In The Working Class: Poverty, education and alternative voices, Ian Gilbert unites educators from across the UK and further afield to call on all those working in schools to adopt a more enlightened and empathetic approach to supporting children in challenging circumstances.
“The narratives, variety of interactions and experiences in the book had great resonance with us, as our expertise is in providing opportunities for informal learning and engagement, as we work in the outdoors and around historic, built environments. The Working Class – Poverty, Education and Alternative Voices triggered debate and made us reconsider how we approach our work, and our personal motivations and perspectives.
We are not formal educators. Our role is to facilitate opportunities and interactions that offer exploration for growth and learning that ‘move, teach and inspire’, along the lines of those that are recurrent throughout the book.
Although we had not discussed these themes in any detail in the past, we both felt that the perspectives and case studies covered had a familiarity to those we encounter. There is an important caveat: our practice does not entirely mesh into each of the themes comfortably as, in our case, they have to apply more widely across a variety of social structures, sectors and groupings.
Overwhelmingly, our work takes place by way of open invitation and is not conditional upon membership, nor does it have any direct income targets attached to it. We engage with those who attend our outdoor learning and engagement events irrespective of any social factors, and we always include responsible adults known to the minors in or very close to our operations. Sometimes these events or ‘interventions’ are held on a repeat basis and in these cases, longer-term dynamics similar to formal educational settings may build up. These engagements are steered, rather than driven, by exploring how we can best deliver a National Trust experience, often in settings away from National Trust land. The connections between all who attend and us as providers, along with our delivery partners, tend to run supportively and almost silently alongside the activities. They are facilitated so far as is possible with minimum intervention to make sure engagement can take place, along with a watchful eye on safe and appropriate conduct.
Although we differ on those points from the book, we have continued to find it pertinent in its subject matter and acting as a good catalyst for our debates on development. Within it lies a confederative framework which we feel we can readily adapt and apply to our outdoor activities and work-streams.
The following is an explanation of our own practice approach, resulting from the open debate provoked by the book
The National Trust’s cause is caring for special places ‘for ever, for everyone’ and has strong parallels with the ‘Everyone is welcome’ ethos (Pg 441). We like to approach with an invitation to learn and explore through our attendees own sense of curiosity. We endeavour to do this through facilitating activities and interventions, both guided and self-led, rather than the more rigid connotations of an ‘expert will teach you’ approach.
We talk a lot about ‘nurturing the spark of curiosity’ by focussing on possibilities, rather than outcomes. Often, the outcomes cannot be defined in advance, so we work to a framework where we identify them by emotional responses. We seek, in effect, to reverse the word order so rather than us trying to dictate what a desired ‘outcome’ will be, we explore with the individuals how they have ‘come out’ of the experience. This frees us up to tailor our approach to the individual. The exploration of the individual’s ‘desired destination’ is identified through an evolving methodology of freedom and choice, rooted in Kinaesthetic learning techniques, which enable us to fulfil the individual’s needs. Here we can enable people to follow their own passions and provide the safe space for them to stimulate their own curiosities. This also supports their exploration in how to cope with mistakes, and we give them permission to fail by setting up and supporting their individual strategies to deal with that.
It might be best explained as using a ‘roadmap’ approach to a life-long journey, rather than one focussed on a specific destination or outcome. For us, an outcome is more of a linear learning experience where you are travelling along a set route from A to B, with little time for a diversion. We work out (with the individual) what destination would work for them, exploring which route they might take. We check in with them to identify any changes of direction they may want to make along the way. This leads people into making choices about their thinking. Our role is supporting the individual in overcoming barriers to learning and to finding alternative approaches via independent thinking and by way of individual growth through the permission to discover and take risks through a risk benefit analysis framework. The Process of Deep Human Engagement particularly resonated with us (as referenced by Dr Andrew Curran Pg378).
We have to recognise that there can be some financial and emotional barriers to accessing some sites, but our team is working hard to find ways in which people can find a clear sense of place and greater belonging. These themes resonate well with the threads which, we felt, run through Nina Jackson’s contributions. Having the latitude to help people to explore is often described as a luxury, but we believe it is far from a luxury and that the so-called latitude should be redefined as a vital component in reducing barriers to learning and discovery. Jane Hewitt talks about not wrapping people up in cotton wool and we agree.
Dave Harris’ explains in the book why he is not contributing to it, and states that ‘the system is broken’. What we sometimes experience is more akin to breaches in the system where we encounter people who have fallen through the gaps of the system. We invite them to explore their environment, rather than follow a prescriptive approach - for example, rather than list and identify creatures within any environment, they either observe or imagine natural behaviours and settings. They may not need to know, or indeed want to know, the names of each species in it, but make a more meaningful, personal connection with them. For us, it’s more about understanding where they fit within the ecosystem and recognising others’ needs and the environments in which they can flourish.
As you may be able to tell, this book has made us review what we do and how we do it. It has encouraged us to sense-check whether we are truly providing opportunities for all, and we are exploring whether we have unacknowledged prejudices from the accounts given in the book. To tackle this, we have been considering strategies which aim ultimately to eliminate or, in the interim, vastly reduce any negative impact of interactions.
Our recommendation would be that this book will attract teachers and practitioners who are already exploring the challenge of facilitating independent thinking and moving away from more dependent and prescriptive systems. Both of us have been exploring this outside of normal working structures. To make this more approachable for the time-constrained professional, we would suggest a synopses of themes in the book, which might lead to a staged approach to the bigger questions that the book prompts the reader to consider.
In generating debate, the approach of this book has a great validity. The challenge is how this can be more readily explored by all, including professionals and decision-makers, to make these reforming approaches as accessible and widely championed as possible.”
- Dennis Prosser, Environmental Engagement Practitioner and Sarah Barfoot, Community Involvement Manager, National Trust, Essex and Suffolk Countryside
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