Monday, 23 December 2013

Art Academy reading group: Encyclopaedia of Informal Education

For our most recent Art Academy reading group we had a look at a couple of texts from the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. An absolute treasure trove of shortish, Wikipedia-style articles, this online resource offers an accessible insight into important movements, concepts and ideas, alongside key thinkers, practitioners and figures, related to all aspects of alternative education past and present. One thing which is really good about the texts is that, while they are at the level of a summary, they offer reading lists at the end for anyone who wants to go away and explore further.

It was hard to know where to start, although 'The early development of group work' seemed like a sensible place, as it introduces the history of informal education in a British context, from nineteenth century ragged schools (a mass education movement, often charity-based, which took place in any space available in inner city areas, including railway arches) and boys' and girls' clubs (several former ragged schools and lads' club buildings still stand in Manchester, although most have been converted for other uses such as office space) to settlements (more to do with neighbourliness, and the educated middle classes going out and interacting with the poor).

This tied nicely into another text, which Maurice Carlin found particularly interesting and thought-provoking, around 'Friendship and education' and, while the former text offered useful context for the idea of the relationships which surround education, it was the second text which prompted more of a discussion. The text is concerned with the relationships which exist in educational exchanges between tutor and taught, and the resulting hierarchies and professional and personal boundaries. This led us to think about our own situation as an Art Academy, where there is no leader but each of us has different backgrounds and skills and we all learn from each other. We reflected on how our current set-up contrasts with our past experiences of education, particularly in the higher education context. In universities we thought there was far more of a teacher-student dynamic, and that it was more difficult to learn from our peers due to the inhibition which can arise in group contexts, when it is not always easy to express uncertainty or admit to feeling challenged by a text (reading groups are felt by some members of the Art Academy to be a challenge, but one that is useful in developing skills discussing texts; here the informal context is beneficial as we feel more comfortable expressing things we are not sure about than we would do in a university seminar situation, and it is generally agreed that developing our confidence in articulating ourselves is a key part of being in the Art Academy). It was suggested that a more fruitful model for higher education would be one in which there is more emphasis on lecturers as practitioners in their own right, which would help contribute to a more rounded relationship and view of lecturers that positions them not just as tutors but also as researchers with their own speciality (or, in the art school context, as practising artists).

Some interesting definitions of friendship, going back to Aristotle, are discussed in the 'Friendship and education' text, with three aspects of friendship highlighted: enjoyment of each other's company, being useful to one another and a common commitment to the good. One of these which at first seems strange is that friendships have a use value, but we suggested that an important element of friendship for us is trust – for example, knowing that you can rely on a friend to be completely honest with you when you ask them for an opinion on some work.

The 'Friendship and education' text also brings itself into the present day with a discussion of the increasing trend for education to be professionalised and for learners to become clients and customers – we noted that the large increase in university tuition fees in recent years has led to a heightened expectation that higher education degrees must have an easily measurable value, for instance leading to a clearly defined career path or a good salary. We felt that one of the key benefits of the Art Academy format of peer-led education, in contrast, is that we don't have any form of assessment or outcome to be worked towards; rather the value of the Art Academy experience is in the process, in doing things because there is a value just in doing them.

Some of the historical context outlined in the 'Friendship and education' text also led us to suggest some Art Academy activities for the coming year. One thing which was of interest was the nineteenth century notion of mutual improvement societies: instead of money being invested (as in friendly societies), these were based around education. We can conceptualise our group along similar lines to this: instead of money, members invest time, and their individual experience and expertise contributes towards a bank of knowledge which can be drawn on by the group when it is needed. Members of mutual improvement societies would sometimes deliver a paper on 'useful knowledge' – that is, anything of particular interest to them – before the subject was thrown open to discussion, enabling people who might not usually have chance to speak or argue to develop their verbal skills. We thought this was a fruitful way of sharing knowledge. Another similar activity it would be interesting to try out could involve a 'skill swap'.