Blogs >> Schumacher College Hits the Road Again - Jonathan Dawson

Schumacher College Hits the Road Again - Jonathan Dawson

Last week, Schumie took to the road, going to visit our cousins in Schumacher Ireland once again.  This was the fourth time in the last couple of years that we have taken the College’s short course format – following as closely as we can the college’s daily and weekly rhythms – to Ireland, and the second time we have hosted a residential week-long course as part of Queens University Belfast’s Masters programme in Environmental Law.

More than any of our previous courses in Ireland, the focus of the week was on ways of learning.  Sessions were led by practitioners in the tradition of Agosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and of the Presencing Institute, aimed at stimulating the students’ intuitive, kinaesthetic and emotional as well as intellectual capacities.  This was further reinforced by an explicit dive into of the pedagogical philosophy and tradition of the college itself.

Two things stood out for me in what was an extraordinarily rich week.  The first was the ease and appetite with which the students adapted to the teaching and learning methods which for the most part constituted a dramatic break with the conventional methods they will have been used to.  They took to the new context – encouraging stress-free, creative and collaborative enquiries – like proverbial ducks to water. 

The insight that came to me is that what we are seeking to do pedagogically in the college is profoundly simple: our educational philosophy and practice appears ‘transformative’ and ‘radical’ (two words often used to describe them) only by comparison with the increasingly limiting and distorting practices of mainstream, industrial education.  We are, in short, seeking to shift the educational default back into alignment with the flow of natural ways of learning – with how we would do it naturally if left to our own creative devices.  The ease with which students new to these methods understood and relished the fresh opportunities they open up confirm this.

My second big insight of the week relates to how the College is seeking to effect change in the wider world.  We asked the students to reflect on their ‘theories of change’, as revealed by how they have chosen to engage with the world – the kinds of initiative they have become involved with and what their contribution to these has been.  What, we asked them to consider, does this reveal about how they believe change happens in the world - and in the light of conscious reflection, do these beliefs still seem valid.

As the students pondered, so I turned the mirror onto the college itself, posing similar questions.  The conclusion I came to surprised me.  Much the largest number of students coming through the college, I noted, participate in one-week short courses.  While in recent years we have begun to see the emergence of a number of blended learning programmes – part residential and part online, distance learning – for most their college experience ends when they walk back out the door after lunch on a Friday afternoon.

What this reveals about our theory of change, I concluded, is a belief that short intensive residential immersion experiences will be sufficient to effect significant personal and societal change.  One doesn’t have to look too deeply to see the limitations of this notion.  Indeed, as the Queens students chose to spend their final hours together focused on how they could keep alive the ethic and practice of their time together during the Schumacher College week, it became ever clearer to me that the creation of ongoing ‘communities of practice’ has to be at the heart of a truly transformative educational model.

The term ‘communities of practice’ was coined by Swiss educational theorist, Etienne Wenger, who described them as ‘......groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.’ 

It is rooted in a rejection of the conventional view that learning is something that individuals do, that education has a beginning and an end, that it is best separated from the rest of our activities and that it results primarily from teaching (  It rather asserts that learning is primarily social, situated in specific contexts and emerges from people participating collaboratively in the undertaking of their day-to-day activities. 

Now, all of this seems pretty unexceptional from a Schumacher College perspective.  And yet, the lack of a conscious focus on the creation of ongoing communities of practice, especially for those coming on one-week intensive residentials, is striking. 

There are many ways that this can be addressed – and indeed, is already beginning to be addressed.  Our Right Livelihood programme being run in partnership with the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan, for example, is one of a number of current programmes with a strong focus on creating an online learning community that continues to operate between residential intensives.  Postgraduate certificates are also being offered in various countries that combine residential and distance learning elements.  There are, additionally, ongoing plans to activate the large global family of college alumni, with the aim of creating active nodes and clusters of former students.

Building on such initiatives, it seems to me that a core challenge facing the college is to consciously seek to identify areas of enquiry that we feel to be potentially pivotal in effecting social change (for me, one such is the emerging symbiotic relationship between the commons and cooperative movements) and to build communities of practice around them.  This can be achieved either via the creation of more blended learning programmes, that involve both residential and online spaces, or at the very least devoting more energy to facilitating the emergence of communities of practice beyond the end of short courses.

For me, 2015 will be devoted to a deeper dive into our pedagogical theory and practice, an attempt to more explicitly locate our work within the international lineage out of which they have emerged.  I have a special interest in helping to instigate relationships and partnerships with other organisations – both independent and in more mainstream contexts – that are seeking to promote a more relational, embodied and situational education.  If you share my interest, I’d love to hear from you.

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