This is a guest blog from South Central Fellowship Councillor Bethan Michael.
Between June and December 2013 Fellows in the South Central region of the RSA offered their spaces, their time and their minds to the Ideas in Education series. For me, organising this series has been an extremely personal journey and the distance travelled has been considerable, in more ways than one. I’ve been frustrated and excited and stressed and anxious. And I finally know where Winchester is on a map.
I was convinced that the best way to learn was to do, so the team at John Adam Street helped me to stand for Fellowship Councillor in my region
In 2012 I completed the UpRising leadership programme, which supports a diverse range of young people to access opportunities and undertake real-world learning. Through them, I was privileged to have the opportunity to apply for Fellowship of the RSA. After nine months of UpRising I was convinced that the best way to learn was to do, so I discussed this with the team at John Adam Street and they helped me to stand for the role of Fellowship Councillor in my region. They introduced me to the wonderful team of Fellows that constitute the South Central committee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my age, gender and background were quite different from those of the rest of the team. This didn’t faze me and it didn’t seem to bother them. They offered me their support, their friendship and their expertise, and I am extremely grateful to have worked with and learned from people I can’t envisage having had the opportunity to meet in any other way.
I am extremely grateful to have worked with and learned from people I can’t envisage having had the opportunity to meet in any other way.
Ideas in Education
In my new role I wanted to do something that would showcase the diversity of existing Fellows’ ideas, and bring Fellows and non-Fellows together in their own communities. The RSA aims to ‘enrich society through ideas and action’, so – in the hope that one would lead to the other – I emailed all of the Fellows in the South Central Region with a call-out for one idea to develop and promote new (or not so new) ways of thinking about education. I received around 50 emails from my initial request. After much discussion, and an enormous amount of work from Fellows, colleagues and me, we held seven events over seven months: the Ideas in Education series.
The events began with The Slow School Movement at Eton College in Windsor; moved to Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes to discuss Supporting Social Mobility; traversed to the Jelly ArtPad in Reading to examine Creativity in the Early Years; headed to Winchester to learn about Building Learning Power; trekked to Portsmouth to try out Citizen Science; migrated back to Winchester to explore learning environments and ended in Oxford considering ‘DIY higher education in the global swamp’.
From these events opportunities have emerged, connections have been made, friendships developed and ideas shared. But I don’t doubt for a moment that I am the one who has gained the most from this series, in the form of the opportunities it has afforded me to meet new people, discuss ideas, reflect and learn. When I embarked on my new learning experience trying to deliver a successful series of events, I faced two particular challenges. As the committee members and Fellows who provided me with countless lifts across the South Central region will attest to, both my appalling grasp of geography and my struggle to pass a driving test have been problematic. Both made for some eventful journeys in and out of London and, much to my embarrassment, to my being late to the first event. Luckily, throughout the series Fellows have reminded me that it is from our mistakes that we often learn the most. Thanks to the excellent hosts and speakers there truly was a fantastic energy around the discussions of The Slow School Movement.
I took advantage of the many train and bus journeys to read the authors that Fellows recommended to me during the series. These included Richard Hoggart, W.E. Deming, Richard Sennett, Donald Schön, Paul Goodman and Shirley Brice Heath. Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, discussed at the second event in the series, struck a particular chord with me, as I have always felt somewhat ‘anxious and uprooted’ in my own formal education, initially at a bilingual comprehensive in Wales, then a private sixth form in Oxford, and then at university. My experiences have taught me that education is difficult, requiring reflection and a willingness to challenge your own assumptions, to ‘climb out of your own skin’, as Hoggart says, and be challenged: to undertake personal exploration and be ready to fail and to persevere.
Many of the authors I read on those journeys were already familiar to me. My parents both worked in education, my father in Coleg Harlech, a further education institution for mature students. The discussions around social justice, community, lifelong learning, and the increasing marketisation taking place in education that featured throughout the series were strikingly similar to those I overheard as a child, and those I continue to have with my parents now. When they had five children, they didn’t anticipate university fees. Nor did they anticipate the vibrant town of Harlech would suffer such dilapidation and neglect over time. During the series I went home to take a fourth attempt at my driving test in a location with fewer roundabouts. I failed. I also found more boarded up buildings, fewer jobs and higher rates of child poverty than I did the last time I went back. There was some discussion that the local school will be shut. At Coleg Harlech you can now take a course in willow basket making or wedding flowers, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be offering the second chance, that it seemed to when I was a child, to those whose social and economic background never offered them a first one. Frustrated and angry at the radically changed landscape of the home in which I grew up, I returned to South Central, (finally) passed my driving test, and attended the final event of the series.
What all of these events had in common is that the Fellows who attended are committed to addressing the challenges that individuals and communities face in the 21st century.
The Ideas in Education series has allowed me the opportunity to share my feelings of frustration, anger, enthusiasm, hope, and ambitions for education with others who have shared with me their own. What all of these events had in common is that the Fellows who attended are committed to addressing the challenges that individuals and communities face in the 21st century. There has also been a consensus that to be truly transformational, socially just and effective, learning has to be broad, real, in-the-world and exploratory.
Although these seven events haven’t brought me any closer to an understanding of how to bring about the level of change I feel is required to ensure this happens, or how to address the challenges that face the communities I have called home, it has given me some ideas.
We’ve just published a new booklet – Four ways to turn ideas into action – that features case studies of brilliant community projects led by RSA Fellows. It’s based on interviews I carried out over the last year, exploring how people develop their ideas and put them into practice.
You can read about all of their projects in the publication itself, but in introducing it I thought I’d pick out a couple of rough and ready principles that I think are common to their success.
One thing that struck me about nearly everyone I spoke to was how candid (and usually cheerfully so) they were about the things that hadn’t gone well with their projects. When giving an account of ourselves, all of us will sometimes feel the temptation to talk up our achievements – the things we’re proud of, and the moments where our skill and good sense won the day. It’s much harder to take a long hard look at what you’ve done and say “that was the wrong decision,” while avoiding the slide into fatalism or bitterness.
I suspect a good part of the reason my interviewees didn’t make that slide was that they’re all nice, level-headed people. But I also think (and some of their responses seem to back this up) that being part of a supportive, purposeful community like the RSA Fellowship makes it easier to be candid, and thereby help other people learn from your missteps. Many of those involved in the Social Entrepreneurs Network (p. 14) have said previously how much they value having a ‘safe space’ to share their experiences and learn from others.
Work with the right people
Many of the projects I spoke to were at pains to point out how much they’d depended on supportive partners. Keep Calm Prepare for Change (p. 8) only happened thanks to a coalition of green-minded organisations in Manchester, while Vertical Allotments (p. 20) found housing associations were glad to work with them in order to serve their tenants better.
All these relationships, though, are quite different to the relationships you might have seen in the past between (for instance) businesses and charitable or community partners. There’s substance behind them, real shared motive – and in most cases, not a great deal of money changed hands. I think this says something about the changing shape of this kind of project: increasingly, finding people who can provide exposure, open doors and supply practical know-how is just as important as sourcing cash.
Understand the costs
This is in some ways a glum observation: running a community project in your spare time is a hard, often thankless business, and sometimes it takes a very personal toll on people. Rob from Leeds Empties (p. 10) commented on how hard it is to sustain a project you care about when you’re giving your time for free, and Maria Ana from Plan Zheroes (p. 22) was impressively candid about how personally stressful she found running a project that had grown beyond her capacity to support it.
The lessons about how to overcome this aren’t surprising: they involve recognising the value of your own time; introducing enough structure to take the weight off a single person; and keeping an eye out for funding that allows you to do both of those things. That’s not as easy as it sounds (and it doesn’t sound that easy) but being mindful from the start of the options can help avoid reaching breaking point.
I think there’s a final lesson here. There’s a lot of froth around the notion of ‘social action’ (and I do my fair bit to contribute to it) but at root it’s a familiar set of problems about how to organise people and resources. We’re attracted to flashy ideas, and in London you can attend five events a week where you’ll hear about brilliant schemes to change something for the better. What you hear less about is the hard work people put in to sustain even modest community projects, and the challenges they overcome. My hope is that telling these stories is a small way of redressing the balance. Perhaps you have more?
I’ve recently been playing a lot of The Great Brain Experiment: an app created by UCL and the Wellcome Trust. It’s a crowdsourcing game in which users (or players, or participants, or bored commuters – take your pick) do a series of brain games, which then get fed back into a research project. It’s a great game – it justifies my timewasting by feeding into research and allows me to develop my response and memory skills (by which I mean feeds into my competitive side by seeing how I do versus the average user).
Whereas previously you’d identify an issue, try to solve it in the lab or officespace with people who also work in the same building, now you can use the power of the internet, for information, communication and interaction.
Crowdsourcing like this has been around for a while, with the internet speeding up the process and influencing areas beyond plain research. It can go wrong – Reddit, the user-generated content sharing site recently got it very wrong by incorrectly crowdsourcing the identity of one of the Boston bombers. It’s not without criticism either: if you crowdsource business ideas, you rely on free labour to develop a potentially profitable idea for very low cost, perceived as a cheap person’s idea development.
However, crowdsourcing also has huge power. Whereas previously you’d identify an issue, try to solve it in the lab or officespace with people who also work in the same building, now you can use the power of the internet, for information, communication and interaction. Wikipedia is crowdsourced. Crowdsourcing health research means that cost-ineffective R&D can be opened up to a global audience. The Guardian uses crowdsourcing techniques to process large publications, for example when records of MPs expenses were released. Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter are changing the way that entrepreneurs finance their project.
Here at the RSA we love a good idea, we love good people working together on these ideas and we want to support you with this. Our Catalyst fund offers financial support to start-up ideas from Fellows, but also we work to put you in contact with Fellows who can help with the expertise you need. We’re doing a series of Catalyst roadshows around the country, for people to promote their idea. I recently went to one in Bristol – there were some really strong ideas, and it’s amazing what having an audience can do to help refine your idea, build new connections and open up new channels of thought and support. If you live in the South Central region, why not pop along to the Catalyst event in Reading?
A similar event coming up in the London region is the Reboot 3, led by Fellowship Councillor Roxanne Persaud. Part speed-networking, part speed-ideas-sharing and part pitching, it’s a really good way to have, shape and develop an idea – find out more about how it works and how to run one.
I’ve been working at the RSA for nearly six months and this is my very first blog; every time I tried, I found myself sitting in front of a computer screen, mulling over the same problems. Then I spoke to colleagues, and found that through conversation an idea grows and develops, and suddenly you hit upon a solution. I love ideas, and much like a school of fish, I think that they work better together.
To find out more about how you can engage and develop your idea with us, check out our four ways to engage. For more information about local ideas-sharing activities in your region, keep an eye on the website, and to find out more about Catalyst visit the web pages.
Joanna Massie is Fellowship Programme Coordinator. You can follow her on @joannacmassie.
Here in the Fellowship department we are very keen to forge partnerships with organisations that share similar values to our own, the overall idea being that through mutual collaboration we can make a much bigger impact. Recently, our thinking has turned to how we can open up the expertise within our network of Fellows to a younger audience.
Since the summer we have been working with an organisation called Student Hubs to develop a partnership which will bring together the collective expertise, enthusiasm and ideas of RSA Fellows and Student Hubs participants. Working across the UK, Student Hubs seeks to transform student involvement in social action. They act as a catalyst, empowering students to become active members of their community by promoting social action, social entrepreneurship and citizenship.
As with all of our Fellowship partnerships, by collaborating with like-minded organisations we hope to reach out to new audiences – making a bigger impact and helping our partners to do the same. With the support of Social Enterprise Berkshire’s Tony Davis FRSA, we held our our first joint event in Oxford two weeks ago, where students from the Oxford Hub met with RSA Fellows for an evening workshop to brainstorm ways to use Oxford’s empty shops to address a social need.
Be it youth unemployment, sustainable food production or community isolation, people came armed with ideas and possible solutions…
Set in the amazing Turl Street Kitchen (Oxford Hub and Student Hubs HQ), the event had a dual purpose: to introduce social enterprise by thinking about how we could use empty spaces for social good, and to encourage a mix of ideas and collaboration between different generations.
And this is what happened (click to enlarge)…
Great conversations made for some great ideas! But where can we go from here? Well, Student Hubs offers access to a range of funding bodies to support new ideas, and of course RSA Fellowship provides access to small grants through the Catalyst fund and the expertise of Fellows through the SkillsBank. The RSA South Central region is also launching a pop-up shop advice line for Fellows and RSA friends who want to know how to go about taking their ideas forward – get in touch with Alice Dyke, Regional Programme Manager at the RSA, for more information.
We’re hoping to run similar events and initiatives with Student Hubs in 2013 – so watch this space! Student Hubs are based in universities across England such as Southampton, Bristol and Cambridge – if you live in one of these areas and want to get involved get in touch with Amy Anderson, Oxford Hub Manager.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
We’re always happy to hear about potential opportunities for collaboration and partnership at the RSA – if you’d like to find out more, please contact our Partnership Development Co-ordinator, Jo Painter.
For more pictures from this and other RSA events, join the RSA Flickr group.