areas of adult education. Alongside our students, we have been seeking ways to challenge this, both through traditional power actions of ‘potestas’ and creative and rhizomatic ways of being (‘potentia’).
Before our introduction to posthumanist approaches we were already working in ways that felt and looked very different. We were picking up new ideas nomadically, through the rhizomes of social media (Twitter in particular) and making connections that extended learning beyond the classroom walls. We were establishing communities of practice through these digital networks and building movements that reimagined ways of engaging with students and practitioners; acting outside of organisation structures and hierarchies. We were challenging accepted theory within our received curricula and looking for creative ways to diversity and decolonise it. Approaches such as community philosophy allowed us to ‘problematise’ accepted concepts and act in ‘as if’ and ‘what if’ ways. We removed the barriers across the silos of subject-based teaching, bringing art and poetry into the syllabus, particularly in the area of reflective practice.
We have now explicated the use of posthumanism as a navigational tool and are using it to further steer a path through our educational environment; applying different lenses and building a cartography which underpins our own thinking.
- The Posthuman Curriculum
Our students are not guinea pigs; we do not try out anything that we haven’t unpicked and understood for ourselves. So the posthuman curriculum began to emerge last academic year on the back of work that we’d previously been doing, accelerated by our emerging understanding of key posthuman concepts. Being a praxis approach, fundamentally rooted in the work of Paulo Freire and bell hooks, the whole was driven by the notion of an affirmative politics, something we grabbed hold of hard when we came to the Summer School in 2015. We want to be very clear that we are in, among and of this curriculum, we live as well as teach it.
Our intention has long been to co-create with our students places to dance – to escape the restraints of a locked-down education sector. Paulo talks about challenging the dominant discourse, yes, but we should never lose sight of our own ‘beautiful voice’, our politics of location. We work with many people who are told they have a privilege they do not feel; with whom it is difficult to do anti-fascist work because of their fear that they might be labelled racist. We work with many people – and they in turn work with many more – who voted for Brexit, who live at the sharp end of policy in various ways.
The old pedagogies were not working, particularly those pedagogies of an organisation rooted in political correctness and Labour movement ‘groupthink’. The posthuman curriculum brought with it the image of Vitruvian Man and this was huge turning point, introducing as it did a concept of ‘othering’ with which every person in the room could identify (we had no David Beckhams present). This first step led to an exploration and appreciation of intersectionality which we had previously struggled to achieve.
Together, we began to dismantle the structures (such as #whitecurriculum) that inhibit our thinking, helped by pedagogical processes such as The Thinking Environment and Community Philosophy. When classroom time ran out, we took it online rhizomatically, gathering new critical friends, deepening both our thinking and our capactity to think, co-producing new knowledge in the way that Paulo Friere had always hoped to see. Modelling the way in which the curriculum developed, we introduced thinkers, not theorists, bringing in perspectives from absent and hidden identities, using first names to equalise in the way that Rosi does (though she probably personally knows all the people she is talking about). We call this approach ‘Thinkers are our Friends’.
This is the new anti-fascist work.
- Links to activism
Our pedagogy is rooted in the Freirian notion of ‘praxis’; reflection and action upon the world in order to change it. With this aim in mind, we try to balance different types of action, and the idea of a potestas/potentia split has been very helpful here. Potestas may be the type of power that we need to employ in order to get funding bids; gain buy-in from our organisations, or get a seat at national conferences. Potentia is the nomadic, rhizomatic power achieved through our social and digital networks; where shifts happen incrementally and creatively, through the goodwill and time of our communities of practice connections.
We come from a background of traditional activism approaches, situated in a locality where the impact of the 84-85 miners’ strike still feels raw. Our aim is to challenge an activist mindset that is rooted in Marxism and patriarchal thinking, and encourage others to embrace digital approaches and platforms, also considering how to use art actively as a ‘thing that does’, rather than a ‘thing that is.’
We are taking on board the idea of filling in the gaps, the ‘missing slices of the past’ that bias our curriculum. We have been particularly interested in the rediscovery and acknowledgement of the place of women theorists within what is frequently presented as a male history of learning theory. Our blog ‘Seeking Lost Women’ is one example of how we explore and promote the ideas of lesser-known but highly influential women educators such as Margaret McMillan, Helen Parkhurst and Louise Michel: http://seekinglostwomen.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/lets-start-school-voice-of-helen.html
Much of our activism is essentially anti-fascism work, as we seek to instigate post-Brexit conversations that are not about ‘consciousness-raising’ but encourage others to challenge their own views and to think for themselves. Regardless of our focus, the actions are grounded in a spirit of affirmation and realism, where we acknowledge our own roles in the very systems and forces that we are aiming to resist.