School Blog

Where ICT meets Appropriate Development

UPDATE: Due to snow, this meetup has been postponed till Monday 9th of Feb, 2009, 5:30 pm, same address etc. as below. Weather permitting.

Things have been moving fast since I blogged about applying School of Everything to knowledge sharing for appropriate technology. I had a very interesting conversation yesterday afternoon with Mark Charmer, co-founder of Akvo. One outcome is that School of Everything and Akvo are going to co-host a London meetup a week on Monday. The aim is to bring together people on the intersection between the tech industry and the appropriate development world.

Mobiles in the desert

What kind of stuff do we have in mind? Vinay has a nice summary: "What we're looking for is the fertile delta where the ICT game intersects with the sea of appropriate technology - things like Akvo itself, the new new School of Everything appropriate technology focus, Appropedia, Dadamac or even STAR-TIDES."

It feels right to me that School of Everything should be getting stuck in to this area, not only because it's a good thing to do, but also because it fits with history of the ideas that inspired us in the first place. One of the major sources for the concept of this site was 'Deschooling Society', Ivan Illich's 1971 vision for an open alternative to the education system. Illich is also regarded as one of the "fathers of appropriate technology" - his books 'Energy and Equity' and 'Tools for Conviviality' are still some of the most thoughtful writing around on the costs and limits of industrial models of development, and the possibilities outside those models.

The tastefully-named GlueSniffers event (it's about glueing together the pieces...) will take place at the Movement Design Bureau in Bermondsey at 5.30pm on Monday, 2nd February, 2009.

The address is 25 Blue Anchor Lane, Bermondsey, London. It is about a five minute walk from the Bermondsey stop on the Jubilee line, one stop from London Bridge.

If you're involved or interested in putting social media, mobile technology or other aspects of ICT at the service of appropriate development, then come down and join us. There will be beer and fish and chips!

More information here.

(picture from Mark Charmer's visit to Nimdivandh village, Kutch Province, Gujurat

The Next Four Billion

Since I blogged about the Temporary School of Thought the other week, it's become something of a media phenomenon. I've been to some fantastic events there over the last couple of weeks, several of which are now available as podcasts. (I've put together a round-up of those, plus some of the more interesting coverage of the Temporary School, over on my personal blog.)

One of the most interesting talks I've been to there was Vinay Gupta's provocatively titled Avoiding Capitalism for the Next Four Billion.

Audience at the Temporary School of Thought

Image courtesy of Lloyd Davies.

He's working with Akvo, a Dutch project which aims to be the "Wikipedia, eBay and YouTube for water and sanitation projects" around the world. The emphasis is on using online and mobile technology to spread information about low-tech solutions to problems which are responsible for millions of deaths each year.

What makes this so powerful is the speed at which communications networks are spreading. Half the people on the planet now have a mobile phone - a figure projected to reach 75% by 2011 and close in on 100% by 2020. Meanwhile, the evolution of mobile technology means those handsets will increasingly resemble computers rather than phones. In other words, we are about to enter a world in which people who do not have access to clean water or reliable sanitation have the internet at their fingertips.

I was reminded of Vinay's talk when I read a piece in the Guardian last week about David Miliband's trip to India. During the trip, he blogged about the spread of the web to rural Uttar Pradesh:

We stopped at an internet café in the middle of nowhere - I wanted to do a blog but the dial-up was not fast enough. But the mobile phone revolution is reaching here - the shop was selling 5 - 10 mobile phones a day, and although there are 850 million people on less than $2 a day, 8.5 million new subscriptions per month is eating in to the backlog.

That connection was still on my mind this morning, when, along with various other UK start-up types, I arrived for breakfast at the Foreign Office. It was a bit of a change from my usual morning routine - the Foreign Secretary's office was so large and the pastries so small that I thought my sense of perspective had broken. And when he asked me what something like School of Everything could mean for education internationally and Britain's role in it, I found myself talking about how the internet can facilitate peer learning of skills like how to build a dry toilet or a biosand water filter.

If anyone present went online afterwards and searched this site for lessons in dry toilet construction, I fear they were disappointed. There are people offering teaching in natural building, microfinance, community media for development and other related skills - but we've hardly begun to explore the potential of School of Everything for this area. It's something I'm serious about, though, because it seems obvious that the next step beyond a Wikipedia or YouTube for these skills is a way of connecting people to the nearest person who can give them hands on teaching.

I had a very interesting chat about all this with Alberto from UnLtdWorld on the way back from breakfast. I'm looking to open up similar conversations in the next few weeks - so if you're interested, get in touch. Meanwhile, I'll be picking up on some of these themes tomorrow, in the talk I'm giving at the Temporary School on 'Economic Chemotherapy'. If you're free, it's at 5pm at 39A Clarges Mews, off Curzon Street, Mayfair.

Learning Should Be Fun

Learning can and should be fun. This is not just a moral position, but a scientific one too.

jogger on a beach

When you learn a new thing, or get a surprise, there is a shot of a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is famous among neuroscientists for its involvement in the reward and motivation systems of the brain.

You won't be surprised to learn that the reason addictive drugs are addictive is that they hack the reward circuitry that dopamine is intimately involved in. Perhaps the most addictive drug, cocaine, directly increases the amount of dopamine at work in your brain.

Learning something new triggers a chemical release of the same kind as cocaine, albeit in a much more subtle manner. As methods of getting your kicks you can perhaps compare it to the difference between walking up a hill yourself or being strapped to a rocket and blasted up --- slower, harder work, but a lot more sustainable and you're in a better state to enjoy the view when you get there!

The reason for this electro-chemical connection between learning and drugs of reward is that our brains have obviously been designed to find learning fun.

One of the many negative things about the misconception that education is about transmitting content is the idea that any fun you have is taking time away from proper learning, and that 'proper learning' shouldn't be fun.

Rather than fun being a relief from learning, or a distraction from it, for most of our history, before school, learning had to be its own motivation. Brains that learnt well had more offspring, and so learning evolved to be rewarding.

In lots of teaching situations we focus on the right and wrong answers to things, which is a venerable paradigm for learning, but not the only one. There is a less structured, curiosity-driven, paradigm which focusses not on what is absolutely right or wrong, but instead on what is surprising. A problem with rights and wrongs is that, for some people, the pressure of being correct gets in the way of experiencing what actually is.

You can try this for yourself, either in any teaching you do, or any learning. Often we will get blocked at a particular stage in our learning. A normal response is to try harder, and to focus more on what we're doing right, and what we're doing wrong. Sometimes this helps, but sometimes it just digs us further into our rut. The way out of the rut is to re-focus on experiencing again.

I'll give you an example from one of the two things I know best about teaching --- aikido, the japanese martial art. Aikido involves some quite intricate throws and grappling moves. Often a student is so intent on getting through the move, and on trying hard to get it right, that they become completely stuck, repeatedly doing something that doesn't work, and usually too fast. Even if you say or show explicitly the correct movement, they can't seem to get it. In this situation, one teaching technique I use, inspired by the 'Inner Game' writings of Timothy Gallway, is to tell the student to stop trying to do the move correctly, and instead do it deliberately wrong. “Try pushing over this way to the left”, I'll say, “Now try the opposite over to the right. Now try high, or low. Which is easiest?”. By removing the obligation to get the move correct I hope to give permission to the student to just experience the effect they are having on their partner's balance. Once they can tune into this they can figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is, without me having to tell them.

However you do it, if you can get out of the rut of right and wrong you free up a natural capacity for experience-led, curiosity-driven learning. Soon you'll be flying along again, experiencing the learning equivalent of the jogger's high, and all thanks to that chemical messenger dopamine and a brain that's evolved to find things out for itself, and feel good while doing it.

Part of a series. #1 Learning Makes Itself Invisible

Image: jogging on the beach by Naama

Knitting on the brain

It's amazing what you can do with some wool and an obsessive personality...

Psychiatrist knits anatomically correct woolly brain

Psychiatrist Dr Karen Norberg, of National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, spent a year knitting an anatomically correct replica of the human brain.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever knitted? If you're feeling inspired, perhaps one of our lovely knitting teachers can help you knit some more internal organs. (It's probably best to start with scarves first though.)

Learning Makes Itself Invisible

This is the first in a series of guest posts from Tom Stafford, co-author of Mind Hacks and School of Everything's psychologist-in-residence.

Once you have learnt something you see the world differently. Not only can you appreciate or do something that you couldn't appreciate or do before, but the way you saw the world before is now lost to you. This works for the small things as well as the big picture. If you learn the meaning of a new word, you won't be able to ignore it like you did previously. If you learn how to make a cup of out of clay you won't ever be able to see cups like you used to before.

This means it is hard to imagine what it is like for someone else who hasn't learnt what you've learnt. The psychologist Paul Bloom calls this the curse of knowledge in the context of being unable to model what other people don't know, rather than on what you yourself used not to know. If you've ever organised a surprise party for someone, or had another kind of secret, you'll know the feeling. It seems so *obvious* what you are keeping hidden, but usually the person you are hiding it from doesn't catch on. They don't catch on because the clues are only obvious to you, knowing the secret, and you find it hard to imagine what they see not knowing it.

The reason this occurs is because of two facts about the mind that are not widely appreciated. The first is that memory is not kept in a separate store away from the rest of the mind's functions. Although there are brain regions crucial to memory, the memories themselves are not stored separately from the regions which do perception, processing and output. Unlike a digital computer, your mind does not have to fetch stored information when it needs it, instead your memories affect every part of your perception and behaviour.

The second important fact about the mind is related to the first. It is that learning something involves changing the structures of the mind that are involved in perception and behaviour. Memories are not kept in a separate store, but are constituted by the connections between the neurons in your brain. This means that when you learn something --- when you create new memories --- it isn't just *added* to your mind, but it changes the structures that make up your mind so that your perceptions, behaviour and potentially all of your previous memories are changed too.

We can see this in microcosm if we look at a small example of what is called one-shot perceptual learning. What do you think this is?

Now probably you don't know, but I would like you do savour the feeling of not knowing. Try and taste, like a rare wine, what the perceptual experience is like. You can see the parts of the picture, the blacks and the whites, various shapes, some connected to others and some isolated.

If you now look at this popup here then you will have this taste washed out of your mind and irrevocably removed. It will be gone, and you will never be able to recover it. This is why I asked you to savour it. Now look at the original again. Notice how the parts are now joined in a whole. You just cannot see the splotches of black and white, the groups, the isolated parts, again. When you learn the meaning of the whole picture this removed the potential for that experience. Even the memory is tantalisingly out of reach. You can't recover an experience that you yourself had two minutes ago!

One-shot learning is unusual. Most learning happens over a far longer time-scale, so it is even harder to keep a grip on what it was like to not know. All of us will have had the experience of a bad teacher who simply couldn't see why we had a problem - they simply couldn't see that we couldn't understand or do what was obvious or easy to them. A good teacher has to have the dual-mind of knowing something, but also being able to empathise with someone who doesn't know it, someone for whom what is obvious isn't obvious yet. It is because learning has this tendency to make itself invisible that teaching is such a difficult and noble tradition.

Link: A Mindhacks.com post in which I discuss a similar thing in the context of the role expectations play in our perception.

The reference I took the picture from: Rubin, N., Nakayama, K. and Shapley, R. (2002), The role of insight in perceptual learning: evidence from illusory contour perception. In: Perceptual Learning, Fahle, M. and Poggio, T. (Eds.), MIT Press.

Get a Masters in Motown

Happy Birthday Motown! Today's the 50th anniversary of the most legendary record label of all time. To celebrate, here's a little musical treat:

Interestingly, Motown was the only record company to send their artists to School! Check out this interview with Martha Reeves, talking to her teacher Prof Maxine Powell about the unique Motown education.

If that's got you inspired to learn more, School of Everything might be able to help. You can pick the brains of Motown enthusiast Tim Evans, aka Tamla Tim: "If you want to know about a particular soul record, want to know about the glory of Motown, want some tips on where to start buying and/or listening or want to know what that soul tune in your head is, the one that goes ‘do do da do do’ in the intro and says something about fish in the chorus, then I’m your Soul Man."

There's also bass guitar teacher Peter Bennie in South East London, who's played in a band doing Motown material - while it's one of the many styles offered by guitar and bass teacher Alisdair MacRae Birch over in New York.

Morris Dancing: Alive and Kicking!

Wow! From the reaction we've had over the past couple of days, it seems the media have rather exaggerated the death of morris dancing!

map of morris dancers on School of Everything

Claire and I have both been learning a lot about the world of morris. Thanks to everyone who emailed us or commented on Tuesday's blog post! It's been great to see sides all over England adding their pages to School of Everything - check out the map on the right.

I'm loving the colour and variety of dancing on show, not to mention all the related traditions that are alive and kicking out there! Of course, there's plenty of the Cotswold dancing which everyone will recognise - take Bedcote Morris of Stourbridge, for example. But from the Quayside Cloggies in Poole, to Derbyshire's Freaks in the Peaks and the Thieving Magpies in Rochdale, there's so much more diversity than the stereotype of big-bellied men with beards and hankies! Meanwhile, down in Kent, the Fabulous Fezheads sand dancing sounds amazing - and a little bit dangerous! And then there are the Bradshaw Mummers, who don't dance but do carry on a tradition of folk theatre that stretches back to the Middle Ages.

A few people pointed out that the photo we used on Tuesday was a bit of a cliché. So here's something rather different, sent in by Phil Heaton, who's Secretary of the Sword Dance Union:

Stone Monkey Sword Dancers

That's Stone Monkey, a team from the East Midlands who do both rapper and longsword dancing - as Paul points out, "an entirely different cultural sport".

Meanwhile, James from Folksy - a fantastic site that gives crafts makers a place to sell their work - sent us a picture of these woolly morris dancers:

lovely knitted morris dancers

Heather, who made them, tells me, "They proved quite a hit at the Tenterden Folk Festival and I'm pleased to say I've even supplied a couple to an American side!" If you'd like to buy one - or even commission a mascot for your morris side - then visit Heather's shop on Folksy.

Finally, Joanne from Maids of the Mill told us about their unconventional themed morris dances - including this one, which I love, featuring Dr Who and the Daleks:

In fact, the combination of that and the handful of "morris dancing jedi masters" joining the site gave us an idea - how about a Star Wars dance, based on a traditional stick dance, but using light sabres? There are enough of us on the School of Everything team to form a beginners morris side, so if anyone's up for coming to Bethnal Green to teach us, get in touch! (We'll arrange the light sabres and jedi cloaks...)

Introducing: Tom Stafford

Tom in goggles

Hi, I'm Tom Stafford and I'll be guest blogging here at School of Everything during January. I'm a lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield. My research area is learning, perception and decision making. I am better known in the blogosphere for co-authoring the book Mind Hacks, which was 100 do-it-at-home demonstrations of how your mind works.

The folks at SoE have kindly lent me a desk for a couple of days a week, and while I'm here I'll be posting on the general topic of 'What psychologists know about learning'. I don't know what exactly I'll write on yet, so if you have any questions or requests for topics, get in touch.

Let's Save Morris Dancing!

There are some alarming reports in this week's news about the possible death of one of England's great traditions - the morris dance.

morris dancers

Here at School of Everything, we're passionate about passing on traditional skills of all kinds. These are skills that have always been taught and learned through informal, sociable networks, rather than in classrooms and institutions. (Well, OK, we did do country dancing when I was in primary school!)

And how could anyone resist such a pungently phrased appeal as this, from the Morris Ring's Paul Reece: "There is still time for new blood to get ready for the Spring fertility offensive." Words that could have been spoken by our own Greenman (aka Pete, our CTO)...

Pete as Greenman

So we want to lend our support to the campaign to save morris dancing! Let's see if School of Everything can help England's morris sides find fresh recruits.

If you organise a local side that's in need of new blood, create a teaching profile on the site so people can contact you. And if you've ever toyed with the idea of taking up morris dancing, why not make a belated New Year's Resolution and add it to your list of things you'll learn to do in 2009?

We'll do our best to spread the word and help put people in touch with each other - and when we launch our School of Everything Networks for membership organisations, we'll offer free Networks to any organisation that supports and encourages the performance of morris dancing.

Meanwhile, here are some links where you can find more information and inspiration:

Morris SideFinder - this is the best starting point for finding a morris side in your local area! (Thanks to Roger from Rockhopper Morris for pointing us to it.)

The Morris Ring

The Morris Federation

Open Morris

Mainly Morris Dancing

Update: Well, from the responses we're getting, it seems like the death of morris dancing may have been exaggerated! It's great to hear how alive and well it is in so many places - and a big welcome to all the morris dancers who have joined the site since yesterday!

Temporary School of Thought

On Saturday, I went down to 39A Clarges Mews to meet the organisers of the Temporary School of Thought. This is a weeklong Free School event in a pretty unusual location, put together by a group of artists and activists, and I think it's going to be great.

The programme ranges from welding to bookbinding to the history of Situationism... Come along on Saturday, if you want to hear me talk about Ivan Illich and 'Deschooling Society' - the book that sketched out something remarkably like School of Everything before the internet was even invented.

But my top recommendation for the week is Vinay Gupta's lecture on infrastructure at 1pm on Wednesday. He's the inventor of the Hexayurt, a cheap, simple, open source shelter that's taken off with both the Burning Man community and the world of emergency relief NGOs. We hung out on Saturday night and I'm looking forward to seeing him share his ideas on Infrastructure for Anarchists. (If you can't make it, he's already blogged his notes for the talk.)