Alternative Education in Nottingham: Some thoughts

I was recently invited to be part of a really exciting new project in Nottingham. The idea results from people’s thoughts on what education is about and should be about, from reflection on our own educational backgrounds, and views about recent events at the University of Nottingham. Some initial ideas have been worked on, and these are some thoughts resulting from meeting on 26/3/09… They are just my own recollections but this might be a useful forum to mull ideas over in…. Please get involved!


An important over-arching idea was being able to articulate what we are doing and why in an accessible way via some sort of statement of intent. We discussed this from two angles essentially; what we felt about the University itself, and what we felt about the relationship between ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’.


The starting point for many of us is the realization that we often feel that we operate in a stifling, uncreative and even repressive environment. We have come to understand this not just as an abstract critique of the modern university but in our everyday experience. This has increased over the past couple of years, most obviously in the arrests and subsequent racist treatment of two members of the university community, the elitist position taken in issues of academic freedom, culminating in the physical suppression of student protest over Gaza. We want to challenge the University’s understanding of itself as standing outside of and above the community except when there is money to be made or a PR opportunity. We don’t see it as a neutral institution, setting standards whilst remaining aloof from conflict. Conflicts within society should be expressed and explored as part of university life. In suppressing this, the University itself becomes a focus and source of conflict.


The other thing we take as our starting point is that we are trying to undermine the roles of someone who teaches and someone who learns, and that that everyone is an expert at something and a novice at others. Someone who initiates/leads/teaches a class has as much to learn from it as someone who takes the class. Indeed, we should be open to the possibility of the divide breaking down completely. We are engaging in a creative and challenging process denied to us through almost all mainstream education, and in itself this challenges the state and its vision of what education is about and for.


As part of this we discussed the idea of ensuring that the content as well as context of the classes should be radical, as appropriate. We are doing this because we want to transform the world, after all, not just to entertain ourselves or make ourselves skilled essentially in a sense that capitalism can exploit. Why use uncritically the concept of money in engaging in basic numeracy classes? Why learn nouns for concepts that don’t interest us, rather than discussing what excites us or confronts us in daily life?  Radical and challenging concepts can be engaged with in everything from creative writing to computer literacy, architecture to history, engineering projects to domestic science. The divisions between these disciplines is indicative in itself of education being handed down to us as ‘useful’ rather than fulfilling. We think it should be both. We discussed the nature of education as not neutral but being for either liberation or domestication.


We might consider making it usual that whilst someone is ‘leading’ a class in their field of expertise they should be taking another that interests them but at which they are unskilled. The ‘teacher’ also needs to listen to what the class knows or thinks about a subject before they start, so that dialogue about a subject and an understanding of where everyone comes from precedes assumptions of expertise.


More usual is that we know a bit about a subject that we would like to study, to the extent that much of what we do is a knowledge-sharing and –building dialogue rather than the one-way transmission of knowledge. This is radical in both a university and community context. It is not non-hierarchical for the sake of it, but a valid pedagogy.


We like the idea of semi-formality so that there is a sense of the courses being part of something bigger with an over-arching purpose. This would also mean we stick at something for 10 weeks rather than dipping in and out, and as such are committed to each other’s learning experience. Also it means that you know that the class will take place each week; someone will turn up to make it happen. We discussed producing a brochure and having a web site to help here.


We need to think about terminology. Are we running ‘courses’, ‘classes’, ‘seminars’, or what? Will we have a ten-week ‘term’? What title do the ‘teachers’ have, esp. as we want to encounter ideas rather than just be ‘taught’ them. And what are we called as a project?!


How do we address the professional divide between academic and non-academic staff, staff and students, ‘skilled’ and ‘un-skilled staff’, and so on? We have to significantly undermine roles that might be slipped into too easily. We discussed the potential for doing this ‘off-campus’, where the differences are lessened to some extent anyway, and then taking it back into the learning environment having left our baggage behind and learned from the process.


The relationships between people involved are important. Each class would benefit from a positive internal dynamic encouraging us to see ourselves as learning collectively as well as individually. Again, this is quite subversive in itself. It might be interesting to explore the idea of interrupting the ten-week course structure so that the whole class can go and do something completely different together. Or do it in addition to the timetabled class. As such, one-off classes, workshops, social activities etc. will be appropriate and part of our ethos. We could link into regular events run by like-minded people as well, such as Food not Bombs, People’s Kitchen (Sumac).


Venues suggested include Sumac Centre (Forest Fields), The Sparrows’ Nest (St. Ann’s), The Chase Community Centre (St. Ann’s), & the university itself. Several of these venues would find themselves benefitting from this. Sumac has as a core ethos of engagement with the community in Forest Fields and a good deal of its work is in this context, most obviously the Skill Share programme. We could establish an on-going link here. The Sparrows’ Nest Anarchist and Class-Struggle Library so far lacks a manageable and safe way to draw in people outside of the radical scene, and so classes and other events there would benefit it because of the diverse nature of people involved in classes. We considered making confident overtures to other venues, e.g. libraries and community centres.


We also discussed some precedents such as nineteenth- and early twentieth-century didacticism, result in working class self-education projects such as the Workers Education Association (and as part of this Anarchists in the 1980s were paid to run classes on Anarchism by the WEA in several towns), the Café Culturel and Café Scientifique (Cultural Studies-style seminars which used to take place in Café Wax). Some people have experience with the large-scale alternative university projects such as at Lancaster. In particular we discussed learning more about the experience of the ‘Knowledge Lab’ held a couple of years ago. We discussed holding something like this again next Summer maybe, or even as a launch-pad this year?  





2 Responses to “Alternative Education in Nottingham: Some thoughts”

  1. 1 Matthew McVeagh
    June 13, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I’m very interested in this – education and learning are a big part of my interests, and I’d love to be part of a new project that aims to create an alternative non-hierarchical type of communal learning. I would probably be working in academia now if I could stand the authoritarian structure. I would suggest “Nottingham Alternative Learning Project” as a working title! I am sure there are many other potential venues besides the ones you name – I am used to using the ICC, Nottingham Mechanics, Friends Meeting House, Central Library Cecil Roberts room, and others. Please get in touch and tell me how I can be part of this.

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