David Gauntlett on “making is connecting” and the end of factory learning

David Gauntlett at the Royal Festival Hall

The second in the series of Agile Learning interviews is with David Gauntlett, Professor of Media and Communications at University of Westminster. I first came across David at the time of his inaugural lecture, which, unfortunately, I missed because of a last-minute issue with my son (then just a few months old). Happily, I’ve been able to get to know David over the last year through our participation on the School of Everything Unplugged meetups in London.

A second reason to be cheerful is that David makes his ideas very accessible. This he does in at least two ways. First, his website and YouTube channel provide lots of ways to get a feeling for what he’s about in 15 minutes or less. For example, here’s a quick overview of his “Make and Connect” agenda and here’s a slightly updated version of the lecture I missed.

David also makes his ideas accessible by expressing himself in very straightforward everyday terms, more or less jargon-free. This is a welcome and somewhat uncommon trait for an academic (especially one on the editorial board of a journal called Foucault Studies). But it’s very much of a piece with the agenda that David is advancing, one that puts a lot of store in giving people the means to influence and remake the worlds they live in through creative engagement with their environment and each other. This echoes one of the influences he cites: Ivan Illich, whose books like Disabling Professions and Tools for Conviviality look towards a gently radical empowerment of citizens.

As you can see in those slightly clumsy references, I’m not as deft as David at introducing complex ideas in an accessible way. Better to get him to do it in his own words. So I met David in the courtyard of the British Library on a sunny July morning, to explore how his agenda relates to learning, particularly of the “agile” variety. I sent David a set of prepared questions in advance, but then ended up adapting or replacing them in a fairly spontaneous discussion. What follows is far from a precise rendering of our chat, having been heavily edited by me and reviewed by David, but I hope it captures its essence.

Can you describe some of the themes you develop in “Making is Connecting”?

Well, the title gives the starting point. I mean “making is connecting” in three main ways:

  • First, making is connecting because you have to connect things together (materials and ideas) to make something new;
  • Second, making is connecting because acts of creativity usually involve, at some point, a social dimension and connect us with other people;
  • And making is connecting because through making things and sharing them in the world, we increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environments.

At first I thought it would be like a description of changes that are happening, but now it’s more of a prescription as well. Creative opportunities: people turning off their televisions and doing something more interesting instead.

David Jennings (DJ): So how does that improve people’s lives as citizens and learners?

David Gauntlett (DG): Sitting back and consuming media for entertainment or information is fine, but one of the things we know about learning is that you learn through doing things, and being active — putting information together in new ways yourself, rather than just receiving it. If you’re actually going to engage with something, then a creative process of thinking and making will not only help you learn about that thing, but also help you create new ideas about that thing.

DJ: You refer in one of your lecture videos to “factory learning” — what do you mean by that, and are you advocating a kind of reversion to a cottage industry approach?

DG: Factory learning refers to a mechanical system where facts are pumped into people, and then they’re assessed to make sure it’s stuck. But the alternative isn’t just to revert to a kind of cottage industry throwback. That’s not the choice. The choice is between, on the one hand, a stupid system where people are asked to memorise facts and then are either rewarded or punished according to whether they’ve done this successfully. Or, on the other hand, you could have a different way of learning, which could still be done on a big scale, and could be organised on a similar basis to schools if necessary, but is based around more creative activities. Those activities being anything where people get to grips with knowledge by asking questions, being encouraged to be curious and making their responses or their own solutions instead of just being given a set of facts.

You use Lego a lot, and refer to it as a “tool for thinking” — why?

Building on the principles of Lego Serious Play, which I’ve worked on with Lego for a few years, Lego now have something called Lego Serious Play for Education which is being used in classrooms in Denmark and the US. It’s basically encouraging people to think about questions and problems, and then to build responses in Lego (though it could be any creative material) and then discuss and talk and share. The point of doing that is, firstly, that everyone gets to put their ideas on the table — instead of just a few people dominating the discussion — because probably they all have some things that they could use in a collaboration later on. So getting everyone to build and share means that everyone gets to express some of their thoughts or feelings, and share them, and then you can go round again and explore different aspects of the problem. Then you can get everyone to collaborate by putting the things they’ve built into one shared model through a process of negotiation. All of that gets your brain firing on all cylinders while you’re doing it, instead of a more conservative model where you just absorb what a teacher tells you or what a book tells you.

DJ: So what makes Lego a good tool?

Lego is already familiar to many people, so they don’t have to overcome additional learning hurdles to produce something that’s satisfactory. It’s better than a more freeform material like plasticine or paint, because some people can produce things that look “really good” in those media, and leave everyone else going “wow!”, but others find this very difficult. Whereas, with Lego, almost everyone can produce something that they feel is satisfactory, and that expresses some of their ideas.

If you’re going to represent things metaphorically, which is what I do and Lego Serious Play does, then the nature of the shapes and pieces means that they can be used both to represent things very simply — like picking up the Duplo elephant as a metaphor for trust, say — and also in a slightly more abstract way — so a red square can be love, or whatever. I think it lends itself to having metaphors applied to it.

I do think that putting things together with your hands is a different kind of process that gets the brain firing in a different way than solely “brainwork” activities do. I’d like to be persuaded that doing things on computers could be just as good, but I don’t think I am, because the physical thing you’re doing with your body at a computer, with just the keyboard and a mouse, doesn’t get you so engaged, I don’t think. You could make use of different interfaces, but I don’t know to what extent that’s been done. There’s the Wii…?

DJ: Yes, the Wii is one example. If you look at music technology, there’s been a process whereby musical instruments and effects were first emulated in software only, so you had to use a keyboard and a mouse with them, rather than the more physical interaction that the original instrument required. But now you’re starting to see the emergence of new hardware input devices that reintroduce a more embodied physicality to the playing and interaction.

But what about people who, though habit or competence or confidence, are less likely to be creative and collaborative?

DG: With the Lego, I’ve not found that. There needs to be a personal connection, so that people feel they’ve got something to say. But if you take them through a process where they start to build some things, then you can move on to more challenging things, and people do take part and find it interesting.

In what way is sharing important to your prescription?

It’s hard to separate out the importance of sharing because it’s all part of one process. Obviously you can be creative on your own, locked away in a room writing a novel or a symphony, but I think basically creativity is a social process where much of the value or reward that we get from doing it comes from sharing and getting feedback, and being inspired by other people. So I think at its heart it’s a social process. That’s why you need sharing, otherwise you’re losing something. Even creative people who work alone ultimately want to share their work — so sharing is part of creativity.

DJ: My slight anxiety in these situations is that someone is setting up a frame for the creative activity, and marking its boundaries — in these situations my instinct is often to challenge the boundaries or subvert the framing. When I did a Lego exercise with you last year, I was “awkward” and left my Lego bricks unconnected to each other as a symbol of “unlimited but unrealised potential” or something equally contrary [and slightly clever-dick smug].

DG: I remember that — it was fine! ButI think it would be annoying, or even sinister, if you were set some exercise where people don’t declare what they really want you to do, but hope you’ll do it nevertheless. So it does need to be genuine and open. And it’s true that you need to submit to the process a bit. I did have one group where someone just wanted to moan about the subject matter, rather than building a response to it. In cases like that I encourage them just to go along with the process and build something and see what comes, on the basis that you will arrive at something interesting. I do believe that, and, yes, if people just want to be awkward, well that’s a challenge.

DJ: Isn’t there a kind of philosophical limit on how we can use language and media instrumentally? As well as using language to point to, and describe, things and feelings, there’s also a sense in which language is the shared sea we’re all swimming in, and this stops us from getting ‘outside’ it to use it as a tool?

DG: I don’t know if this is directly a response to that but that’s why I think the process of making something, and reflecting on the thing you’ve made, and building something physical before you have to put things into language, is really helpful. And I’m not just saying that because that’s how Lego Serious Play works. Lots of the research I’ve done has been based around giving people a creative task to do — to make something without putting it into language, before they arrive at a point where, somewhere down the line, it feels more reasonable to expect them to express themselves in words with the benefit of the making-and-reflecting process. If, for each of your questions, I was able to fiddle around for 20 minutes with scissors and sellotape and glue, before announcing what my thoughts might be, I might be more coherent and concise. In that sense it connects with things like the Slow Movement.

DJ: There’s a sense in your work — when you refer to William Morris, for example, or cite Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman — of rolling back the industrialisation and mass media models of the last 150 years. I haven’t read The Craftsman, though — only this fascinating review of it — so why is that book important to you?

DG: What I think Richard Sennett’s book boils down to — amid lots of interesting examples — is an attempt to prove that thinking and making are part of the same process. It’s not that you have thoughts and make plans, and then you make something, but the process of making things is also a deeply intellectual process.

In terms of “rolling back 150 years”, it’s not really about that, but maybe it is about re-connecting with the kind of everyday creativity which may have flourished more in the past, and which doesn’t flourish in a consumerist, TV-watching society. Today we have tools to share the fruits of that creativity, easily and widely, which they didn’t have before, so that’s bound to help.

DJ: This discussion reminds me of other strands that try and get away from that model of human behaviour being a kind of logical computational flow from abstract plans through to concrete actions. I’m thinking of Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated Action, which criticised the models underlying Artificial Intellegence, where there’s a tendency to see human behaviour as an implementation of a program. It also links to what Dick Moore was saying about the move away from waterfall models of software design to more agile methods that allow for rapid iteration and a degree of improvisation. So it’s not all top-down.

You mention the Transition Towns movement as an example of Making is Connecting — could you explain why?

Transition Towns are an opportunity for people to come together and make something new — make their town anew — which creates social connections through shared concerns. It also means that people are actively taking an interest in the way their town does business and transport and services. So it’s about having that active connection with your environment.

As I explained to David, the process I’ve embarked on, of talking to different people around the theme of agility in learning, is part of my process of making and connecting. In an unplanned twist, David then followed up on this by turning the tables, and starting to interview me. I’ll post a version of that discussion in a day or two.

Thanks to David for his time and support.

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