Fred Garnett on how to create new contexts for your own learning

Fred Garnett with Paul (or John, or George, or is it Ringo?)

I kept coming across Fred Garnett’s name so often in my favourite online spaces that I began to believe we must have met some time ago, and I’d just forgotten it. As it turned out, when I introduced myself in June, Fred couldn’t remember us having met either [Update: Seb Schmoller has reminded me that Fred and I were both participants in the email group for the Network Users’ Forum a decade ago!]. Yet, as soon as we started chatting, we came across more and more areas where our interests coincided, from learners bootstrapping their own learning to innovations in the use of recording studios. In fact, Fred has explored where these two fields intersect — but more of that in a moment.

Following a range of teaching posts, from US universities to UK Further Education and Head of Community Programmes at Becta, Fred is now affiliated with the London Knowledge Lab. He’s active in the informal Learner-Generated Contexts group. He’s interested in how learners deal constructively with the unknown and how they reframe problems in an unpredictable world.

In some ways, Fred’s work represents a more involved conceptual discourse around the themes in my interviews with and by David Gauntlett. So this interview will appeal if you want to dig deeper in those areas. Partly as a consequence of this, it is more dense in terms of terminology and concepts from educational theory. Hence a slightly longer preamble before we get to the interview proper.

What drew me to Fred’s work was the focus on how learners can create the conditions to manage their own learning. This develops some of the themes in my interview by David Gauntlett, particularly around authority and power in learning. The challenge it represents to teacher-led learning is anathema in some quarters.

Traditional pedagogy has the teacher deciding what the learner needs to know, and how the knowledge and skills should be taught. Fred has introduced me to two new terms to describe alternatives to this. The first is “andragogy”, a shift from taught to self-directed education, typical of adult and community learning contexts, where learners are involved in planning their learning activities, facilitated by teachers and centred on experiences and problem-solving.

The second is a further development of learner “independence” — heutagogy. This describes circumstances where people have enough confidence and mastery of their own learning that they can re-frame problems. Fred suggests that heutagogy can be seen as “the ability to play with form and create new ones”. Learners generate their own contexts to help them understand complex situations, and learning comes close to improvisation as a means of dealing with these situations. Thus Fred is interested in “how you deal with the unknown constructively” and in designing what he calls “architectures of participation” in learning.

As a concrete frame to hang these ideas on, have a look at Fred’s application of them to The Beatles’ career. In their early years, they needed to be taught the craft of studio recording, in their case by the avuncular producer, George Martin. This was their pedagogic phase, which Fred says peaked around Hard Day’s Night. In their middle andragogic period, at the time of 1965’s Rubber Soul, Martin made a tactical withdrawal, becoming more facilitator than teacher. This shifted to heutagogy as The Beatles mastered the disciplines and techniques of recording to the extent where they could “play the studio” as though it were an instrument itself. During a year of experimentation they made records, from Strawberry Fields Forever to I am the Walrus, that used studio artifice in radical ways that cut it free from its traditional function of documenting musical performances similar to those you might hear in concert.

After meeting Fred for lunch in a bar, I emailed him some questions. What follows is his answers to those questions, with some elaboration or exploration where necessary.

Can you explain what “Architecture of Participation” means and why it’s important and valuable now?

Backtrack to our starting point. Learner Generated Contexts (LGCs) are about the co-creation of learning in a post-Web-2.0 landscape. Architecture of Participation (AoP) comes from O’Reilly’s principles which includes web as a platform (see also our original Policy Forest on this) and we have looked to use those principles in institutional redesign, such as E-Maturity Framework for Further Education (EMFFE, see below).

If an LGC is “a coincidence of motivations leading to agile configurations” (learner self-organisation in changing contexts) then institutions need to be capable of adapting to post web 2.0 multi-context learning; hence AoP. An Architecture of Participation is about enabling “adaptive institutions” to work across collaborative networks. Most institutions will do this on short-term projects but because of how we fund and track learners don’t go on to become fully adaptive.

The model is based on practice, and I have commented to JISC [a UK Higher Education funding and support network] that their Transforming Curriculum Design and Curriculum Development through Technology projects are not transformative because they miss this adaptive dimension. The tools and processes to support this adaptive process are relatively newly available (such as webactions at Eccles College), but the fixed mindset of institutional IT Service departments in the education sector has yet to embrace them.

Can you give some examples of challenging the relationship between consumption and creation in formal learning?

You have picked up on an early statement from our first meeting, when we sought to define Learner Generated Contexts. This is aspirational, a challenge to us, which we subsequently answered with the Open Context Model of Learning and with Architecture of Participation. There are many practical examples on small scale often where teachers factor in new tech tools and collaboration and treat learning as a holistic process. This is also very much about looking at Heutagogy, best described in the first 200 pages of Re-make/Re-model by Michael Bracewell.

You described some of your own teaching practice as “brokering learning” — can you describe this, and what made it different from traditional practice?

I felt that my value as a teacher to my students was that I understood what the education system would accredit as learning whereas they wanted to do stuff they were interested in. Brokering is about taking learner’s interests and mapping them to formal learning outcomes, it helps if;

  1. I was happy to write the curriculum and get it approved because that is how I started teaching in the US: you write the syllabus of every course you teach.
  2. I had to deliver a syllabus, whether I wrote it or not. I always said year one you deliver as is, year two you correct the errors, year three you can deconstruct and rebuild for learning.
  3. Brokering is using your knowledge of the educational system to negotiate with learners about what they want to do, a form of andragogy. Brokering is the craft skill of teaching, and takes time to develop.
  4. The key aspect in making brokering work are the assessments, and what is assessed. If you can let the learner select syllabus areas that interest them, or negotiate the form or the timing of exams, you can motivate them a lot.
  5. It requires teachers, or lecturers, to be confident enough to move from simple subject delivery to negotiation and brokering, instead of hiding behind knowledge or learning materials.
  6. Finally, learners come to understand the education process and how learning is assessed. They become capable of seeing how their work will be marked and can develop their own assessment criteria with support.

To what extent do all learners have the enterprise and know-how to generate their own contexts?

Well they absolutely do not in the current system which is a self-fulfilling prophecy that we need high-stakes assessment to prove that learning has occurred. It isn’t possible to allow learners to generate their own contexts without pedagogic, institutional and assessment redesign. The current system requires learners to adapt to pedagogically-driven high-stakes assessment as it has the power to allocate the rewards to that model and middle-class parents are happy to bribe their kids to succeed in that model, however it is constituted.

The current power structures for in loco parentis education are loaded against learner enterprise. Post-compulsory education does have greater freedom in this regard. Look at the Community Development Model of Learning (PowerPoint file) and the Interactive Silwood Centre.

What are the strategies for self-assessment and how can they gain credibility and be trusted for accreditation purposes?

Assuming you’re referring to institutional self-assessment, they exist in a number of contexts. We developed an E-maturity Framework for development of Further Education Colleges with fifteen Advisory Colleges who loved its developmental, rather than benchmarking, qualities — this is the EMFFE. In the EMFFE and the AoP we use Quality Improvement Indicators (developed by the institution) and Inspection processes and design them into the everyday MIS processes used by teachers, as offered by the webactions tool at Eccles College.

In this process staff record activities which create dynamic DSS systems which are also inspection reports and the basis of future planning reviews; they are designed in. It gains credibility by matching to Inspection requirements in real time not retrospectively or through a whole institution effort to find records to present to Inspectors. My AoP co-author Nigel Ecclesfield is a qualified ALI (Adult Learning Inspectorate) and OFSTED inspector and and we used his knowledge of Inspection and Quality Improvement processes to design that dimension into everyday record-keeping; something that a well designed MIS captures easily enough.

Meanwhile, if your question is about learner self-assessment, I’d refer back to the sixth point on “brokering learning” (above), as, in this process, learners come to understand the curriculum, assessment criteria and how to evaluate their own learning on a much clearer basis.

How new is this idea — haven’t learners been generating their own contexts forever? And, if so, what’s new now?

LGCs are a “because of” ((described well as being facilitated by mobile phones in Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs), not a “despite” process, like our education system. Our concern is to work with the grain of user/learner behaviours and to identify pedagogic, institutional and assessment processes which better reflect the social quality of learning.

We have two underpinning principles. Everyone wants to learn, which is not the basis of our designed-to-fail education system. Secondly the affordances of post-Web-2.0 tools enable participatory learning processes to be supported by technology. So the opportunity to support LGCs is what is new. If you look at Plato’s original Academy, you can see he did not set up the same Academic model that we think of. The Academia was the building where, say, Socrates sat and debated subjects, a nearby Orchard (later cut down by the Romans for materials) allowed learner discussions and a Gymnasium provided physical exercise. Arguably learning was seen as instruction, conversation and activity in formal, informal and non-formal contexts, but we only retain the formal part, call it Academic and ascribe it to Plato to validate it. So even our notion of “Academic” is misunderstood and used spuriously to support a false position of power in formal education, whereas LGCs were designed as complementary processes into the original model. See this brief overview of how the Academia came into being.

So yes, in a way, LGCs have always been around, we just keep ignoring them and their value as being the essence of learning.

Fred recommends this short video about a Learner-Generated Contexts event on learning and space. Tom Hamilton, Rose Luckin and Drew Whitworth, who appear in the video, are LGCers (Ian Cunningham isn’t, though the LGC team did a project for him). The video platform, YooDoo, was built by Jon Akass and Alan Barclay of mediacitizens who are LGCers, and the film was made by two 15-year-olds from Peckham.

Final note: Fred and I are both fellows of the Royal Society of Arts. We’ve recently created a fellows’ group for self-organised Learning group — yet to take off, but if you’re involved with the RSA, please join us.

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