School Blog

Everybody Learns

It's not the most Edupunk of musical reference points (more on that later), but I woke up this morning thinking about the video to REM's 'Everybody Hurts'. You remember the one: gridlocked traffic on the interstate, the camera panning across silent faces stuck in cars, subtitles captioning their unspoken grievances...

When I speak to friends who work in the British education system, what I hear often sounds like a description of gridlock. Secondary school teachers struggle to motivate (or even control) teenagers who are stuck in a classroom the way you or I might find ourselves stuck in traffic. College staff are frustrated with kids who turn up simply to collect their Education Maintenance Allowance. University lecturers grow disillusioned with students who have been encouraged to treat learning solely as a means to an end, fuel for their career journey, rather than an activity which might also have some intrinsic value.

The turning point in the video comes when people start to leave their cars and their interior monologues, and get out and walk. What struck me thinking about it, though, was the role played by the captions in the video. For us watching, they make visible the interior worlds of the characters, their desires and despairs, the things they have no one to share with. And this reminded me of the internet.

Much of the social impact of the internet revolves around making visible what might previously have been kept to yourself. For better or for worse, we are increasingly reading each other's minds! (Or, at least, each other's diaries...)

So how might this apply to education? Within (and beyond) the gridlock of our education system are individuals with desires and things to share. Institutional structures which, by their nature, deal better with sameness than difference, tend to be poorly equipped to register or respond to these desires. Nor can this be solved by increasing the range of choice available on the shelves of an educational supermarket - that way of treating education only reinforces people's isolation and dependence on the system.

What I hope that School of Everything can contribute to is a situation where people are able to share both their desires and their hidden skills with their neighbours, and where this becomes the basis for a renewal of education. For us, the purpose of this site has never been simply as a platform for "teachers" to market themselves: the next step will be to enable everyone to list their interests and the things they're looking to learn, and find others near them to meet up and learn with. In the process, we'll be starting to map skills and curiosity within communities and organisations, and making that information available to everyone.

Part of me wonders whether, just maybe, if we get it right, that process of making skills and desires visible might have a similar effect to being able to read each other's captions. Could it create enough of a sense of not being alone, to contribute to the educational equivalent of getting out of our cars and walking?

Teaching As Improv

I've been having a bit of a think recently about Free Schools. I always learn a lot, every time I host a Free School - so I always get something out of it. For the others who come it feels like it's good as

- a chance to do something random with interesting people
- a space to talk about open learning and DIY culture
- a chance to find others in the area who have skills that might be handy.

It's not so good as

- a way of finding a teacher for a specific subject (who turns up is too random for that to be reliable)
- a space to do sustained learning.

Free Schools are about doing it yourself; about feeling empowered; about the local area; about making new connections and following them through in your own time. But it's still not perfect. So I thought I'd share some thoughts about how I feel it's going, in the hopes that someone can tell me what I'm missing, doing wrong, or could do better.

1) Right now

One thing I'm thinking is that a Free School should be more about 'right now'. More immediate, more peer-to-peer, less interference from organisers. How can we best create a peer learning space in the real world, and then get out of the way? What examples already exist, that we can learn from?

2) Teachers

The other thing I'm thinking is: teachers. As well as having something to learn, everyone has something to teach - but not everyone feels empowered to have a go. And yet, the most exciting conversations I have with people around Free Schools are powered by the idea that everyone has something amazing they could teach in ten minutes.

So why don't we all teach more? We all share what we know with friends, colleagues, loved ones all the time. But with relative strangers? I'm always frightened of the moment when I stand up and face the expectant faces of people who are listening for what I'm going to say. And yet, it feels great when you hear afterwards that people got something out of your words.

So I'm wondering: could we think of the Free Schools as guerrilla improv teaching? Everyone I know has something fantastic they could teach. Very few of us have ever tried. I love the idea of a Free School that's a bit like improv theatre: a chance to try teaching something small, with whatever you have to hand. A way to get over the huge barrier of 'I've never...' and realise that something you thought out of your scope is not actually impossible.

Equally, I'd love to see teachers who chafe under the restrictions of rigid curricula take the opportunity to teach something in their own style, outside those rules. It could be exhilarating.

There's more stuff yet to think about. But at the moment I'm fascinated by the idea of teaching as improv. So I'm throwing this out there because I want more thoughts. Does anyone have experience of improv? How could this work? Teachers, what do you think?

You don't know me, but...

When starting a school, it helps if you can find some teachers. Over the last few weeks, Claire and I have been contacting people who are already advertising their teaching online, to invite them to join School of Everything. The response has been encouraging - a big increase in the number of new teachers joining the site and some lovely emails from people who really get what we're trying to do.

So we're clearly doing something right - yet there's still a part of me which feels guilty at adding to the volume in people's inboxes with unsolicited mail. My heart went out to the yoga teacher whose autoreply reads:

I am being swamped by email at the moment and it is eroding my meditation practice and family time. I have decided to try and look at email once a week and only for an hour so please bear with me if you have not heard from me.

We already have certain standards for our marketing emails:

  • every email has to be sent personally by one of us, addressed to an individual and manually checked before it goes out
  • we only contact teachers who are currently advertising for students online
  • we do everything we can to avoid contacting the same teacher more than once
  • we include a phone number where people can get through to one of us
  • and all replies to emails get a swift and individual response.

But maybe there's a deeper issue here. On Anthony's recommendation, I've been reading Michael Bugeja's 'Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age'. It's an odd book, insightful and frustrating by turns, but he does put his finger on some of the troubling effects of our technology habits. One passage particularly struck me:

"Communication suffers," says Bugeja, "when contact is untimely rather than opportune. We cause interruptions at work or disruptions at home, forgetting that the 'occasion' of a conversation - the hour, date, and place - usually is as important as content itself. A message worth sharing should be conveyed at a propitious moment in the appropriate setting."

The suggestion that we increasingly suffer from an overload of untimely contact rings true for me. (I sympathize with the mobile phone refuseniks interviewed by the Independent this week.)

So I wonder whether we could find more timely ways to contact people about School of Everything? Are there other means by which you'd prefer to find out about a site like this? Can you help us get the message to people in more appropriate ways? Or am I worrying unnecessarily?

It would be really interesting to hear your views - especially if the reason you're reading this is that you got an email from one of us out of the blue.

Choose Everything!

We've been nominated for the 2008 New Statesman New Media awards.

If you want to add your voice to that, click here.

Go on - choose Everything!

Social Everything: how are we doing?

Years ago, in my first job, I spent a lot of time skiving off my 'proper' work and playing with those early social media platforms. These days, social media is no longer what I stop working to do - it's my job.

A day at Everything HQ takes me across

- our Facebook page
- our Twitter feed
- our Get Satisfaction account
- our Flickr page
- our Meetup page
- our Slideshare account

And that's not counting our blog, newsletter, and other ad-hoc stuff.

The days are long gone when a website was a static thing. For us, being a Web startup means being a pattern of flows in and out, of activities across numerous networks. Increasingly, each of the platforms we use interconnects with others. Get Satisfaction integrates with Twitter: we can pick up tweets from inside GS, respond to them, and see those conversations feeding through to the GS-hosted help page on our site. (I was delighted and impressed when, on reading this news, I experimentally asked them a question via Twitter and got a swift response from a GS team member via their website. Go Satisfaction!)

Elsewhere, our blog feeds out to the Facebook page, as does our Twitter feed. The blog pulls in media (images, slideshares and so on) from different platforms. We're using Meetup to connect with people interested in our face-to-face Free Schools. The list goes on.

And learning how to garden this is especially important for us while we're working hard to build the communities that'll sustain us. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can best use this increasingly intricate network to maintain a lively and authentic online presence. But I'm still learning how it all fits together.

I've started tracking the platforms I use: how long I spend on each, how they interconnect, and what - and who - comes to us from each. I'm thinking about how we talk, what we share, and how to be (I know it sounds cheesy, but it's important) true to ourselves as an organisation in how we express ourselves across these spaces.

I'll write more about it all as the weeks go on. But for now, I'd like to know what you think. How's our driving? What do you think works - or doesn't? Is there something you think we should do more? Less? In conversations with other social media mavens lately I hear again and again that while lots of us are exploring how to use these tools lightly and effectively, the field is still wide open. School of Everything has support from so many amazing people, I'd love to hear from you.

How to start a Free School

Tomorrow, at the Free School meetup, Dougald's going to teach how to fly the Everything HQ miniature helicopters. And there'll be the usual freeschooling, idea-swapping, tea and cake and loveliness.

If you're in the area, come down! But if you like the idea, but can't make it, then you can always start your own.

Those details again:

What: Free School Meetup
Where: Gallery Cafe, Old Ford Rd, Bethnal Green
When: May 22, 6-9pm and in the pub afterwards

Join the Meetup group

Email: freeschool at school of everything dot com

Competition: Accepted @ School of Everything

Here is a picture of Dougald starting a school. You can see how easy* it is.

We've got copies of Accepted (the story of Everything, in teen movie form) to give to the best photos we get of signs in unexpected places that say 'THIS IS A SCHOOL'.

Send photos to accepted [at] school of everything dot com .

*Now keeping a school going, that's a different story...

Free School meets this Thursday

The idea for School of Everything came out of our own experiments with open learning, and out of our thoughts about others who've tried it. What happens when a group of people with different skills and interests gets together in a friendly context and looks for ways to exchange what we know?

So even though School of Everything is a website, we want to stay close to the core of it: face to face learning. It's not just about a website. For me, if the single legacy of School of Everything ends up being a network of pervasive, local, distributed peer learning groups in all subjects, I'll have achieved something amazing.

So for the last few months, we've been organising Free School meetups where this happens in real time.

This is what happened at the first one
This is what happened when we did it at Shine 2008
This is what happened last month

The next Free School meetup is this Thursday, at the Gallery Cafe, Old Ford Rd, Bethnal Green. It'll run from 6 till 9, and we'll all go to the pub afterwards. Alongside sharing, cake and talk, we'll be learning vital mini helicopter flying skills. Please come!

And if you can't make it, but are interested in the Free School idea, then go start your own. Here's what we've learned about Free Schools so far. Please tell us how it goes for you - what works, what needs figuring out. Join the Meetup group discussion, leave a comment here, or email freeschool at school of everything dot com.

Synchronised Swimming

I went swimming this morning, and realised I had room to improve. It has been many years since I have done a a decent number of lengths, but, after a few mornings, the flow is coming back to me. Keep your body aligned, create the minimum disturbance of the water, trim and adjust. I grew up in South Africa and I got a lot of swimming training, many people in the UK were not quite so lucky. We could probably all use a bit of help.

It's hard to ask for help. Putting your hand up and saying, "I am not very good at this, can you teach me?" takes a good bit of courage. It is probably far harder to ask for help with basic things, because we can be embarrassed. Once you have the guts to accept that you could know more, then the doors open.

Generally, when we want to embark on the process of learning something, we often don't need any kind of formal teacher, all we need is a few other people in the same situation. It takes knowledge to know that you need knowledge. So, get together a handful of people who know a little, and you may actually end up knowing a lot.

A group of people getting together to learn something has all sorts of advantages. The diversity of knowledge can take you down all sorts of new paths. Without any kind of planned direction, you can end up learning even faster because you find parallels with your existing knowledge. When you find that your existing skills are useful and valuable, they are going to start improving too, and before you know it, you are completely full of yourself and think you an do anything! (Or is that just me and my big ego?)

Changing our ideas about how learning works has significant consequences. Slowly, we can unlearn a consumer attitude towards education, giving up the belief that skills are packaged up and fed to us from above. We choose how and what we learn, and there are no limits to our education. Life is the school of everything - we just have to be willing to learn.

One of our big questions at School of Everything is "How do we make it possible for people to learn together?" What are hurdles that we can overcome with some simple technology? The real solutions are not technological, they are cultural, but there must be some things that we can do to make it just a little bit easier. Have you got any advice? We would be very up for the chance to find people who could share some of their knowledge.

I'll go swimming again tomorrow. One day soon we will get some swimming teachers signed up, and maybe a few people will improve their skills. Things will be even better when School of Everything can get a bunch of swimmers together to teach each other, but I still have to finish programming that.

Learning at the Shine Freeschool

The Free School went to the Shine 2008 social entrepreneurship conference last weekend.

It was the most challenging Free School I've run. This surprised me - I thought that a building full of social entrepreneurs would be all over the idea of open peer learning. But as it turned out, there were relatively few offers.

I learned a few useful things though.

The first was pretty obvious: for a Freeschool, people need to be able to talk. If there's a presentation going on behind you, people get annoyed at groups of Freeschoolers chatting away.

The second was practical: you need places to sit around the Freeschool space. Otherwise it's too awkward to be sociable.

The third was about openness - or closedness. A Freechool is usually open-invitation (ie anyone can come if they like). But the tricky thing about this is that people are more likely to share stuff if there's some group bond. The closer the group, the more exchanging and openness is possible. So there needs to be some sense of a group: if it's there as a walk-by installation at a big event, people don't have any reason to stick around long enough to get talking.

So even if they're open, Free Schools need some sense of closedness, of having an 'outside'. And they have to get the balance right. Think of a wiki: anyone can read it, anyone can edit it, but you often have to register in order to do so. This way, the community has a sense of itself as a community. And you need that sense for a Freeschool to work. Otherwise, why would I trust a bunch of strangers with my contact, or offer to teach them things?

I had a great chat (video here)with David Wilcox at the conference, where we discussed ways we might develop the Free School idea for future events. So I'm looking forward to adding what I learned at Shine to the mix.

I'm also looking forward to flying the Everything HQ helicopters at the Free School Meetup next Thursday. See you there!