Monday, 26 September 2011

Going round again

The Royal Institution held an Unconference. Bravo.

The RI is an old institution connecting us ordinary folk with the miracles of science.

I like them. A lot. They only really, really upset me once. But we kissed and made up.* So now they're on my list, along with the Royal Academy, of organisations who will be delighted to receive our annual friendship contribution.

One point of their Unconference was to have no agenda. But to give over space to have teenage kids discuss and shape research.

Yes, it broadly suits the RI. They should have a mission to support individual inquiry, autonomous research and independent thinking, given their leading light - Faraday - was self-taught. (These days, such autonomous, self-directed learning might be described under those regrettable words: home educated.)

So at first I thought Unconference? Good.

Any approach where learners take possession of physical space, exchange ideas, collaboratively create ways to shape the environment, and take responsibility for what happens next - must be good.

But then I began to think about this boundary - where autonomous, self-directed learning meets any institution - and I thought, does it work? Can any institution ever open itself up to autonomous learning?

This article about the Unconference from the RI demonstrates something of the problem. Okay, it's probably not fair to pick on it, because I don't want to fight the RI again. Not unless they try and levy additional charges for home ed kids, or go out their way to exclude the home ed voice.

For a start, in this article, the language, it's about permission. It's the RI's 'invitation' and we have to overcome our disbelief to 'trust'. To make sense of what the Unconference is, we first have to agree to the values of the institution, and conspire with the view that any unconference is a bat shit crazy idea. 'Handing over learning, experimentation, organisation and argument to young people? That crazy! What on earth will they do to trash the place?!'

Hmm. There's the institution, defining the territory, organising the understanding. No matter what line is given about freedom of inquiry, the event still starts with lectures and requires outcomes.

Which is sort of not the point of learning freedom. In the landscape of autonomy, of self-directed learning, the starting point is usually the other way round.

In autonomy land, you start off by assuming the creative freedoms of individuals. Then you stand out the way while they're pursuing their paths. Which means that handing over learning to kids is not crazy or shocking. It's daily, normal, natural, if you've ever watched a little kid play.

With freedom to explore, the initiative, experimentation, control, is all owned by the learner. They become the expert. Like all experts, they gain knowledge from direct experience and practical testing. They are open about their limits. They know when to say, This is the boundary of my knowledge; now I reached the limit, and I need to collaborate, talk, and mix ideas from someone else's brain to help me go on further.

That is ownership of learning. That is scholarship. That is unconference. Organisation, structure and control comes from the individual. Frankly, it matters not a jot whether the person engaged with it is aged fifteen, five, or fifty. And the idea that anyone must seek permission for this process of inquiry, or wait for an invitation to do it, is ludicrous.

So I feel a teensy bit frustrated. Not at the RI. They're giving up their building space, fair enough, and exploring this meeting point of institutional control / individual freedom, so that's good enough for me.

But frustrated because I want it to be normal - this assumption that people already have control. People already have the power to learn, teach, organise themselves, specify what they need, control their own agendas, and shape how they learn. I'd like to see more people meeting in public spaces; taking them over for those purposes.

I don't know why we don't see more of that. Maybe people are given to think that they don't already have the responsibility and ownership over themselves. Maybe, in the absence of them just taking that responsibility, I have to look to the existing institutions like schools to support those ideas about autonomy and learning freedom.

But that's not going to happen, is it? It can't ever happen, for that assumption, my daily starting point, to become a normal part of any institution.

The thing is, in a model of learner autonomy, there is a sort of intrinsic anarchy. You cannot control a person who controls their own intellectual path. I tried it, with Squirrel! What I found was that people with their interests and discoveries cannot sit easily inside a place which, by external pressures of organisation, may demand that they shape, formulate, or present their thoughts in particular ways, for products, outcomes, results.

Bugger. I'm going round in circles. There's no conclusion. I'll just dither here on the lines between individual autonomy and institutional requirements. I'll swing about a few more years, wrangling Squirrel's unique and peculiar interests with the mainstream specifics of an exam syllabus. I'll argue the toss between restrictions of institutions and freedoms of individuals. Backwards and forwards I'll flip, chasing my own tail.

Better then, be glad. However well or badly they do it, whatever profit or gain sits somewhere down the line, an institution like the RI handles a basic idea of learner autonomy and offers some space for teenage thinkers to take control.

I hope the RI succeeds. And makes it totally clear that their next Unconference is also open to home ed kids.

* See? I don't bear grudges.

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