Elaborating on Agile Learning

David Jennings, 2007

I resist requests to pin down Agile Learning with a tight definition. I see it as a family of approaches, and when you’ve seen a few of these approaches perhaps you start to detect the family resemblances, and spot more distant relatives. Sure, the approaches share some things in common. The main thing, I think, is that they offer a response to the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in now, characterised by enormous richness of learning resources and tools, combined with harsh austerity in financial (and thus human) resources. I also happen to think that a degree of self-organising by learners is a promising path to take.

But this is an open and open-ended endeavour. It will evolve in unpredictable ways, which is why I think ‘fixing’ it in manifesto-style language. Yet, at the end of my interview with David Gauntlett, David asked if he could turn the tables and ask me a few questions. I left the tape rolling (actually an MP3 recorder) and recorded the impromptu discussion that followed. I confess that, in transcribing the recording, I have taken considerable liberties in rephrasing and elaborating what I said!

David Gauntlett: So why Agile Learning?

David Jennings: First there’s a practical concern, that we’ve just gone through a period — starting with the dotcom boom but continuing only slightly abated since then — where a lot of money has been pumped into internet-based learning initiatives with Grand Designs. This has been based on growth projections, a few celebrated success stories like Google and Amazon, and large doses of faith and optimism. Although the small-pieces-loosely-joined ethos and Web 2.0 approaches have been with us for years, there’s still been a tendency — especially in an era of an interventionist public sector, which I know well — to Think Big and vastly overestimate the profile and mindshare that top-down initiatives can attain.

I admit I played my own small part in that approach. I enjoyed being part of the ambition and optimism of creating things like the first learndirect learning environment. And I was also well paid. But over the last decade, a lot of public money has been spent trying to emulate a few models that happened to be successful. We’ve seen a lot of web-based One Stop Shop solutions targeted at different groups, only to find that very few stopped off there, and virtually no one used these destinations as online homes and communities in the ways the “solution” creators had hoped. [Since the interview, there have been some pretty frightening revelations on this score.]

Now there’s clearly not going to be so much money sloshing around the system, and I think there’s more scepticism about top-down interventions. We need a shrewd critique of the value of investing in Virtual Learning Environments and other ‘artificial’ online spaces. Do walled gardens require extensive tending and constrain fertility, while in the commons outside the walls things bloom more quickly and abundantly, so that, with just a little prudence and judgment in harvesting, much high quality stuff is there for the taking?

So, secondly, and more conceptually, the agile approach is about looking at the emergent behaviours in the commons. The whole Internet is a learning environment, if you approach it and its other inhabitants in the right way. The learning behaviours you see there are adapted to a wide range of durations and intensities of exploration, starting with the simple web search. If we chart these flexible, agile, low-overhead behaviours and understand the contexts where each is most effective, we can start to map out learning experiences that are more bottom-up. And because they’re rooted in people’s intuitive approaches to using the net to find things out and solve problems — see information foraging theory — they’re more likely to “stick” and work with the grain of learners’ habits, rather than against the grain.

That’s where I think it connects to your approach of empowering people by starting them off with contexts and tasks where they’re familiar and confident — though I think people can also learn when they’re challenged and taken out of their comfort zone. I think giving people the power to play a part in organising their own learning — the goals, the methods, the degree and timing of collaboration with other learners — is also really important. When I started off writing about this area, I called it self-organised learning, rather than agile learning.

One thing I’m still thinking about is the areas where Agile Learning won’t work. I think most agile approaches depend on learners to be self-motivated, at least to some extent. So what are the prospects for agile approaches to things like compliance training or health and safety regulations? Possibly not much: these may remain the last bastions of factory learning. I used to think things like corporate induction wouldn’t be fertile ground, either, but the more I think about it, the more I believe there could be really interesting agile, project-based approaches to induction — certainly much better than just drilling in the Staff Handbook and Organisational Chart.

DG: You could say there’s literally no point in trying to teach the compliance stuff in the conventional way. Even though people might not want to learn it, they won’t remember it anyway if you teach it using conventional methods. So you might as well either not do it, or at least explore some more innovative approach.

DJ: But a lot of that stuff is accreditation-driven. Few people believe that learners will remember and absorb what’s drilled into them, but if there’s certification to prove that it was drilled into them, then they may be able to dodge liability for any subsequent non-compliance and cock-ups. The rationale is that managers have their arses covered if and when shit happens; it’s not about rewarding and successful learning experiences. More generally, beyond compliance training, it feels as though accreditation has become the tail that wags the dog. So schools turn out people who have jumped — or been cattle-prodded — through the National Curriculum and GCSE hoops. And if they can’t actually do anything useful after that, well, that’s not the schools’ fault because they can show they met the targets for accreditation that were set for them.

DG: I went to France straight after I’d done my French ‘O’ Level, and found I couldn’t remember any French. I found when I got back that I’d, quite surprisingly, got an A in the ‘O’ Level, but when I was in France I couldn’t really think of anything to say.

DJ: Conversely I went to Germany to a language school that didn’t do beginner’s classes, and my only preparation was three weeks with a Linguaphone course just before I went. (Happily I was housebound with bronchitis so couldn’t do anything else.) After a further four weeks at the school, I started a job there, and by then my everyday German was good enough to get by — though of course I still had to point to some things where I didn’t know the right word. By being thrown into the deep end, speaking and hearing only German every day, I found I picked up the grammar and word order really quite quickly. What I could say, I could say reasonably fluently. But this led to my undoing in the job, because people there thought my German was good enough to give me translation jobs to do. I was horribly slow, because my vocabulary — the area of language that has little “pattern” to it, and just requires steady accumulation — was limited to the everyday words required to make my way round the office and the city, and to buy food. I had to use a dictionary for all the words that fell outside those domains.

Do you have to turn up and empower people, or do they do it themselves?

I do believe that Agile Learning potentially changes the power relationships in learning. We’re used to contexts for learning where someone other than the learners themselves sets the agenda, whether its corporate management or the government in the case of defining a curriculum. They also specify, and manage, the environment and the methods. Why do those have to be predetermined in an age when we have access to such a massive range of tools and resources for learning that learners could determine them themselves? And in their everyday lives, even though they may not think of it as learning, people are using the Internet’s tools and resources to find out all sorts of stuff, and to build new knowledge and skills. Dick Moore said we need a shift towards making learning more content-centred, rather than teacher- or classroom-centred.

People can be empowered, if that’s the term we want to use, to choose and work with the content that they feel suits them. Of course, they won’t always be the best judges, and they may get help and advice from a teacher or other authority. I do recognise that some deference to authority is bound into teaching and learning, even though it may only be temporary and contingent (for example, “I respect your expertise, and follow your direction, in one area; but reatin my option to ignore advice in other areas or circumstances”). I’m not sure how robust this analogy is, but it might be more like consulting a doctor: you, not the health profession, decide when you’ve got something you want help or advice with, but you’re predisposed to take the advice and follow-up prescription seriously when you get it.

So it’s not a case of me or anyone saying, “Come to me, and I’ll show you how I can empower you;” it’s more like them coming to me saying, “This is what we’re trying to do, we feel we’ve got as far as we can on our own, and now we’d like some direction, or some problem solving help, to take the next step.”
It’s like working from the grassroots up, taking the emerging learning behaviours that we’re seeing online, and recognising that you’ll perhaps only get so far with those alone. With a little bit of well-placed and well-timed coaching, we can improve significantly on what people would pick up on their own.

The basic starting point is to give people Google — or in Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall cases, you don’t even direct learners to Google, you just give them a computer screen and they figure out the rest. That could be seen as defeatist perspective for educationalists, because it appears there is no role for them. If we need to reframe what teaching and enhancing learning is about, is there some way you could improve or accelerate the learning that groups of kids get from being left alone with a computer, or with Google? Intuitively we feel there must be. And that’s the space that Agile Learning needs to explore and chart.

To give a small-scale example, back in the early 2000s, when I was on the board of an independent cinema, I advocated the idea of extending our educational activities to include curated web resources about our specialist film seasons. This was in the days before you could use Web 2.0 services like del.icio.us to crowdsource such things. You can still see the pilot of this collection (though it must be suffering terribly from linkrot now). One of the arguments I had to counter — from the board members in Higher Education, surprisingly — was “Can’t our audience just Google if they want web resources?” Take the example of our season of Luchino Visconti films. The majority of the contemporary English audience probably isn’t familiar with the history of the reunification of Italy that took place in the 19th century, which forms an important backdrop to the plot of a couple of Visconti films. I reasoned that, left to their own devices, film fans would take a while to find this out (this was before Wikipedia was established, and Visconti’s entry then didn’t mention it), so flagging it to them in the curated links could accelerate their “natural” discovery and learning.

So the former educator becomes a sort of curator or facilitator who shows people how to use Google?

It’s multi-purpose and goes beyond that, including helping to select the right tools, identifying when creating a wiki might be most useful, say.

DG: But presumably “you might like to try…” and no more than that, because otherwise it becomes too much like a teacher telling them what to do?

DJ: Again, I’m not proclaiming a revolutionary end to all forms of traditional teaching and authority. It remains a matter of judgement, and often of on-the-spot improvisation, about when to exercise (or defer to) that authority. But there’s maybe an important shift in the framing and boundaries of that authority. The shift is similar to the way Ivan Illich wanted to see teachers and other professions tamed in some ways, to ensure that they would always bend to public interest, rather than perpetuating the interests of their profession. There’s also the barefoot doctor model.

At the Channel 4 Education conference a couple of weeks ago, Howard Jacobson gave a defence of old-school values in education. As well as rubbishing the argument that teaching had to “validate young people’s experience”, and arguing for the importance of pushing them beyond their comfort zone, he made one key assertion that I thought was worth tweeting: Authority is intrinsic to education, and the fact that authority is fallible doesn’t change this.

So this a challenge, and we need to be wary of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As learners, we all have unknown unknowns, in the Rumsfeldian sense — areas where we may need a teacher’s support, but we don’t yet know it.

DG: So the teacher should also be challenging — they should provide support for learning adventures, help them find tools and stuff, but also pose challenging questions?

DJ: Yes, but it’s how the authority is framed that maybe leads us into a different space. One way the switch comes is when the learners “contract in” the teaching, support and authoritative guidance they want, when they want it. As opposed to having it planned for them by a teacher or organisation. I think the new developments at School of Everything are really promising in this respect. As long as you just have a situation where individual learners find and hire individual teachers, then you have a market which is led by what the teachers offer, and only very slowly adapts to feedback from the demand side. So what’s on offer in the listings is mostly the generic, popular stuff: learn French, learn bass guitar, and so on.

But they’re about to introduce features to support groups of learners, and when learners are better able to self-organise, there’s scope for offerings to become more demand-led more quickly. Let’s say I don’t want just a generic French course, I want to learn French to be able to appreciate French culture — the literature and films and suchlike — in the original. This is a quite different emphasis from learning French for business or for going on holiday and enjoying the wine. On my own, I’m unlikely to be able to persuade a teacher to do the extra work to provide a specially-tailored course — unless I’m prepared to spend top dollar. But if I can find a group who share my interests, then, firstly, we have a good foundation for doing some peer learning and practising our skills together. Secondly, we’re well-placed to commission some bespoke support from a teacher.

The fact that we’ve contracted in the teacher doesn’t stop him or her from exercising authority where it’s needed. Think of therapists or counsellors who have a licence to challenge their clients, as part of their terms.

So could you adapt this model for schools?

DG: Perhaps the teacher could say, “We’re going to spend the next few weeks studying Macbeth, but we can do that in whatever way you want, and I will support, question and challenge you as we go.”

DJ: Schools come with a whole apparatus of power, much of which is hard to change. Arguably the bigger picture is that they’re there to keep kids off the street and drill them in the discipline and orderliness that will make them good workforce fodder.

DG: But schools will still be around for a long time — aren’t you bothered about how we can make them better?

DJ: Well, yes, but over the course of a generation or two, I think we’re going to see formal education institutions — from schools to higher education — become less central to our learning and development. Just as media audiences are fragmenting, with TV having a smaller attention share alongside many other channels, so the learning experience is becoming more diffuse, with those instutions perhaps still having a central or anchoring role, but a less dominant one.

I’m interested in opening up the space outside or around the periphery of institutional learning. When I first wrote about self-organised learning, I started with a story about my friends who home educate their children. So they’ve opted out of the institutional approach. There’s still parental authority, but they’re only a couple of middle class steps away from anarchism.

So one answer to your question would be, if you’re looking at the kind of prescriptions I’ve just been making, I’m not sure how well they could apply in schools.

But the other answer is that Agile Learning is broader than these prescriptions. It’s not one approach, it’s a bundle of loosely connected methods that work to differing degrees in different contexts. The only thing that ties them together is the intent of being low-cost, flexible and as learner-driven as possible. But there’s no manifesto, no tight definition, no trademark. It’s an open enquiry and an open enterprise.

DG: And presumably it’s not meant to be the solution to everything in the world?

DJ: No. And it’s a basket of techniques, which is why your stuff is interesting. I want to collect a bunch of more techniques, and try to understand how and where they work best. Every learning context has its own parameters. If school has parameters about attendance, time, space and power, then you work within those as best you can.

DG: So this basket of delights could still be taken to schools…?

DJ: I’m hoping we can build a community of practice over time, drawing on practitioners interested in alternatives to what you described as the factory model. There must be some that work! And yet there’s a risk at this moment with this [Conservative UK] administration that some back-to-basics entrenchment of factory learning could happen. [Since the interview, a friend alerted me that the Daily Telegraph is now receiving letters from Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells (literally) urging the government to return to the solid foundations of factory learning — yet much of the self-help ethos of Agile Learning could be embraced within the Tories’ Big Society rhetoric.]

If we can bring together a set of alternatives, then that very bringing together could make the alternatives look more “serious” than they would when seen as scattered and small-scale. So I’m really just doing a del.icio.us!

DG: I like the idea of the basket! Have you read Guy Claxton’s What’s the Point of School?. Some statistics in it are amazing, as when he went to a conference of head teachers, and he asked them to what extent they thought the learning processes in their schools were really good and really helping students learn good things well. And only something like 5% of heads think it’s working! You’d think head teachers ought to be quite conservative, and should have bought into the system, but they all think it’s not working. In a sense that’s good, because it means opportunities to change.

DJ: At the Channel 4 Education conference recently, Stephen Heppell was trying to see the positive, and he said at least we’re getting away from the kind of creeping managerial incrementalism that characterised the last government’s interventions in education.

DG: Have we got away from that, though?

DJ: Well the new government’s Free Schools initiative seems to have some scope. It will be interesting to see what happens if a Steiner School or other radical approach submits a proposal — or if (and I hadn’t realised this might be a possibility) established private schools apply for the financial support available under the scheme.

This is one of a series of posts about Agile Learning.

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One thought on “Elaborating on Agile Learning

  1. Thanks for the very interview. Having been involved in a large-scale public sector e-learning programme in the early 2000’s and on you’re spot on about the ability of the ‘centre’ to understand what is possible on what budget. The working practice we adopted was to work with the (mainly) digitally excluded on what interested them and then scaffold up, out and round from that – very often doing flipping between analogue and digital based tasks. A few of these became self-sustaining communities and are still around.
    Personally I’m all for a more agile, experiment based approach to learning (it’s what engages me) but i’m not convinced that authority would preclude an agile approach as you describe it.

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