Breaking the Rules

Updated for Keynote to Barnsley College pre-service PGCE students and Certs 2014 at The Northern College 18.4.16  Please click through on the links for access to deeper research.

(If you read one thing after this, please make it The Centre for Mental Health’s ‘A Day in the LIfe‘ Report – and follow @markoneinfour on Twitter.

Slides accompanying this blog will be are here: Breaking the Rules April 2016

Link to an Adobe Voice recording will follow.

A troubled face, with the caption Welcome, Breaking the Rules Affirmative Mental Health Leadership, ELMAG 3 Mental Health. Also includes logos for Time for Change, The Education and Training Foundation and the Learning and Work Institute

This blog post reflects on our experience of the ‘Breaking the Rules’ affirmative mental health leadership project, funded by ELMAG, the Education and Training Foundation fund which makes possible so much brilliant work around leadership, always on a short timescale; an adrenaline-fuelled experience, a rollercoaster ride.  Inspired by the growing movement of neurodiversity, which tells us that mental ill-health and learning disabilities are not just not a deficit but an actual JOY to the WORLD, we put together a leadership programme called ‘Breaking the Rules’.  Note that, for us, leadership is something we all do, it’s not just the remote preserve of those who sit at the top of hierarchies.  We refer to it as ideas – or thought – leadership, an extension of democratic professionalism.

What was ‘Breaking the Rules’?  It blended a face-to-face Thinking Environment day with an online, reflexive programme; there were options for one-to-one coaching and leadership analysis work.  It gave the opportunity for current and potential leaders to affirmatively explore the leadership of mental wellbeing, with the support of leadership coaches. It absolutely rejected the othering of those who experience mental ill-health, who are often us (though we maybe dare not say so).  Mental health diversity is not a deficit, it is an actual thing and many of the people in the room with you are experiencing it right now, whether they are prepared to go public with it or not (I increasingly am and it’s proving to be a virtual spiral of liberation as others share their strategies too).  What’s more, mental ill-health can be a thing that is actually caused by the work we do, so maybe our ‘sector’ (whatever that means) has some responsibility here.

________________________________________________________________

One of the unspoken ironies of adult and further education – whether sausage factory or social purpose – is the mental health cost to its staff.  The irony, of course, is that adult education, done properly, is one of the greatest contributors to improved mental wellbeing.  At places like the Exchange Recovery College Barnsley, transformational pedagogies are integral to the recovery process; staff are properly teacher trained and partnerships with local adult education providers nurtured.  And they are making a difference.

But if the staff themselves achieve these successes by pushing themselves to the max, limiting their own potential in the process, the net cost to education is tragic.  We are all in danger of forgetting that we have ‘mental health’ too; that we are all vulnerable (particularly under stress), and that users of mental health services make up only a proportion of the “1 in 4”.  We define diversity (in part) as “being present as yourself”.  At those times when your mental health is fragile, can you truly be yourself at work?

Pretty much everyone who works in adult, further and community education means well. Increasingly, in this world of pay freezes and zero hours, none of us do it for the money. We are likely to have invested in our own training, for a pay-off of doing rewarding work in precarious circumstances.  We arm ourselves daily against media slingshots and political A complicated Cubist paintingsneering.  We live with our profession being deregulated and downgraded from ‘education’ to ‘skills’. We find it impossible to meet anyone socially who doesn’t assume we work in a school. Somehow, in all of this melee, we raise families, maintain relationships, grieve and care for loved ones.

We’re fighting back but that takes it out of us too; added to the emotional labour of believing in people who don’t – yet – believe in themselves is the terrifying courage needed to challenge statuses quo. And we are likely ourselves to be people who don’t quite fit the mould of the ‘professional’, who are maybe developing our own cutting-edge definitions of professionalism. Many adult educators are people who benefited from adult learning ourselves and who are now pedagogical pioneers. We have ‘passion’*. We want to ‘give something back’, ‘make a difference’.  We are good at what we do because we’ve been there.images-3

And so our own mental wellbeing gets eroded. The early starts…the late finishes.  The long (unpaid) ‘holidays’ so envied by our non-teaching friends packed to the gills with marking and the secretive checking of emails. Family members resentful, bank accounts in the red. Panicky organisations over-regulating, micro-managing, Ofsted-petrified.Traditional autonomy replaced with tick-boxy bureaucracy. Teaching observations. Paperwork. Loss of dignity and control, yet sort of publicly ignored at the same time**. Under this level of pressure, no wonder many of us become ‘mentally diverse’; life gets harder as we struggle to keep it all in balance and the vicious spiral begins.  As long as we are in a culture which sees mental diversity as something lacking, rather than something potentially creative, we risk being attached to a label that will haunt us endlessly.

And we know, of course, that even before considering the needs of the most marginalised in our society, such as refugees, that if in our individual identities we are diverse from the #whitecurriculum ‘norm’; if we are female, if we are black, if we are poor, if we have other ‘disabilities’,  we are likely to experience both more mental ill-health and less helpful support.  ‘A Day in the Life‘ makes that absolutely clear.

A commitment to diversity is increasingly – and healthily, wellbeingly – defined as people who can be present as themselves in any given situation. How true is that of you at work? An image of a postcard that says, "I make everyone believe that I like to be different, but really I just don't know how to fit in."How true is it of me? How does that fit in with ‘fitting in’, where there is an unspoken ideal of quiet reasonableness, of diligent and consistent graft, of neatness and order (oh yes, there is). Nancy Kline, founder of the Thinking Environment, points out that even in business (sold to us in adult ed as a hive of creativity and free-thinking), there is an ‘epidemic of obedience‘. It’s a measure of how institutionalised I am that, watching The Theory of Everything with my son over the holidays, I was mostly worried that Stephen Hawking would get the sack from Cambridge, but of course in that day and age, for someone of his background, brilliant awkwardness was almost de rigeur; his physical disability just took it to another level (Ian Walsh would argue that times have definitely changed).

The latest transformational leadership models focus on enabling the creativity of staff, affirming (more or less) measured risk taking, and the centrality of mistake-making to creativity. Nonetheless, many workplaces don’t feel like that and, despite the health-promoting paternalism of modern HR strategies, there’s a lot to be said for pro-actively taking hold of your own mental well-being before things get out of hand.

There may be a book you can take strength from – I’m reading Brené Brown’s research into shame at the moment, something that really resonates with me as kicking in when I’m under stress.  I am learning to be shame-resilient.  Therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) don’t work for everyone, but are certainly thought to do no harm in the case of mild to moderate Image of the sea with the caption 'Find what feels good'depression and/or anxiety – and you don’t need a referral from your GP to try a CBT course you’ve found on Groupon, or work through exercises from the web.  It may be that you have regular coaching, or get to work in a Thinking Environment, giving you space to develop the resilience not to dwell on stress or fear.  You might practice Mindfulness. (When I was 50, friends bought me twelve bottles of Prosecco and three of those Mindfulness colouring-books, which gave me a pretty good idea of how they viewed my life).  What all of these have in common is a sense of agency.  Work on what you can fix for yourself and don’t waste energy on what you can’t change.

You may already know what else works for you – fresh air, running, yoga, lots of sleep – but it’s possible you’re not doing it because if one thing is certain, it’s that the chemicals of stress take away our desire for wellbeing behaviours. What I want to say to you, with painful self-awareness, is that nobody will do it for you and no amount of work-based stress management training will replace you doing what’s good for YOU.

Organisations have plenty of processes for identifying and supporting mental ill-health, and some of these are even genuinely about staff wellbeing, but external forces are strong and the level of stress and struggle continues to ratchet up. We need to take up the reins ourselves, itself an empowering act.  As the hugely successful (by every measure) drag diva RuPaul would say, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the  hell can you love somebody images-6else?” When we suffer (get fractious, forgetful, go off sick), our students suffer. Something has to change.

There are some brilliant resources on www.mhfe.org.uk to help you keep yourself safe and to help you teach this practice to others. And of course the legal and emotional safety net of belonging to a trade union should not be discounted. One of the horrible paradoxes of the employment landscape in adult and further education is that the most exploited of us – those on zero-hours or fixed-term contracts – are the least likely to be unionised and consequently have the least protection from the darker side of working life.

As I’ve written elsewhere recently, we are all seeking the nirvana of creativity, but not the extreme mental stress that comes with it, because we don’t know how to handle the fall-out from that. The fact is that our entire sector, with its model of heroic leadership and its mimicry of corporate business, continues to ‘other’ and deficit mental health diversity; acceptable in ‘learners’ and pathologised amongst its own staff. Until we have leaders who get it, who are prepared to shatter #whitecurriculum thinking with their own experiences of being black/female/disabled/young/mentally diverse, we will continue to marginalise and exclude those brilliant minds amongst our own workforce, who are just the people to lead us to a brighter future.

Can I get an ‘A-MEN’?

 

Interested in Breaking the Rules?  Although the ELMAG Pilot has finished, we hope to continue to offer the course.  Please contact Sally Betts sallybetts@ideasforlearning.co.uk 

*Pah-pah-pah-pah-passion (as David Bowie might not have sung).  Certainly a double-edged sword.  In adult education we pretend it’s a good thing and we certainly mine it heavily.  But it’s not passion that gets you to places of influence; or if it does, it’s likely to be the thing that topples you.

**My heart is palpitating as I write this.  And I am one of the lucky ones, with the privilege of a permanent contract in an organisation which has tried for 38 years to live the good values it espouses.

Three Dimensions of Professionalism

In fairy tales, threes are powerful.  Three wishes, three bears, three guardians of the dark…these are narratives that form part of human mythology, the stories by which people have navigated their lives since time immemorial.

imagesAs with the Twelve Dancing Princesses*, fairy tales help us break out of repressed thinking and look at old concepts in new ways.  So it is with the professionalism of teachers.  All over the UK right now, educators on Cert Ed/PGCE programmes will be writing essays about professionalism; drawing on the same old canon**, failing to find any common ground between what they are writing and what they are actually experiencing.

What’s it like to be in a profession, that people popularly don’t know exists?  Meeting someone for the first time, isn’t the assumption always that you teach kids in schools? I’ve been a community development worker (“Eh?”) and a public health professional (*hides glass of wine*) so I know all about that sense of being a professional impostor.

So it’s time for us to claim it back.  No matter who you read on professionalism, you’ll bang up against the word ‘autonomy’ at some point, so let’s repossess that and redefine our own professionalism, for ourselves***.  Here are some new definitions, as a starter for three.

Democratic Professionalism – Educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively to maintain the integrity of the profession.

Dialogic Professionalism – Educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.

Digital Professionalism – Educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical education.

imgresTeaching is leadership, teaching is research, teaching is social responsibility.  Over the next few days, in January 2016, free-thinking, independently minded educators are going to be mulling over these new dimensions of their professional responsibility.  We’ll then open up the debate to our communities of praxis, to figure out what all of this means.  Join us on social media, using the hashtag #FEITE

 

 

*Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015).  Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  London.  Trentham Books.

**Plenty of #whitecurriculum in the recommended reading for teacher ed, still.

***Like the sound of that?  Join Tutor Voices tutorvoices@gmail.com

 

What is Critical Education?

Everyone knows criticality is a good thing, right? 

The concept of criticality, or critical thinking, critical education, critical pedagogy (depending on your perspective) is rarely spoken of as a bad thing.  Who would admit that students shouldn’t be encouraged to think for themselves?  In a desensitised society, where the unspeakable has begun to be heard, it’s perhaps only a matter of time before some Government minister (of any hue (1)) dares say this out loud, but no-one has done so yet.

Sometimes, in education, in more honest spaces, critical thinking isn’t spoken of at all; in many other places it appears in relation to levels of assessment as another stick to beat teachers with (“Not enough criticality!”)  It’s a Dancing Princesses thing, an Anti-Hero thing, a Tutor Voices thing – the empirical certainty that critical education has world-changing properties. As with anything in this representational world, where descriptions of a thing become twisted to suit every agenda until the images-1sight of the thing is lost, getting the point across the whole adult education sector is not easy.  Many people don’t expect to hear real honesty in this day and age. They don’t want to hear that education equals change.

Change (or transformation) is at the heart of critical education, it is its heart.  Whether you call it critical pedagogy, social purpose (as we at Northern College and our WEA colleagues do), or, as Rebecca Maxted terms it (2), social justice, doesn’t matter.  It pares back to the same Freirean (3) place:  students and tutors working as equals to question their world as a prelude to direct and affirmative political action.  This – inevitably – terrifies those who hold conventional power, whether that’s ‘the patriarchy’, Nicky Morgan or your line manager.

The smoke and mirrors surrounding questions of how to ‘do’ critical education is evidence of how obfuscatingly scared many people are, because actually it’s quite straightforward (4).  Despite that, I’m writing about critical pedagogy for the first time today because I’ve needed the cojones of Rebecca Maxted to inspire me.  I’ve allowed myself to over-complicate what is simple.  I’ve listened to ‘The Man’.

In practice, critical pedagogy looks like an energising exchange between teacher and students, who are operating as equal thinkers (not sure about that? check your privilege and the Learning for Democracy proposals (5)). It might be structured as a Thinking Environment or Community Philosophy Inquiry, or it could be a discussion between curious thinkers.  Maxted’s research found that “attitude, personality and values” (2014, p.43) were more important than technique, in both tutor and student; plus the gumption to go off-piste or off-site.  An important principle is that no-one is neutral – not teacher, not student and certainly not policy maker – at the same time critical pedagogy is not what I witnessed in the bad old days of my teaching career, which was essentially political indoctrination.  It can’t more powerfully be defined than as thinking for yourself, from the foundation of your own values, with a healthy dash of humility thrown in.  Yes, we sometimes can be wrong.

The formation of critical questions leads to a lot of head-scratching; after all, professional coaches have earned fortunes from the creation of questioning frameworks.  This I did work out a little while ago…just asking ‘Why?’ (repeatedly) or, sometimes, “What are you assuming?” will do the trick; given practice and the generative, non-interrupting attention of other thinkers, your brain will work all that out for itself.

Rebecca Maxted uses a curious metaphor, that of the art form cubism, which as a principle tried to show all sides of a thing at once (so that the ‘thing’ could be seen differently, present as all of itself and not just a representational form).  Whatever we do, if we can do that, including the bits of the thing no-one wants to see, we are engaged in critical education. And surely A complicated Cubist paintingthat’s a definition of diversity too? As Trevor Gordon memorably says (6), we need to know all our subject, all of its histories. And part of doing that is blurring the lines between disciplnes – Maxted’s interviewees call for this as do the posthumanist approaches of Rosi Braidotti and others.  How can it even be that humanism (humanities?) divorced education from politics, for example?  From community studies? From psychology?  In fact, it didn’t ever separate from the latter.  The canon of educational theory persists in being dominated by dead white male American psychologists and the clear demarcation lines don’t allow us to see one ‘discipline’ being favoured over another.  A refusal to view education as inherently political is a direct ancestor of today’s disempowered workforce.

 

 

So why indeed would those in power want any of the above?  Operating as we do within an education ‘system’ that has been enslaved to capitalism, it’s true that a world of pain awaits any one of us who wants to clear a bit of floor space and dance differently.  The heckling starts before we’ve even thrown down the talc.  Professional loneliness is a very real thing – I experienced it for years and I wouldn’t want to go back there.  Maxted’s chapter calls in the end for the establishment of a critical education forum for further (and adult) education – and makes a very clear point that critical pedagogy should counter a policy of deliberate fragmentation with a collectivist approach.  It’s my hope that Tutor Voices might just be that forum, if we can work rhizomatically so that the energy and power of the whole is not in the hands of a few.  Being involved with Tutor Voices from the start, I can tell you that the commitment to organising democratically is a genuine one; I see spaces to dance being already carved out across the country and online.  Get involved (7) and let’s think together about how we can grow this appetite to a critical mass.
Logo of Tutor Voices

(1) Tristram Hunt?

(2) Maxted, R. (2014) ‘Critical Pedagogy in FE’ in Daley, M., Orr, K., and Petrie, J. (2014).  Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London.  Trentham Books.

(3) The Freire Project (2012) Looking through Paolo’s Glasses:  Political Clarity, Courage and Humility. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4jPZe-cZgc

(4) I’m not saying easy.  The school system ensures that few people enter adult education knowing how to think for themselves.

(5) Click Learning for Democracy Proposals to download their wallchart.

(6) Trevor’s lecture here (sorry, only available to staff and students with a University of Huddersfield login, I couldn’t find anything freely online).

(7) Email tutorvoices@gmail.com or join our vibrant Facebook group.  Website to follow soon.

Anti-Heroes Assemble…

Talk given to colleagues participating in the first organising conference of the Tutor Voices democratic professional campaigning organisation, held at Northern College on 26th September 2015.

Those of us here today and following on social media have assembled because we are angry that something we love and believe in is being undermined to the point of extinction.  We are already a network…an assemblage of people who have come together to amplify our voices.  Our job is to broadcast our power and potential as adult educators.  What concerns me as I look around this room of determined, passionate, dedicated faces, is that we run the risk of narrowcasting to people who are, to generalise, ‘just like us’.  This country is not run by people who are ‘just like us’.  By the same token, our students and potential students are not entirely represented by ‘people just like us’ either.  Logo of Tutor Voices

We have two tasks, of equal importance.  One is the work we have planned to do here today and, for those who can stay, tomorrow.  Work which has already begun in at least one social media space:  I’m sure most of you here will have signed the petition against ESOL cuts put together by Rachel Yarwood-Murray and Vicky Clifton, after they hooked up in the Tutor Voices Facebook Group.  That petition is due to be presented to Louise Casey next week.  That’s absolutely the sort of grassroots campaigning that Tutor Voices should be about in my view – and today is about finding out what YOUR ideas and priorities are.  What are our lines of attack and as a rhizomatic network – I’ll come back to that later – how do we organise to make our voices un-ignorable?

That’s one job.  The other is the necessity of broadcasting, rather than narrowcasting to people ‘just like us’.  We need to talk to decision makers, many of whom, as my colleague Robin Simmons memorably reported, think that adult education is for other people’s children. How do we do that?  We don’t have the ear of Government, so we need to turn the media they control back against them.  And we need to talk in many voices.  Looking round the room, I am not completely convinced that the diversity of our society is represented here today.  We have white work to do – and by ‘whitework’ I mean not only to reference race, but to acknowledge the privileges we all hold, simply by being able to make it here today.  Our work is to connect with those voices that are heard even less than ours, to broaden our networks even when that’s uncomfortable, when we’re clumsy, when we are knocked back…even when it feels unjust.  Those are the territories I want us to assemble in: finding ways to hear the voices of those educators who work with the most marginalised, who are marginalised themselves.  People grafting away unpaid, or moving around huge institutions like zero-hours ghosts.  We are one, or we are nothing.

I mentioned earlier the word ‘rhizomatic’.  For the gardeners amongst us, a rhizome is a plant that’s stubbornly impossible to shift.  You think you’ve got it and it pops up somewhere else, quite possibly in your neighbour’s garden.  Ginger is a rhizome, and irises.  Also couchgrass.  But what a metaphor!  Unexpected, subversive, stubborn.  That’s what Tutor Voices needs to be.  We have to operate differently in this posthuman landscape, where spin is king and apologies meaningless, where politicians say the opposite of what they mean and reinvent themselves shamelessly. Our political structure is Kafka, it’s Lord of the Flies, it’s 1984.  We cannot win on their terms, by forming huge organisational structures that mirror what’s gone before, tie themselves in knots and ultimately lose their way.  Anger might be an energy, but speaking from our place of pain will get us nowhere.  What we need is an affirmative politics, values laid bare and adhered to with integrity, minds open to thinking differently. We need to tell the stories and successes of adult education, which essentially are the stories and successes of all people.  We need to operate as nomads, by which I mean guerillas, rhizomatically popping up where we are not expected – like that pesky couch grass – assembling and re-assembling in different combinations, getting ourselves EVERYWHERE. Getting, as my mum would say, where water can’t.  And we need to act quick.  When Ewart Keep said at the AoC conference earlier this year that there would be no FE in 2020 this year’s general election had not yet happened.  What seemed doomy at the time now looks a little optimistic.

I may be at odd with my fellow organisers in this, but I don’t think we have time to build constitutions and elections and AGMs, without also getting on with the work.  Of course we may have all those things, those are the trappings of democratic organisation and I’m not disrespecting them or the values base that underpins them.  But we can’t wait for them, unless we want our heroic story to end up more Les Miserables than London Blitz.  We need to act now, and one of the ways to do that is social media.  Some of you are there already. Some of you look scared.  Some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking, “She’s off again.”  But it’s quick, it’s free and it works.  It makes a noise.

If I can contribute one thing to Tutor Voices, I believe it is this.  If you are willing, I can teach you how to campaign online, to raise your voices – collectively – so high that they cannot be ignored and overlooked.  But you’ve got to be up for it.  Just looking on Twitter is not enough.  Just talking to people you already know is not enough.  You’ve got to put yourself out there, out there where it’s scary, where it feels dangerous, where trolls lurk.  And you need to bang on about adult education, at every opportunity, every single day.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t do all the other things as well.  But this is MY affirmative politics.  I go to the places where people think differently, and I change their minds.  Sometimes, in the process of listening, I get my mind changed too.

Lego Superheroes of DiversityAdult education needs to transform to survive and by that I don’t mean buying into capitalist ideologies of austerity, crisis and profit. We’ve tried doing that and it doesn’t work.  We are the vehicle for challenging racism and marginalisation; we’re expected to get people back into work, cure them of addictions and even, it seems, prevent terrorism – and we’d be equal to all of that if we weren’t also then told how to do it by people who don’t have a clue.  So this affirmative political work is also about protecting transformational pedagogy, as we called it in the ‘Dancing Princesses’ book, “spaces to dance.”

This is dancing princess work, it’s anti-hero work and we are all those things in this room, educators who give enough of a toss about their profession to give up their weekend to come here.  We are disrupters, unsettlers in the great romantic tradition of social action.  You’ll hear many wonderful, inspirational campaigners cited today, from Che Guevara to Joel Petrie, but I’m going to leave you with Charlotte Church, whose voice cut through old rhetoric at the Anti-Austerity rally in June.  She addressed these words to academics, journalists, public figures who consider themselves progressive:

“We need to stop genre defining our politics and harking back to old ideologies and start talking about the future of government, the future of democracy, our children’s future; how we can be innovative in our thinking, how we can capture the attention of the disengaged demographics…”

…we are right there.  Education is how this is done.  But we have to believe it and believe in our own power to assemble and influence change.  Don’t leave it to others to make things happen.  Go away from here and be part of the voice.

The State of the Nation – the TeachDifferent Keynote 2015 #TD15

Hello and welcome back to Northern College for our third annual TeachDifferent conference.  Every year has a different feel, but it’s always a celebration.  This year, in the midst of celebration, it’s a call to arms.

Last year was euphoric; this year has been harder for us and for everyone we know.  But we end the year still fighting, still present as ourselves, and still doing amazing, genuinely transformational work, with the support of a growing research base for social purpose education.  And that’s important.  Because the people who make the decisions which so affect our lives really don’t see education in the same way as we do. The onus is on us to prove what works.  

wordmap from the second day of the identities programme
Identities Day 2

That adult education cannot continue as it is, is clear to us all.  The General Election has only underlined what we’ve known for a long time now, that education policy is decided by people – on left or right – who see FE as being for “other people’s children.”  The days of Labour MPs emerging from union education programmes are long gone.  I listen to them all, and I don’t hear anyone speaking the language of transformation.  I don’t hear voices from community education, from rehab, from family learning, from radical ESOL, from learning support.  Let me make this clear.  Politically and financially, they have come for everyone who was on our side.  No-one is going to speak up for us, except ourselves.

In some senses, this makes it easier.  I had a feeling in September, whilst wrestling with an awarding body who seemed stuck in the past, that after last year’s highs, there was a fightback from the traditionalists.  The language seemed to regress – in November we went down to a NIACE conference in Birmingham and were outraged to hear adult education referred to as ‘the skills SYSTEM’ (not even ‘sector’).  Only ourselves – by which I mean the Community of Praxis, of which you’re all a part – and our friends the WEA seemed to keep hold of the plot…

…and then I fell in with the Dancing Princesses.  Here, initially in the form of a book for ‘educators who haven’t got cynical’, were people collecting around a common cause – fighting back, finding spaces to dance in further, community, adult and trade union education.  Practitioners, academics and policy big hitters together, organised and cajoled by a charismatic Pied Piper.  Even before the book was published we started blogging and others heard the call.  Now there’s a movement.  We images-1call it Tutor Voices, officially launched at The University of Huddersfield on International Workers’ Day, May 1st (and then, of course, everything stopped because half of us collapsed with exhaustion during marking season). That’s why we find it hard to write, research, protest and organise in FE – because the day job has grown out of all reason or control.

So this year has been about leadership, that sort of leadership from the grassroots that we’ve learned to call an anti-hero approach, the dance of the princesses who would not have their spaces to rave curtailed.  When policy makers are not looking (when the day job is done), we spin our magic…Thinking Environments, creative projects, digital networking…all the things that make us excellent, we do when the day job is done.  That’s our professional literacy.  That’s what makes us outstanding, not the neatly filed paperwork, the sausage factory outputs.

Everything you experience here today, someone has sweated blood over, after they have finished their day job.  By someone, I mean not just the teacher education team, but our students, graduates…our critical friends.  As ever, this conference has been made possible by volunteers and I thank them.   

We cannot turn back the clock.  No government is going to significantly reinvest in adult education, within what remains of my working life, for sure.  Yes, we can subvert what we’re funded to do, position it towards progressive alternatives, seek out the opportunities we can, to influence and campaign.  I’ve not given up on that.  But we also need to diversify.  I don’t need to say, do I, that by this I don’t mean branching out into Saudi Arabia?  I mean finding pathways as ethical providers, consultants and co-operatives, developing ‘fair trade education’ which is people focused and which shares funding images-5responsibility with those who can afford it, in order to offer free opportunities for those who can’t.  We need to reconfigure our relationships with employers, without automatically deferring to capitalism when it insists on the lowest common denominator, quality-wise.  There are people in the room who will have heard me say this many times, but it’s when we chased the Train to Gain dragon here at Northern College that we began to lose our way.  We were rubbish at that sort of work, because we didn’t believe in it.  Like Marks and Spencer failing to emulate Primark, we need to look to our values, and do what we’re good at, even if that means a fight.

This has been the year of the Thinking Environment and if you want to hold on to one bright hope for world peace and transformation, surely this is it.  I’ve been working less or more in a Thinking Environment for nearly twenty years and, finally, it’s starting to catch on.  Our work this year on the Identities, Time to Talk and FAB projects – and of course on all of our teacher education courses – provides more evidence than you can shake a stick at that this is the way forward for the world.  And it’s spreading; our Thinking Environment retreats later this summer are being attended by colleagues from across public, private and Third Sector organisations, many people who have never been to Northern College but who want to join in our Community of Praxis and think together, with purpose and France and Belgium 2003 004grace.  The Thinking Environment is proving to be the most effective vehicle we’ve found, to carry forward values based education and fulfil Northern College’s mission of transforming individuals and communities.  It is transforming us, our work, our families…push on if we want to transform the world.  You’ll hear echoes of the Thinking Environment throughout today, from opening rounds to Thinking Walks, to dialogue. The Thinking Differently workshop this morning provides a simple Thinking Environment strategy to strengthen personal resilience; sadly our colleague Lesley Whiting can’t be with us but I’ll do my best to do her session justice.  There are also two Thinking Walks, led by Alison Longden.

Our focus on Identities this year followed last year’s thinking around Diversity and enabled us to at least partly fulfil our bold ambition to change the language we use around what the sector has mindlessly been calling ‘E+D’.  In this, we’ve caught the zeitgeist; language is changing because there are pioneers out there who are forcing through that change.  We’re honoured and delighted today to be joined by our great friend and comrade Laura ‘Mole’ Chapman, whose ‘Respectful Language’ books and blog gave us the confidence to believe we could actually do this.  We also put ourselves out there to mix with people who know much more about identities, oppression and intersectionality than us.  The #whitecurriculum That awkward moment when you forget to check your privilege (cartoon)campaign set our thinking alight this year.  You will see all around you the creative products fired by this and other stimuli and this afternoon Kay Sidebottom’s workshop will help you explore how our learning can impact on the way you design inclusive and diverse curricula.  And to whet your appetite after lunch for this work, I’ll be doing a dialogue with our Identities researcher, Jill Wilkens, who, with Alison, welcomed you to the Conference today.

If we ever lose humility to the point where we can’t learn from our mistakes, it’s time to resign.  We messed up badly this year and a delegate at one of our CPD events was left feeling excluded.  That might be the norm in other places, but it’s not something we expect to happen at Northern College. We’ve got a lot to learn.  Steve Goodfellow, NIACE Hard of Hearing Ambassador, is running a workshop for us today called ‘deaf with a small ‘d”, in response to this gap in our learning.  Steve is also running a series of webinars on the subject – watch out for notice of those on Twitter!

…which brings us to the ‘techy stuff’ and our freshest thinking this year about life after FELTAG.  Over the last few years, we’ve got a reputation for being digital pioneers, bypassing the VLE and surfing freely available social media to build our Community of Praxis.  Last year, I was telling you how much Ofsted loved our ‘do-it-yourself’ approach. 5b3d007c-559a-42d9-822a-92be1888b53dOne of the joys of this year is seeing it catch on across adult education; once ridiculed, then admired but not understood, now we are seen as pioneering something not only real but also transformational in its potential for students to be powerful and self-efficacious in their learning which, after all, is what we want, isn’t it?  Students, tutors and everyone else, thinking for themselves.  My workshop this afternoon presents the findings of our FAB Action Research Project, which used Thinking Environment interviews to understand a little more about why people resist.  The results – and recommendations – are devastatingly simple. The challenge is broadcasting the message across the sector, that we are not getting it right for either teachers or students.

The digital future is upon us and those sharks that were circling the wreck of adult education a year ago are starting to attack.  Every week I hear of another adult learning provider paying thousands (and more) to the big tech companies for ‘bespoke’ solutions, tying them into expensive maintenance contracts. Consider this.  On Radio 4 last week, the Lord Chief Justice John Thomas confirmed that the ICT infrastructure in the Crown Prosecution Service is so outdated that the Government pays untold riches to Microsoft each year to keep it alive.  Is that where you want your organisation to be in twenty years time?  Or do you want to take control of your digital resilience pedagogy for yourself, making it a ‘people first’ initiative that you develop and adapt, riding the wave of Silicon Valley’s most brilliant minds:  Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft…all are courting you to keep their ethical reputations afloat.  The skill you need in 2015 is the resilience to navigate all of that.  Stop investing in buildings and hardware.  Start investing in people.

Resilience is the theme of next year, not just for the Teacher Education team but for Northern College as a whole.  Not just the digital and personal resiliences we’re considering today but also academic resilience, volunteer and leadership resilience

and the sort of policy resilience that keeps me afloat and optimistic with the passing of each year.  But we won’t be leaving the themes of identity, oppression and diversity far behind.  One of our first honours of the next academic year will be to welcome Darren Chetty to Northern College for the next in our interrupted series of #TDTalks. Darren, a former primary school teacher and researcher at the Institute of Education, uses hip-hop and picture books to explore issues of identity and racism with children.  His ground-breaking work reminds us of how far we’ve got to go.

What will next year feel like?  I’d love to think that it could be the year when adult education finds its voice.  In September, we meet here at Northern College to thrash out the remit of Tutor Voices.  We are determined to change education, get the Logo of Tutor Voices best out of people, be present, professionally, as ourselves.  Have a brilliant, celebratory day and enjoy the sunshine.  But don’t forget that the battle is just suspended.  This is a call to arms and we’d love you to join us.