Podcast: John Morrisons Collider Lesson Plan; How Would You Build Guerilla Education ? Provocation by Alex Dunedin
This is an audio recording of a lesson which John Morrison a practitioner and researcher working in the Digital Media and Interaction Design group in the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University. Ever stimulating, it has been fascinating getting the opportunity to work alongside John as he plans his lessons and curriculum for his students.
Having got to know him as someone who is ever thinking about the ways in which learning, education and knowledge constitute our lives, it was a great chance for me to see how he was working within the formal classroom setting.
Everyone does things differently, and I learn from seeing things happen as well as participating in some ‘live’ activity.
When John spoke about a course he has been developing as a programme leader and that he was inviting various people/organisations from communities to come into the classroom and pose problems for his students to think through. The way he is creating the setting is very constructive, for example he poses people not as the easy to hand ‘problem holders’ but as the positively framed ‘solution seekers’.
I was invited to be one such ‘solution seeker’ and give a short talk followed by a ‘provocation’ to think. I jumped at the chance and expanded on it seeing it as a good opportunity to actively turn it into a dialogue between formal education and informal education. It was a multi-directional dialogue between John and myself, his role as a teacher and my role as a community actor, between individuals who had come to study/learn together from all over the world.
Learning is never simple even though each element as it unfolds, or is presented, may appeal as so. I thought that rather than turn up at the end of a carefully orchestrated lesson and information dump on people, that I would take part from the start to the finish. I would thereby get the chance to understand the context and other people involved in the complex scenario which as being generated.
I appreciated the many elements which he had layered into the whole afternoon, and listening back it occurs to me the clever and personal way in which he has managed to operationalise the theory and ideas which I have heard him talk about over time. For example, the use of open access educational resources found on Youtube to get students (I include myself in this) thinking differently.
He is not concerned with limiting himself or others to an artificial bounding of knowledge, therefore it is perceptible that he is freer in the tools from which he can choose. Using philosophy he woke the room up with the following video plus a simple quiz which used the technology that was available to good effect:
Getting students to leave the room was great to see. He got them to learn about the very make up of the university to then communicate that to each other in presentations. Even more, he pushed people outside of their comfort zones and got people to communicate in non-traditional ways – where we might typically communicate by speaking, he got the groups to find visual ways of communicating their messages. I could hear the neurons oscillate as they had to connect in different ways (this was the din in my head at least).
Changing the bounds of the physical learning space was obvious as well. By getting the students to leave the classroom setting it was pleasant that he was seeding in people’s experience the diffuse nature of information and knowing. Asking the students to form groups and then to leave the room and explore the university before returning to communicate a decade of the development of the institution pushed people into the real world from the abstract.
All this was fresh and exciting, and he kept on disturbing the easy configurations which naturally set in. Getting people to mix with others which they had not worked with before and also not settling on a single idea but express a multitude of them had a visibly stimulating effect on everyone. All through the lesson are subtle seeds to where the origins of the thoughts are.
From the use of the Informatics Collider design methodology to the introduction of previous students production work as a creative tool, it was a veritable feast of brain activity. I will let you listen through the podcast and pick up on the details as all the various individuals responded to each prompt and type of prompt.
Finally he got me to give a provocation to the room – pose the problem (solution sought) to everyone and invite creative ideas. I was delighted with the array of thinking which came back to me. Not only did it give me ideas but it reinforced many of the histories of free education which have spontaneously and simultaneously generated all around the world, across the millenia. I am planning on taking this forward by creating more transcript and also illustrating the profundity of the thought which was flowing from the students.
You can listen to the provocation which I presented by moving to the time below. I have also written out what was said…
How would you construct Guerilla Education with the elements you find in your landscape ?
29 minutes 27 seconds
Hi, Im from Ragged University, an informal education project that functions in social spaces – outside of formal education and institutional spaces; places we all own, and we all decide the rules of. Today I am going to be talking about Widening Access, and of course, education, knowledge and skills, the ability to do things – these positive things which mostly everybody associates with the idea of education; and mostly we associate education with the idea of formal education.
Widening access policies I have found to be wanting. The ideas that are expressed in policy terms are often missing in practice. They are often confusing and mysterious, on how to convert into real terms.
Im going to talk about who is excluded from education, and I think a very obvious and powerful term is poverty. People who are skint, and there are lots of different kinds of poverty. I think we have got to see beyond the finance, so there is time poverty and there is an impoverishment that happens.
If we think of elderly people; people who have gone through there lives and have accrued a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, after retirement they can often be devalued. And often children or people who don’t have formal qualifications can be devalued.
The idea of Ragged University is that everybody is a ‘Ragged University’, you are all a unique and distinct body of knowledge accredited with your life experience and with a membership of one. So here is a nice quote. I like this, it is George Orwell in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’:
“It is altogether curious your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty, it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later. And it is all so utterly different and utterly prosaic and different. You thought it would be simple, it is extraordinarily complicated; you thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring.”
Why arent people getting into formal education ? There is lots of rhetoric around ‘education is free in Scotland’; Im sure lots of people here have said it is free to you, but I am sure that you are accruing debt.
My discover, and part of the motivation of Ragged University is to make sure that education and educational practice, and process and places are available to everybody. The process of say somebody on welfare benefits trying to get into formal education is structurally broken.
A lot of people are not being given the sanctions, or the identification or the paperwork they need to get into formal education. So it is important and if we look at Professor Penny Jane Burke, a really good book I would recommend to everybody is ‘The Right to Education; Beyond Widening Participation’.
She suggests that a project of widening participation is necessarily a project of social justice. The emphasis on widening rather than simply increasing access to and participating in higher education focuses on those groups who have been traditionally excluded or under/misrepresented in higher education.
Going back to what George Orwell says – it is really complicated, and the general statements that we hear in policy statements dont often reflect personal and specific circumstances. So free education for me has very much become about curating your world – or curating my world. Generating the means by which I can flourish; by which we can flourish.
Learning through teaching and dialogue; so we go into social spaces – like on the 26th we have Cabaret Voltaire; a nice place. We go in, we have some food, have some drinks and we are going to learn from Mairi MacLeod about the Myths of Attraction. She has studied this for many years.
Where does this come from ? Where do the ideas come from ? Ragged University borrows its name from the Ragged Schools. Has anybody heard of the Ragged Schools ? I am always interested to put the name out there and see how much it is in living memory. Before 1870, free education in the United Kingdom was provided by communities; they came together, shared their knowledge, shared their experience with people they knew and their immediate community.
And they improved their own lives, they chose their own circumstances. It started in Portsmouth with the Crippled Cobbler of Portsmouth; this guy had fallen into a dry dock when he was a teenager and had broken his hip. He had been moved into a reserved profession – cobbling – so he could make a living and what he did was he went out into the streets of Portsmouth and brought in people and taught them what he knew.
In a room about a sixth of the size of this, he would have about forty children all learning how to read, to write, to count, to cobble, and he would also feed them. So they’d get a sense of place. That was a great inspiration to people, so we’ve got people like Charles Dickens, a social commentator who would travel around and write his books on the issues of the day.
And he came across the Crippled Cobbler of Portsmouth, John Pounds, and he wrote about John Pounds. The news spread, and of course, it is an inherent activity education – I would argue. We naturally share knowledge. Think of when you are in the pub with your mates; what you are telling to them is what you know.
Whether it is how to hack a piece of software to get it to do what you want it to do; how to make some nice food; what you saw from David Attenborough; whatever it is, we take pleasure in sharing what we know. We delight in learning and the capabilities which come through learning.
So across the country, communities started doing this. They understood, that will improve life; it is enjoyable but there are lots of practical benefits which come out of it. And there’s a person in Edinburgh Dr Thomas Guthrie who was a minister at the Greyfriars Kirk.
And he would stand and look out over the grassmarket and see levels of poverty that appauled him because people were suffering; there was no glass in the windows, people had rags around their feet, there was illness, there was crime – there was all sorts of things which drove him to try and think about what he could do, what community could do.
And he heard about the Crippled Cobbler of Portsmouth and he thought ‘well, that is what we have got to do’, create free education. He asked the church at the time and they said ‘well that’s a bit idealistic’, so they didnt give him any money. So he crowdfunded, he whipped around the community, people put in money and he raised about two grand.
Two thousand pounds in the 1830s was a lot of money. Chalmers Street which is named after Dr Chalmers who donated books etcetera, and Thomas Guthrie wrote ‘A Plea For The Ragged Schools’. It was to say ‘prevention was better than cure’, which is its strapline.
And he was arguing that everybody should have access to knowledge, have access to be getting skills and a place to exist and things would improve. Still he was thought an idealist. But he persisted, and for the next four decades he did so, and he repeatedly wrote sociological studies on the effects of this. And it reduced crime by 75% in the Edinburgh area.
Why ? Well, when people have skills, ability and value they dont have to steal food just to exist, and various other things. If you go into Princes Street Gardens, you will see that guy. And that is Thomas Guthrie, and he is an inspiration to me along with a lot of other people.
You will find a story like this in every culture in every time. So, if we look across the seas, Rabindranath Tagore was a great educator and internationalist in India, and he said, ‘all I need is the shade of a tree to sit down and teach’, to start a school in. So he started schools of poetry in the shade of trees.
You have got Maria Montessori in Italy starting Casa Dei Bambinos; ‘homes’ for children, she said this is not to be a house, this is to be a home. A place where people feel they belong. So I hope that this gives a flavour of how Im viewing the feeling of knowledge, the feeling of education should be. In Poland there was Janusz Korczak (Im terrible with pronunciation), where there is a beautiful history where this guy actually chose to go to his death to defend people and to look after the children at the time of the second world war.
John Morrison: It is an extreme embodiment of your values
Yes, even in concentration camps people organise themselves into colleges, into schools and universities. And over time, these institutions formalise. Like the Royal Society started with people writing letters to each other, they called themselves ‘invisible colleges’. So all the emails between you, your loved ones, your friends – in which you are working out problems, developing and doing stuff that is useful, pertinent and relevant to your life; these are invisible colleges I am arguing.
John Morrison: If you want to find out more about these personalities these are features on the Ragged University website
Yes, if you go onto raggeduniversity.co.uk, there is a history tab and over time I try and highlight and identify histories throughout the world like you might have heard of the hedge schools. In Ireland education was band, so they met beside hedges and then the ‘stasi’ would come along and say ‘what are you doing’…
…they would say ‘well we are not doing anything are we’ but the levels of education that were being communicated and passed out through the communities and the people was astonishing. They would know Latin, Greek – it is a very impressive history, so please check out some of the histories of how people and communities curated their own worlds.
In the United Kingdom we have got a situation where eventually people like Lady Georgina Burdett Coutts and the Earl of Shaftesbury went ‘this is a good idea’, we will champion it. Gave it some money, gave it their weight, and Doctor Barnardo got his first sixpence from the Earl of Shaftesbury on the rooftops of London.
So Barnardo’s charity started with the Ragged Schools that he had created. The government in 1870 went ‘this is really good for people, we should bankroll it, everybody should have access to education for free’; and that is how we got our primary school system that we have got today.
And I think that we should be doing this with Higher Education. The universities that we have got are brilliant and really important, and the formal needs a compliment. We dont live our lives inside the formal institutions. We leave these spaces and then go out and talk more about what we have learned today, or what we think today when we agree or disagree in the spaces we choose and own.
So I am interested in putting a challenge to you guys. I am very impressed by the work of Professor Mike Neary who has spoken about ‘Student as Producer‘; so where you are defining your own education – you know best what you need to know next. There is a lot of stock in this.
Flipping that I am thinking about the ‘Producer as Student’; so if you are making something, you are learning. If you are doing something, you are the educator; you are also the student. How would you construct Guerilla Education with the elements you find in your landscape ?
So, all of the lovely gubbings you have got inside the university – we cant take this lovely high tech out. Imagine yourself on a desert island – and I am sure everybody has had this thought – what would you first do ? We need shelter, we need food etcetera etcetera. Well, take that idea – take that challenge into an educational setting. How would you build education in a community setting where you are starting just with the stuff you have got and that is freely available to you ? So thanks very much for listening and I hope that is okay
John Morrison: Just to be clear, do you want us to investigate Guerilla Education in the context of Edinburgh ? Is it location bound ?
It’s not location bound. I am interested in Guerilla Education to be able to function under any circumstances. A resistance to financialism if you like. If suddenly this lovely university were to close down so you were told ‘you are not finishing your degrees, you are not finishing your education’ how would you perpetuate that ?
You leave there, and you have got your flats, you have got your social networks – what do you have left to you to finish the trajectory of learning you feel you need to develop your capabilities ?
John Morrison: Are there any questions ? Is there anything you are not sure about ? So I want you to start in your groups there not by talking but by writing down something that comes to mind on a post-it note. And then after a minute or two minutes, you can just start talking about some ideas, and we are going to work for 45 minutes where you can come up with some solutions to this problem. And then you are going to present them as a group, your solution, your values, your ideas.
Again, if you want to think through creating you have got the Stems material there, if you want to be playing or manipulating something. The values of the ‘Collider’ is that it opens your alternative views, don’t close down an idea, stay open, look for the outliers; the tensions and harmonies.
Perhaps, an analogous jump is Guerilla Gardening; how does that work in the community ? What comes to mind when you think currently about education ?