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Educational Spaces of Alterity

Educational Spaces of Alterity was a one day workshop which took place on April 26th 2011. A number of delegates involved in various aspects of formal and/or informal education attended and presented and we’re in the process of adding reflections on the day to the site.

Details of presentations in progress.

Opening session: Re-imagining the University and the exchange of knowledge

Presentations and joint workshop.

At the suggestion of Gary Anderson of the Free University of Liverpool, we started the day with a joint, collaborative, interactive session, which explored firstly, three experiments which are challenging and repoliticising contemporary concepts of how knowledge can be produced and exchanged.  One (Lincoln) is institutionalized and connects all of its practice to theory; one (Liverpool) is seeking to become so, but is still in a moment of spontaneity and becoming, and has clear links to activism; a third (Enso) explores the potential of a temporary project space to disrupt barriers between knowledge ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ in the world of art.   The fourth presentation placed these activities into a context of historical process, a theoretical and practical tradition, which, if connected, opens up new questions about how we can start to re-imagine University spaces as spaces of collaboration which include our communities, and directly address their concerns, and ours.  The content of the presentations is briefly summarised below.

Mike Neary & Joss Wynn, University of Lincoln “The Social Science Centre, Lincoln”

Mike and Joss described their vision of the Social Science Centre at Lincoln as a means of bringing critical theory to life, while responding to a crisis of meaning and purpose in Higher Education.  Influenced by the writings of John Holloway, and a critique of the Italian autonomous Marxism of Hardt and Negri, the Centre is in the process of being created in a way which fuses theory and practice.  Membership of the Centre currently stands at about twenty academics and twenty students, plus associate members, who can be drawn from the wider community of theoretical  scholars.  A formally constituted worker-student not-for-profit co-operative, with physical premises in Mount Lane, the Centre asks members to pay what they can afford, typically one hour of a person’s income for one month.  Decisions, including those on the development of the curriculum, are reached through non-hierarchical consensus.  Students develop a record of achievement which is academically recognised, and graduation is negotiated.  Mike and Joss highlighted the fact that the process of re-inventing higher education is not a 21st century phenomenon.  It is part of a living critical tradition with roots in the development of alternatives in the 19th century, and later institutionalisations such as the Workers Educational Association.

Further information at:

Gary Anderson, The Free University of Liverpool “The Free University of Liverpool as a possible model for others.”

Gary described the Free University of Liverpool as rooted in a similar response of anger, provoked by the crisis of funding and access in higher education, and the conviction that to be silent indicates consent.  Primarily the work of three staff from Liverpool Hope University, Gary described the purpose and methods of the Free University as developing spontaneously along the lines of ‘meaningful mischief,’ inspired by the Freirean concept of dissolving boundaries between ‘experts’ and students.   A Foundation course will be offered from October 2011, and a BA programme from the following year, for which there will be no charge to students.  The Free University is currently looking for premises to purchase, in order to have a geographical base within which to develop a productive relationship between learning and the space in which it takes place.  It was, however, suggested that commercial and geographical space could not be an obstacle, and learning might have to take place ‘under a tree, even if it’s raining.’  As with the Social Science Centre, Gary placed the Free University within a living critical tradition, specifically noting the establishment in 1908 of a Modern School in Liverpool by Nellie Dick, inspired by the work of a Barcelona radical, Francisco Ferrer, a place where activists, anarchists and educators could meet to develop alternative approaches to education and politics.

Further information at:

See also for a video on the work of the Modern School.

Andrea Fitzpatrick “Enso (collaborative artist initiative) and the Co-Lab project.”

Andrea developed the theme of finding temporary or borrowed spaces in which to challenge the barriers between creators and consumers of knowledge, and create new forms of collaboration.   Enso and Co-Lab, however, specifically addressed the creation of art, and sought to challenge the often idealized values of individualization, autonomy, ‘genius’, artist as privileged educators.  In the art world, institutions themselves can come to overshadow their own work, becoming spectacle, and absorbing the cultural capital they create.   However, spectacle is passive, the opposite of knowing, and acting.  Instead, using the concept of the ‘White Cube’, Enso have sought to encourage spontaneous collaboration and audience participation.  Andrea described the creative possibilities of encouraging participants to surrender normal modes of operation and control, and to focus on process, rather than object.  However, at the end of the project, it was notable that most artist participants in the project returned to solitary forms of working.  ‘Projects’, it was noted, almost always focus on outcomes.  However, the Co-Lab project’s key benefit was the opening up of a temporary space which allowed new forms of collaboration to develop and be enacted.

Dr Gillian Whitely, School of Arts, Loughborough “Is there no alternative? Re-imagining the university”

Gillian rounded up the opening presentations brilliantly and appropriately with a genealogy of these moments of re-invention, the development of networks of spontaneous free Universities, underpinned by the ideas of Alexander Trocchi and Italian autonomous Marxism.  She noted the irony and urgency of undertaking this at a time when the ‘Free School’ concept has re-emerged, but as a neoliberal paradigm, and post-Fordist forms of subjectivity are hegemonic.   Trocchi was a Scottish Situationist who reconceived the University as laboratory, a ‘dream machine’, with the educator as ‘sceptical barbarian.’  In the 21st century, by contrast, ‘excellence’ has replaced culture; Universities have become factories of knowledge, means of mass production.    Gillian presented the case that the need for change goes beyond demanding reforms and widening access.    She referenced the work of the Edufactory collective, which calls for autonomous Universities of ‘the commons’ to be instituted.  We were challenged to ask where a new formation of insurgent intellectuals could come from – inside?  Outside?  In the cracks, as Holloway has suggested?  Gillian argued for rejecting inside/outside distinctions as a fallacy, and explored the possibilities of the internet, and/or situationist tactics of disruption  and detournement, opening up Trocchi’s ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds’, an ‘anarchy in the ruins’.

Selective works referenced:

Readings, Bill.  University in Ruins.

Ward, Colin.  Street Work: the exploding school

Edufactory collective:

In an attempt to start transforming theory into action, Gillian then encouraged us to engage, in groups, in some ‘wild utopian thinking.’  This was focussed loosely on three themes:

1) The precariousness of employment: spontaneous, open or free Universities are often where people who have lost other employment, teach.  How then can these groupings start to generate their own resources which can provide people with a living?  Who do we demand funds from – the state?  Do we seek to inhabit derelict abandoned property?  Can we attempt to reverse the role the University plays in the depoliticization of life and the places where it is lived?

2) Space: can we look beyond institutions and buildings to create inclusive networks which reconstruct relationships between the academy and the community?  Can we seek validation of academic work from the community without sliding into colonialism and undermining the legitimacy of indigenous forms of knowledge?

3) Deschooling: we have undergone a separation of learning from daily life.  Can we rethink a University as a form of society, rather than an institution – the highest form of who we are and what we know?  Can we reclaim the idea of a University as a radical, rather than a liberal, political project?  Can it be reconceived as part of a ‘knowing society’ rather than a ‘knowledge economy’, made accessible to the whole community, enjoyable, led by people’s concerns?  Can we break down silos and reforge connections between popular community education, and higher education?

The discussion which followed allowed us to explore all of these issues and challenges in our own contexts, and to start to build the network of connections we will need to forge new relationships between University and community, between colleagues, and between teachers and students, which turn criticaltheory into lived practice.


Two-part workshop: Popular Education and social movements strand

Naomi Millner, Bristol University  “An anti-representational politics: spaces of learning in social movements.”

In her workshop, Naomi encouraged us to consider the issue of who is given the legitimate right to speak for the subaltern in traditional representational politics.  Student occupations across the country have been delegitimized by the claim ‘You don’t represent the student body.’  This raises important reflexive questions for academic-activists – is radical intervention about the interventions of a privileged few?  Or can we use Freirean ideas to investigate new ways of articulating knowledge, or the feminist approach of bell hooks? Both of these seek to transcend essentialist ideas about who is ‘really’ the subaltern, and raise questions of how the powerless can ever gain power, because as soon as they start to speak, they lose their subaltern status.  Instead of the Gramscian or Althusserian concept of ideas originating with powerful actors at the top, and filtering down, Naomi encouraged us to consider ideas and ethics, our concepts of who we should be, as originating from activism.  However, this requires the creation of new geographies of exchange which disrupt the state-facilitated cycles of consumer capitalism, which reproduce geographies of inequality.   How then can we redraw these geographies?  How can the objects of activism become subjects?  How can we disturb the very idea not just of representation, but of what is being represented?  Can we learn something from the slogan of the migrant No Borders activist group, “we are all migrants”?

Ranciere’s anarchist pedagogy of The Ignorant Schoolmaster was offered by Naomi as a possible way of disrupting these insider/outsider relationships.  Ranciere sought to answer the question – how can these students learn on their own?  He concluded that it required them to abandon the traditional institutions and relationships of education, and to engage with the point at which we begin to censor ourselves, to conform to the requirements of traditional pedagogy.

Naomi argued that this does not have to take place only in a spontaneous moment of emancipation, but can over time develop a base for continuity.  The pressures of co-optation, however, are ever-present.  As soon as a group constitutes itself, even as a workers’ co-op, particular norms for seeking funding start to apply.  The desire for employment and economic integration dominates demands from migrant and excluded, subaltern groups.  Alternatives to individualistic or survival thinking are often not considered.  Naomi therefore raised the issue of how Ranciere’s radical unsettling could be developed into a sustained network of creative resistance, rather than simply a re-integration into a fragmented world.  The questions we were left with, for further discussion, were:

  • Can we imagine a role for popular education in the process both of disruption and the construction of alternatives?
  • What tactics do we need to think about to problematise privilege in that process?
  • How can that emergent process resist co-optation?

Further reading (selected):

Biesta, G. (2010) “A new logic of emancipation: The methodology of Jacques Ranciere”, Educational Theory, 60/1:39-59.

Lewis, T. E. (2010) “Paulo Freire’s last laugh: rethinking critical pedagogy’s funny bone through Jacques Ranciere”, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 42/5-6: 635-648.

Ranciere, J. (1991/1987) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation.  Stanford: Stanford UP.

Eurig Scandrett, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. “Tackling environmental injustice: popular education, direct action and the arts.”

This workshop, developed by Eurig and two colleagues, had formerly been run at the World Education Forum in Palestine, and picked up the Naomi’s theme of the disruption of insider and outsider roles, the University, the popular educator, and the subaltern activist.   Eurig cited the activist group Survivors of Bhophal as an example of a group of largely non-literate women taking on a US multinational corporation.  The vast majority of the victims of environmental injustice are poor and illiterate, whereas the vast majority of climate activists are middle class, and educated.  Eurig’s inclusion of art in this scenario is to explore the function of the artist to problematize the world to the world, to start to explore how these divisions and fragmentations have developed.

The workshop took the form of a scripted dialogue, read by members of the group,based on a scenario of a village discovering their watercourse is polluted.  The villagers are dominated by the question – can we drink the water, or not?  The activists ask – do we smash the chemical factory which caused the pollution?  The popular educator asks, do we take time to identify how this problem has been allowed to emerge, the existing power relationships, what we want to change, how we want to change it, what resources we have to make that change, and what resources we need?  The artist asks – is there a way of rethinking our different perspectives so we can identify a common project, a different way of thinking about our roles in the world, and what we can achieve?  My involvement in this workshop was cut short by the need to organise lunch!  However, the discussion which followed allowed us, in role, to explore how to capitalise on a moment which brings people together and forces them into activism, how the networked contacts which already exist within any community can be brought together to create new alliances which challenge the apparent divisions between workers, villagers, activists, professionals, educators, and creative artists and thinkers.


Alice Cutler (Trapese Collective), Dermot Bryers, Tish Taylor, and Becky Winstanley (Actionaid)

“Reflect: an innovative approach to language and literacy based on Freirean methods.”

This workshop explored the way that Reflect has been adapted to ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in the UK and is fusing an effective language acquisition model with campaigning and action.

Alice Cutler spoke first of the way that ESOL has increasingly come to be framed by concepts of employability and integration which meet the needs of a neoliberal agenda – individualised working subjects who are docile and depoliticized – and which does not reflect the often traumatic and humiliating experiences of exclusion, surveillance and control which many migrants have lived through.  Instead, the Reflect approach starts with the experience of the subjects, looking collectively for patterns which break down their isolation, allows them to add new theory and information, practice skills while at the same time strategizing for future action, and then to implement it in the world.  This also challenges most mainstream models of ‘reflective learning’ which tend to be introspective, circular, individualized, and rarely lead to making connections with the political world which is only notionally outside the classroom.

Tish Taylor then outlined the Freirean background to the Reflect model, and its history of use by other development agencies.  It is based on the principles of deep respect and even love for our students, as outlined by Freire.  All learning starts from exploring power relationships both in and out of school.  In the case of migrants this involves challenging the language and discourse of derision to which they have been, and are being, subjected.  This is typified by David Cameron’s recent speech in which migrants were derided for ‘not wanting to learn English’, ‘not wanting to integrate’, a threat to national security.  This discourse can be and has been successfully challenged, and Tish cited the example of Kalayaan: Justice for Migrant Domestic Workers, an action group made up largely of South East Asian women who are using the development of English language skills to take on gender-based and racial discrimination and exploitative employment practices in their sector.

Becky Winstanley then developed the theme of how Reflect works in the classroom.  It is a critique of, and an answer to, the micro-technique approach which tends to silence learners by seeking to tightly control what is learned, based around ‘target language’, while simultaneously hand-wringing over how people can be encouraged to speak.  The Reflect process starts instead with a visual reflection of experience, developed collectively, which sets the baseline for the language the learners need to express the realities of their lives – an alternative text which includes the political discourse of nepotism and corruption, if that is what they have experienced.  The ‘big question’ this poses is, to what extent does this very different kind of learning lead to any kind of change in the social conditions they have and are experiencing?  The Freirean framework suggests that the process itself is transformational, as it links learning with challenge at every stage.  However, this then has to translate into action which extends beyond the classroom.

Dermot Bryers then gave an account of how this essentially political process is being extrapolated from the classroom into the world.  With a background in the Living Wage campaign run by London Citizens, a strong alliance of trade unions, churches, and third sector groups in the capital, Dermot outlined how it was evident that for many migrants, language is a barrier to breaking out of poverty.  The ESOL class can therefore become an organising mechanism for learners to challenge those constraints, and move towards expressing their own campaigns.  Freire’s guidance was to listen, before we codify.  Articulating experience collectively is therefore the precursor to, and basis of, action.  Dermot outlined how the development of testimony and the building of alliances, experienced concurrently, has led to migrant groups becoming powerful enough to confront a local authority Director of Housing with their problems.  While the problems still exist, and can only truly be addressed structurally by developing more social housing stock, the collective articulation of the problem creates a challenge to power, and a sense of agency and dignity for migrant groups.  ESOL provision is however currently being cut by the UK Government, with free provision being restricted to those on active benefits – a direct contradiction of Cameron’s expressed intention that migrants should learn English and ‘integrate.’  This issue is therefore politically live.  UCU, the College Lecturers’ Union, is active in this campaign – however, so are many of those groups for whom access to ESOL has become a source of power, in the form of self-determination.

The workshop then divided into groups to make connections, and to explore key themes emerging from the use of popular education in the creation and consolidation of social movements such as those of migrant workers.  The key theme which emerged from the subsequent discussion was, is there a distinction between critical education, and popular education?  Between learning to think critically, and act collectively?  Freire suggests that these two are implicitly linked, a form of praxis, and cannot be separated.  Whether working in an academic or popular environment, critical thinking requires an acknowledgement of the value of collective experience, which translates into a capacity to articulate and challenge the power relationships which confront learners both inside the classroom and beyond.

Further information:

Reflect for ESOL Resource Pack available here:

Kalayaan: Justice for Migrant Domestic Workers:

The UCU Action for ESOL campaign:




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