The City as School

This is roughly what I said at Be Bettr on Friday 14th January 2011 at the Conway Hall in London. Thanks to Matt Jukes for organising!

1) When we hear the word education most of us think of a classroom, of a teacher standing at the front, of kids sitting at rows of desks. Perhaps the slight smell of a distant canteen. Of course not all schools are like that but when it comes to learning throughout life we hold on to the metaphors and images we grew up with. It’s very hard for us to think of an education system for adults that doesn’t mirror those that are basically drawn from our own experiences, but I think we need to, and perhaps in doing so we could end up rethinking education for everyone, including that of children. For me it’s about how you reorganise the system — I’m not so interested in content, I think the demand for that comes from people anyway. So today I want to talk about a few hacks to the system we’ve tried with School of Everything and why I think we can reclaim some old ideas in modern times.

2) First a couple of pieces of context to what we’re doing. The human race tipped over to be majority urbanised in 2008. Nearly 90% of the UK population lives in an urban area. Since this is where the people are, this is where the ideas, knowledge and skills are concentrated too. While cities have been the great drivers of society and economy, they of course have their faults. They massively lack the social infrastructure of old. When Michael Young and Peter Wilmott wrote in detail about Family and Kinship in East London in 1955, what they found was a world rich in social relationships, networks of dependence and mutual support that helped them face the adversity of insecure and low-paid employment. They charted what would now be described by government types as “social capital” and how it made urban neighbourhoods function effectively.

3) A whole raft of factors set about gnawing away at those bonds throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. While there were improving levels of health and education, other factors like urban planning changed the way people related to each other. And as Clay Shirky points out — television sucked up our cognitive powers. While TV did open up new learning opportunities — Michael Young himself went on to create the Open University based on the sophisticated new technology of the time (BBC 2) — it also eroded social time and diminished the amount of time that people spent in civic spaces and activities. The car also enabled people to speed through their own local area, avoiding their neighbours. So to my mind, the car and television made urban areas lose some of the efficiency they had developed in relation to learning and building relationships with other people.

4 ) I think it’s only now that we’re just beginning to invent ways of making the city as efficient as it could be. Silently the city is becoming connected to the internet. We are teaching the internet about the real world, geotagging cafes, adding data about hospitals through Patient Opinion. Telling it where people are with mobile phone signals. Technology is just starting to become a layer of the real world, as roads and sewers did before. It’s not the cables and transmitters that matter but the representation of useful information that can be connected. As Clay Shirky says, technology only becomes interesting when it becomes boring.

5 ) Over the past 3 years we’ve been working on School of Everything. We started out with a simple proposition — that we could use technology to connect people who had something to teach with people who wanted to learn. What we built was a listings service where people could say what they could teach and students could provide feedback and ratings of that teaching. Most of the learning going on was one-to-one and it’s worked pretty well. We’ve helped tens of thousands of people find learning opportunities in their local area and as time has gone on we’ve added features. January is always our busiest month as people learn something new as a resolution.

6 ) But in the middle of last year we started to feel there was something missing from our plan. We started to see that there was real power in learning in small groups rather than just with a teacher. It coincided with the economic crunch and us seeing people often having a bit more time on their hands but willing to spend less on learning stuff. As we started to explore, we came across the idea of Study Circles in Sweden or studicirkeln as I’m told they’re called. They developed over the course of the last century and have gradually become the predominant form of adult education. Today there are roughly 300,000 of them. It turns out there is some heritage in the idea in the Young Foundation as well. In the 1970s Michael had the perfectly sensible idea of running them on trains and so throughout the 1970s and 80s it was fairly common for people to meet up on the 17.18 to Stevenage or any one of 100 other trains across the country to learn something new for the 30 mins of their journey home.

7 ) We started five Groups in Bethnal Green. Each group had 6–12 members and covered a different subject in a different kind of space — we covered everything from cookery to code, art to accounting. We met up regularly, sometimes bringing in people who knew more than we did, sometimes just getting together with people who were interested in the subject. Of course we realised this was going on all around us already whether through church house groups, book groups or other subjects in peoples homes. What we found was that it works — it helps people learn new things and build new relationships.

8 ) This week we’re opening up the system to other people and we need people who are willing to make things happen. Self organisation needs a little bit of organisation. Call them community organisers, learning champions, whatever you like but they are people who give self organisation the nudge it needs — they set the patterns. We hope what we’ve built fits the needs of organisers, making their lives simpler and enabling them to have greater impact. We’re looking for people who want to back the organisers — who want to support networks of groups. Whether they’re local authorities who want to see more self organised learning in their areas, companies who want to see their staff learning from one another or campaigns that want to create networks of groups meeting up regularly to learn about an issue.

9 ) Sugata Mitra says “Education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent outcome.” When you think about it a university campus is just a collection of facilities with a bunch of people who are motivated to learn new things come together. The organisational infrastructure of a university is possible to recreate using technology. I suppose what we’re trying to create is the invisible, yet practical university. No quad, no clock tower, no vice chancellor’s suite, but full of people who want to learn and people who can help them. We just provide a way of seeing and organising that layer of learning opportunities. We want to see neighbourhoods becoming schools. Putting to use underused buildings and encouraging people who have something to teach, to share with other people.

10) Hacking is about simple interventions that change everything. Using the weight and momentum of what exists to help change its direction. It’s Jujutsu with ideas and code. We’d like your help to use this simple hack — the idea of the learning group, to try and revolutionise adult learning. Thanks for listening.

Related articles

Better than Socks — School of Everything Gifts

School of Everything Gifts

It’s been a while since I blogged about what we’re up to at School of Everything. I’ll try to do it a bit more often over the next few months because there’s lots going on.

The very cool thing that we’ve just launched is School of Everything Gifts so instead of buying your loved ones socks for Christmas, why not get them a lesson? We’ve already got some great gifts available including memory lessons and bread making but we’re also growing the list of what’s available every day. And let us know if there’s a lesson you’d like and we’ll see what we can do to track down a teacher for you!

Why education needs start-ups

Ken Robinson says in his now pretty famous TED talk that if you mention to someone that you work in education you can watch peoples’ faces drop, but ask them about their own experience of education and you can’t shut them up. So it was just over two years ago when a bunch of us sat in a room to talk about how we might set up a new school. One by one we talked about our experiences – good and bad – of education whether primary, secondary, at university or at work. What was obvious to all of us by the end of the day was that education was still designed for the industrial, factory based era and had barely been updated at all. It is still basically a one-size-fits-all system where information is passed down from people who know to people who don’t.

Two years later and I share an office with several of the people in that room. Rather than starting a school, we went away and founded a company, raised investment and built School of Everything. We spotted an opportunity to use the internet to connect people who have something to teach with those who want to learn directly, without the help of educational institutions. It’s growing fast, not just in the UK but in other countries too. We’ve found that there’s a desire to organise learning in a simpler more efficient way.

We’re not the only people trying to do it. In the UK Beanbag Learning, and in the US start-ups like Teachstreet, Edufire and Grockit are all trying to find ways to revolutionise education and it’s a growing scene. Today we got a bunch of UK start-ups together in London to swap war-stories and tips about how to change education from the bottom up at Bettr. Then at the SICamp meetup we got people together to pitch new education start-up ideas and try to find the people who can help them to make them happen.

But why start-ups? Why can’t established large companies or agencies innovate? I believe that small, cheap, nimble organisations using technology to develop new products and services will be better at coming up with completely new ways of thinking about the structure of the education system. When you decide to put your energy into a start-up, you don’t start from the perspective of ‘designing a faster horse’, you think differently. You have an interest in the overall success and scalability of the project, not in a contract. You focus on the end user rather than what somebody would like who already has a vested interest in the way things are organized now.

And despite the downturn, education is one area where the investors are still interested. The penny has dropped that education is a massive opportunity, almost no matter what the economic climate. As the renowned venture capitalist Fred Wilson has said “It’s the entire education system that’s stuck in the past. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, and I’ve come to believe that we need to completely reinvent the way we educate ourselves.” Silicon Valley commentator Umair Haque has also said that reorganising education is one of the biggest opportunities of the 21st century.

At School of Everything we’re trying to change the way people organize their learning. We’re not out to put professional teachers out of a job or commoditize education (plenty of people offer to teach on School of Everything for free). We think the old ways of finding information and collaborating with others will still exist, but education needs a real shake-up and to imagine a way of organising itself that is very different from the industrial age. It’s been start-ups that have done that for the way we buy and sell, the way we find information and the way we communicate with friends and family. Education is already changing but the sense of opportunity is growing. In 10 years time, the way we organize learning will be almost unrecognisable from today.

Getting busier for education start-ups

Wednesday next week is going to be a busy day. During the day it’s Bettr (co-organised by Beanbag and School of Everything) where we’re getting together as many start-ups working on revolutionising education as possible. It’s going to be an unconference so no big speeches. Then in the evening we’re hosting a Social Innovation Camp Meetup all about education start-ups too. It does seem like the kind of technology and education world that we’re working in with School of Everything is an area that’s hotting up. That’s a very good thing.

Natural born learning machines

There’s an interesting piece in New Scientist this week by perhaps an unlikely education policy commentator, Richard Hammond of Top Gear fame.

“It’s not a case of getting kids interested in science. You just have to find a way to avoid killing the passion for learning that they were born with. I think it’s no coincidence that kids start deserting science the moment it becomes formalised. Children naturally have a blurred approach to acquiring knowledge. They see learning about science or biology or cooking or how not to close a door on your feet as all part of the same act — it’s all learning. It’s only because of the practicalities of education that you have to start breaking down the curriculum into specialist subjects. You need to have a timetable, and you need to have specialist teachers who impart what they know. Thus once they enter the formalised medium of school, children begin to delineate subjects and erect boundaries that needn’t otherwise exist.”

Practical Optimism

A few weeks ago I had an argument about the future of the human race that baffled me. I won’t say who with, but he’s an environmentalist of note (who is in his 50s I guess). It went something like this:

Him: We have a problem.
Me: Agreed.
Him: It’s really bad.
Me: Yep.
Him: You should be really scared because you’re under 40.
Me: Not really.
Him: But unless we convince people that it’s really, really bad nothing will change.
Me: I’m not so sure — I don’t think scaring people makes them change.
Him: How do you expect governments to regulate the problem unless people are really scared?
Me: I don’t assume that governments will do anything. I think fantastic ordinary people will create sustainable ways of organising themselves and the planet’s resources. I’m sure governments will catch up in the end but there’s no point waiting around.

At that stage we had to agree to disagree. He believes pessimism will save the world and I don’t. I’m an optimist — probably with a little bit of anarchist libertarianism thrown in. The two don’t really mix.

The last couple of months have been the most economically turbulent of my lifetime, the future is the least certain of any I can remember and I’m very aware that it could get worse. I also know the scale of the even bigger problems. I’ve seen poverty, suffering and injustice first hand and I’m fully aware of the numbers when it comes to climate change.

But I’m still an optimist.

A few days after the optimism argument I was with my friend Rob at the spot by the Brooklyn Bridge in New York where you look out over the East River to the downtown Manhattan skyline. The market was collapsing around us but we had a beer and the air was still warm. We’ve both now done some time in start-ups and we were talking about the highs and lows of start-up life. If you want a quiet time, we agreed, don’t try to change the world.

But the other thing we realised was that we were confident about our futures because no matter what happened we knew we could make things happen with almost no resources. Learning how to start something up means that you know you can turn your hand to most things and it gives you a confidence that anything is possible.

Yesterday I met Ali Clabburn who has gradually built up Liftshare over the last ten years. Each day 40,000 car journeys are not made because Ali was an optimist when people told him it would never work. Since the 1960s average car occupany had dropped and dropped. But for the last three years, it has risen. Liftshare, with it’s 300,000 self-organising members has started to turn the tanker.

Then I look at all the young campaigners in Battlefront including the amazing Zuhal who I’m mentoring (really she’s mentoring me). These are kids who are supposed to be thick, apathetic and pure individualists (if you believe the Daily Mail) who are setting out to change the world. None of them lacks ambition. And yes, they are optimists.

And then tomorrow we will choose the finalists for Social Innovation Camp 2. I have no doubt that we’ll find some more optimists there.

So while sometimes I do get a bit uncomfortable being called an entrepreneur (I don’t think I have enough chest hair to fit that particular mould), I’m happy to call myself an optimist. In fact, I’ve come to realise I’m a practical optimist and proud.

School of Everything in the FT

Team Everything

There was a really nice piece about School of Everything in yesterday’s Financial Times. It was quite funny for me because Jonathan had told me that it was coming out on a Wednesday and I have a long running battle with my local newsagent who insists that the FT isn’t published on a Wednesday and so never stocks it.

Anyway, I think the main theme that comes out is the difference between motivations on either side of the Atlantic for creating web businesses. Obviously it’s a huge generalisation because there are some fantastic ‘change the world’ businesses that have come out of silicon valley, but I do feel that London is more of a hotbed for Umair’s ‘next industrial revolution’ and Tim’s ‘web meets world’ stuff at the moment.

On that note, do submit your ideas for Social Innovation Camp. Just a week and a bit to go until the deadline. And here’s a fantastic little video that explains the concept from the wonderful glovepuppet.