Dougald Hine on School of Everything and asset-based development

Dougald Hine at the Royal Festival Hall

Dougald Hine is of the co-founders of the School of Everything. He’s also a prime mover in several social enterprises across the spectrum from practical action (Space Makers, which matches creative people and ideas with empty shop space) to cultural movement (Dark Mountain, exploring new artistic languages to help us deal with environmental and economic decline). See his website for the full range.

I first got to know Dougald through London networks like the Tuttle Club and Long Now meetups. Then, a year ago, Dougald and Tony Hall started a weekly series of meetings about self-organised learning under the title School of Everything Unplugged. Through these meetings, we’ve had fascinating discussions with, to pick just a few,

I’m now one of the organisers of the weekly meetings and we’re experimenting with the format, so that, as well as guest-led discussions, we’re doing reviews of resources, problem solving, lightweight projects… and group interviews. Candidly, the last of these gives me the chance to kill two birds with one stone: to keep the meeting programme ticking over and to add to my series of Agile Learning interviews. And into the bargain I get to share the hard work of interviewing — coming up with good questions and being alive to the responses — with some smart people.

Thus it was that I came to interview Dougald, in our usual spot looking out over the River Thames from the Royal Festival Hall, and supported by contributions from Clodagh Miskelly, Tony Hall and Patrick Hadfield. And so it was the discussion ranged far and wide. Perhaps a little further and wider than I was anticipating, so I’m splitting this record of it into two.

What ambitions did you have in creating School of Everything?

Dougald Hine (DH): I’d been reading [Ivan Illich’s] De-Schooling Society in 2004 and getting very into Illich generally. A year or so later I met Paul Miller who was at Demos at the time and he was the first policy person, the first think-tank person I had ever met. I trapped him in the corner of a pub and talked at him for about an hour about Illich. Luckily Charlie Leadbeater, who Paul had been working with on a pamphlet called the Pro-Am Revolution, had also just become very enthusiastic about Illich. So rather than just thinking that I was this hairy nutter from Sheffield he thought “This is interesting, I’m hearing about this from more than one direction.”

I don’t know if that is how Paul remembers it, but there was certainly a sense that a number of us were rediscovering these older ideas about the possibility and the desirability of meeting more of our needs outside of prescriptive institutions.

Now, I’d met Paul and the others with whom we’d go on to start School of Everything because we were editors for an email magazine called Pick Me Up. This was a weekly newsletter that came out every Friday afternoon and the idea was that it inspired you to do something more interesting than checking your email on a Friday afternoon.

One of the rules of the magazine was you couldn’t write a story about something that someone else had done, as in traditional journalistic fashion. In order to write a story you had to get involved in making something happen. Then you could tell the story of that in a way which — if it inspired other people — would encourage them to use what you had shared through the story to help them do something.

We stumbled into this idea that it was more fun to use the Internet to make stuff happen in the real world than to spend more and more of your life in front of a screen

It was a recipe for fun. That was what was great about Pick Me Up, because you could do it on the smallest scale or a big ridiculously over-the-top thing. For example, there was a great story which came from a guy who had been looking out of his bathroom window every day at this pile of rubbish on the other side of the street thinking, “When is somebody going to do something about that? Whose job is it?” And then one morning instead of thinking that he thought. “Well, what if I went and dealt with it?” He just told the story of all the stuff that happened and the things he found and the thoughts that he had in the process of dealing with the problem himself.

At the other extreme, a group of us went out to Sarajevo to help these five mad Danish girls steal a concert hall back from the local Mafia, with the help of several hundred young people. That was quite an adventure.

David Jennings (DJ): As an answer to my original question, this is beginning to take on a Lawrence Sterne quality — how does this relate to a website that connects learners and teachers?

DH: How it relates to it is that I think, in 2004, people were still thinking a lot about the Internet as something which virtualised more and more areas of our lives. So the way the Internet changed the world was that, instead of going to the shops, you shopped online. Instead of going to the bank, you banked online. Instead of having to pay and it take two weeks to get a letter to Australia, you could email someone and it could be there the next moment.

At the same time, we were messing around with this email magazine which was all about doing things in the real world. People would put in requests for help, and twenty people would turn up to moon Rolf Harris in Trafalgar Square — or whatever we were doing that week. We just stumbled into this idea that actually it was more fun to use the Internet to make stuff happen in the real world than to spend more and more of your life in front of a screen.

We could put into practice, on a grand scale, the kind of ideas that maybe sounded utopian when Illich was writing about learning webs in the early ’70s

So there was a convergence between, on the one hand Paul and me and the others being interested in these ideas from the 60s and 70s of deschooling society and the Free University at Stanford — all these experiments in self-organised learning that had flourished a generation earlier — and, on the other, with us being in the middle of this project that was using the Internet to make stuff happen in the real world. It was that mixture which School of Everything came out of.

We just thought, “Why can’t we use the same approach to the Internet that we are using with Pick Me Up — only, rather than it just being about us and our mates and few thousand people who read the email having fun, let’s use it to put those educational ideas into practice, on a grand scale? The kind of ideas that maybe sounded utopian when Illich was writing about learning webs in the early ’70s.”

At the centre of the School of Everything model, there is still a kind of teacher-and-learner couple — how are your ambitions reflected in that?

Dougald Hine: We started out with a motto for the site which was “Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach.” The traditional model creates an artificial scarcity of people who can teach us by only looking to professional teachers who have the skills to stand up in front of a class of people who don’t want to be there and keep them under control. Our alternative is to recognise the abundance of skills and knowledge and experience that is out there in every neighbourhood, in every workplace.

So the starting point for the site was how do you index the wealth of knowledge and experience that is around you. So the first thing we built were the profiles where you could list the things that you would be willing to teach or to share. Early on, we got stuck working out how to present that profile — that describing yourself in terms of what you could teach or share — without falling back into the teacher/learner model. The first answer we had to it was that everybody has both a teaching profile and a learning profile when you sign up to the site.

That gets you part of the way there. But there is definitely a space in the middle, which it was harder to structure, and I think maybe that is because it is something that happens quite naturally face-to-face informally if you get a group of people together. A much more fluid shifting of roles where, as Vinay Gupta says, “in a networked environment the person who knows what to do next is in charge”.

Our alternative to the artificial scarcity created by depending on professional teachers is to recognise the abundance of skills and knowledge and experience that is out there in every neighbourhood in every workplace

It’s not necessarily a question of being in charge, but you can have this fluidity where the person who has got the knowledge and the experience that is relevant to the place where the conversation has gone becomes the person who is giving most into it at that point. That influence moves backwards and forwards. I think that it’s a bit harder to replicate that online, at least in a profile-based system.

But I think the direction that we have got to now — and I am not as involved day-to-day with School of Everything any more — but the focus that Paul and Pete and the guys have got at the moment is actually on how School of Everything supports people to get together in groups. I think that might be one way to find that heart of really informal self-organised learning that was where it came from.

How does School of Everything connect to your other projects like Space Makers, Dark Mountain, and Collapsonomics?

Dougald Hine: One way that it connects is through what you could call “asset-based” approaches to the world. The starting point for this is Asset-Based Community Development, which offers an alternative to conventional community development, with its tendency to start by defining people in terms of their needs, their deprivation, their deficit. You can see these same patterns in regeneration, in international development, and equally in the marketing culture which starts by defining us as consumers, as a source of demand. Against that, asset-based approach says, “Let’s start the other way round, let’s start by looking what is already present in a situation, the skills the possibility, the resources, the experience and treating that as something which might be being undervalued or insufficiently acknowledged“. Actually there is already an abundance there.

I think that School of Everything was approaching education from that perspective. And it is not surprising because Asset-Based Community Development itself owes a lot to Illich if you look at the history of it.

So Space Makers, in the same way, is looking at unused or underused spaces and saying “How can we treat these as a space of possibility rather than a problem?” Also, in terms of how you make that happen, it’s saying there is no real scarcity of people who would like to use this space and who could do exciting, valuable things in it. So let’s just invite everybody who has got ideas to get involved and turn it into a platform that they can use. That is what we have been doing for the last nine months at Brixton Village with the empty shops and the indoor market there.

Dark Mountain I guess is zoomed out a bit further, because it turns the whole idea of “sustainability” around. It’s saying, “What if we stopped looking at the crisis that we are in in terms of how to sustain our current way of living?” Which is basically impossible and a depressing challenge. Instead, if we say we can’t go on like this, what are all the possibilities for how life can continue to be liveable and meaningful when we are no longer pretending that this way of living is going to outlive us?

I felt that what we were building with School of Everything would be more useful in a world which had been changed by global economic crisis

DJ: You’ve talked I think maybe here [in previous meetups] about the age of “peak student” [i.e. that we have reached the point where the expansion of Higher Education stops and goes into reverse] and there is this feeling that we are at a moment in history where we are surrounded by abundance. Dark Mountain is very much about managing that the decline from that. Which connects me to the place of technology and network infrastructure in the decline. You talked about part of the inspiration for School of Everything being that the Internet enables self-organising in all these interesting new ways. What happens when the grid shuts down? What is left? Do all of these new learning models just vaporise, along with the grid?

DH: On the first day that we sat down to work properly on School of Everything in September 2006, I remember saying two things. One was that I thought that by the time we had got this working there was every chance that there would be a major global economic crisis. And it is easy to be right about predicting the future if you only remember the predictions that come true. But I added that what we were building would be more and not less useful in a world which had been changed by that.

Because universities and schools and colleges are very expensive and inefficient ways to organise learning. And because, while I talk about living in a time of abundance, and in some sense that’s true — we have certainly got an abundance of waste! — actually, the culture and the times we are living in are characterised by artificial scarcity as well. While we may feel there is an abundance of knowledge and skills, that abundance is somehow not visible to mainstream policy making and the way learning happens in the education system.

DJ: That sounds almost as though you are switching from one institutional footing to another. As though there’s a shift from the publicly-funded, state-guided models of Higher Education and Further Education, over to a new model that runs on Google apps in the cloud and resources from iTunes U, and all of that stuff. It’s supported by advertising and other commercial revenue, but then these become the new learning institutions.

DH: I think it goes both ways. There is a project with Demos last year called The Edgeless University, which I was slightly involved with. I remember being in this session with senior Higher Education people for two hours and at the end of it I said to the guy from Demos who was running the project, “That felt like being in a room with a bunch of record company executives in 1999.” That quote ended up being their sound bite for the whole report. Next time they should pay me!

Not only can you get a better lecture from iTunes U, but you can also find a richer and more engaged environment in which to learn closely with others than you might find going to seminar

But seriously, the thing that struck me was that these senior figures were being quite complacent because they said, “All of you enthusiasts for technology in education you think that education is just this kind of transactional thing of pushing units of knowledge to learners. We know that actually education is a relational thing that people value the relationships they have with the people who are teaching them and with the institutions that they belong to.”

The complacency meant they were not seeing that you can get a richness of relationship through the scaling down side of what technology makes possible which was harder before. So that universities sit at a scale which might have been optimal to where the world was at 30 or 50 years ago, when the costs of organising, and finding other people were quite high.

As networks make those costs lower, not only is it true that you can get a better lecture from iTunes U than if you got out of bed in the morning and went to the lecture theatre (that is the scaling up side of it). But you can also find a richer and more engaged environment in which to learn closely with others and build relationship through coming to a meet up like this [our meeting in the Royal Festival Hall] than you might find going to seminar.

Maybe that is a slightly utopian account. But I think that there is a risk that institutions which only see the threat from technology as a scaling up to the global supply of high quality content, are missing the fact that there is also this scaling down to something that is more satisfying on a human scale than people’s experiences of universities as institutions tend to be.

To be continued

The second half of this discussion includes contributions from other participants in the meeting, and ranges more widely in its subject matter, but particularly around the collapsonomics theme. For a preview, see Dougald’s own blog post, which includes an audio edit of the discussion. And here’s another recent interview with Dougald.

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