The Infinite Learning Machine

Last weekend I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days at Oakwood, a small low-impact educational project run by friends in Devon. It’s an innovative and exciting place, and the space in which Mrs H and I tied the knot.

One of the most recent developments has been the creation of the infinite learning machine. The machine is an outdoor octagonal space of pathways and raised beds. It’s beautiful in its own right, and the beds were full of flowers and veg plants, weeks ahead of my own allotment – a fertile space in more senses than one.

It allows for an eight stage crop rotation, and the raised bed construction means that different beds can contain different growing mediums. They’re experimenting with biochar, composted donkey manure and more to ensure that each bed maximises the potential for growth.

It’s far more than a garden, although the kids who learn at Oakwood do use it to learn about, and enjoy, growing. Its design draws on a whole raft of spiritual and philosophical sources. The main paths are aligned with the cardinal points of the compass. Its construction allows for it to be used to learn about maths, geometry, astronomy, the turning of the seasons and more. The choice of plants in the beds opens up new avenues for learning – for example growing Cherokee Trail of Tears beans starts a conversation about colonialism, ownership of land, and oppression and injustice.

The machine seems like a good metaphor for anyone involved in learning. Are we:

  • Drawing on deep spiritual and philosophical principles and values?
  • Consciously aligning the learning pathways we design in such a way that they can lead to numerous (infinite?) outcomes, and not just the ones we can conceive of?
  • Feeding the soil? Creating really fertile growing spaces in which each ‘bed’ has a highly experimental and nutritious growing medium, to ensure that somewhere within our design there’s a space that everyone can take root in and flourish

At our recent Rhizome gathering we talked in terms of that old horticultural adage – “feed the soil not the plants“. The infinite learning machine offered me a useful insight into how to make that a reality in our work.


A forum for consensus

Hannah and I were at work with the Detention Forum on earlier this month, facilitating a 5 hour session on consensus decision-making. The Forum is “a loose network of over 30 NGOs who are working on immigration detention issues” and as such is evolving its processes all the time. The co-ordination group are trying to work as consensually as possible and want to support other working groups and the wider Forum to do the same. Hence the training.

This was very much a chance for the Forum to explore whether formal consensus was for them, or whether there were elements or values within consensus that were useful to them without necessarily adopting the formal consensus process wholesale.

We threw them into a decision-making experience out of which we drew the values, attitudes, states of mind, of co-operative decision-making. These we discusses, explored and mapped onto the formal consensus process before throwing them back into another decision-making activity.

It’s clear that all the talk of values had an impact – reaffirming to the participants how they envision their relationships in meetings, causing pause for thought in some cases. The session left them with challenges and questions – one being about sharing the experience and learning with the wider Forum. How do you support others to work towards these laudable values? How do you make the transition from values to actual behaviour in meetings?

Fortunately Hannah and Perry will be working with them again at the end of the month, with a focus on facilitation. I suspect the role of facilitation in supporting groups to work to their higher values will be on the agenda!

With the Forum’s permission we used the session to so some internal skill-sharing. Hannah was keen to learn more about facilitating consensus training. Not that you’d have known she had more to learn from her assured performance!

From the evaluation we seem to have been successful in supporting people to see beyond consensus process to consensus values, and in helping them to appreciate that potentially tricky aspects of consensus, such as the block, are positive when used appropriately.

“It was very timely and useful for us, giving us much to think about but also helping us to think differently about meetings and discussions we’ve already had, seeing them in context…

I was quite cynical beforehand but this session has completely changed my mind”

Of the couple of ‘negative’ comments we received one was concerned with an activity we did in which we asked some people to take on roles. The roles were unnecessary in this instance and as much (or more) would have been learnt without them. Hannah and I drew the same conclusion in our debrief conversation. Always good to have that confirmed by the participants. The other was simply a comment that the formal consensus process wasn’t, in this participant’s view, appropriate for the Detention Forum.

Communicate and connect for common cause

In July the Common Cause Handbook, from which the quotation below is taken, was added to the original Common Cause report (along with lots of other nice stuff on the website)

“Social and environmental concern and action, it turns out, are based on more than simply access to the facts (a finding that may seem obvious, but has often proven difficult to fully acknowledge). In reality, both seem to be motivated above all by a particular set of underlying values”

Now there’s Finding Common Cause, the Training: A residential workshop for communicators and connectors, February 8th-10th 2012. At this workshop you will be able to:

  • Consolidate your understanding of Common Cause principles and applications
  • Explore participatory learning and facilitation methods and get ‘hands-on’ with our Common Cause workshop activities
  • Develop practical ideas for engaging others about Common Cause in your network/sector/organisation
  • Become part of a network of Common Cause communicators and catalysers

A friend of this blog, Casper ter Kuile is on the team bringing you the workshop and if his energy and excitement for the workshop is anything to go by, it should be good.

Sharing values, Graphic Guides and Common Cause

Following our earlier phone meeting which I blogged about at the time, I met with Steph and Jeannie today to progress work on creating “effective meeting” resources for Transition initiatives.

Steph and her son have produced a great 3 minute video – a Graphic Guide to Groups which draws on John Adair’s action centred leadership but adds a values twist:

There’s the promise of more to come.

Steph’s also created a values-mapping activity that helps groups sort out what are their group values and what are their personal values. I plan to try it out soon and will report back on the blog.

This took us on to discussing the dangers of values-based groups. It’s a short hop, skip and jump from values to high horses and a fundamentalism of sorts. In short we can become judgemental and that alienates people. The values of compassion, common humanity, diversity, and open-mindedness can sometimes get lost.

And whilst we’re talking values, we also spent a little time talking about the Common Cause report which explores campaigning from a values standpoint, and more particularly campaigning in a way that reinforces the more selfless values. If we’re going to make bigger-than-self changes we need to appeal to bigger-than-self values.

Are we nearly there yet?

From time to time I find myself in discussion (or facilitating discussion) about whether or not campaigns and campaigners should declare their true colours and publish their vision and the route map for getting there. It’s not often that happens. More likely an organisation takes a step by step approach, raising awareness of, and lobbying for a ‘next step’. Yes the info on aims, vision, strategy might be available, but it’s not what the public encounter.

An example that springs to mind is fair trade but there are many other possibilities. The campaign for fair trade has focused on getting consumers to switch to fair trade brands of common goods. That’s gone hand in hand with working on companies to provide a ready source of those commodities that meet fair trade standards. In that respect it’s been a stunning success with the Fairtrade mark being very widely recognised and being the top ethical mark, in recognition terms here in the UK.

The problems sometimes raised are that this approach, fair trade or otherwise, simplifies issues, and leads consumers to believe that if they just switch to fair trade tea and coffee then all’s well with the world, which obviously it’s not. So what we need to do, the argument goes, is place fair trade in context of the wider issues of trade justice and the global economic system. Others argue that that’s too much for Joe Consumer to cope with in one bite and so on. I’m sure you’ve ‘been there had that argument’.

And of course it’s far too simplified a summary. Many fair trade insiders will (with much justification) say that they do a lot of awareness raising about wider trade justice issues. The problem is that work can get lost in the process of trying to formulate a simple understandable message for the public. It doesn’t fit easily on the side of a packet or on a leaflet.

There’s a danger that we end up with something akin to taking a small child on a long walk – “we’re almost there…. just around the next corner…. just keep walking for a while longer”. It’s a parallel I draw consciously, because it risks being a rather ‘parental’ approach.

Give it to me straight, I can take it

Last night I attended an open meeting of the Transition Leicester steering group. The group was looking for fresh energy and input. Several new folk , myself included, turned up. In one small group discussion I was part of we were looking at the strategic direction of Transition Leicester and very early on the question of whether the group revealed its full agenda arose. Was that too radical for folk to cope with? Do we talk changing lightbulbs and making your own compost and sideline talk of alternatives to capitalism until a later stage?

I prefer straight talk, cards on the table, and all that. But it has to be framed right. It seems to me that intellectual argument, facts and figures will only get us so far. What makes people undertake lasting change is a shift in values. In fact I’d argue that it’s a reconnection with existing values that The Man prefers us not to remember we have. All that commonly held stuff about equality, justice, humanity and compassion’s inconvenient for a consumer society, but I do think it’s present in all of us. We’re heavily sedated by all our consumer toys and told that self-centredness is a virtue. Turn on the TV for long enough and it’ll scream “me, me, me” at you.

So it’s not about radicalising people’s political views (although for some that might go hand in hand), it’s about articulating our values and connecting the dots to actions that embody those values. And if you buy into this argument then I think it’s good news because it’s simply (!) a case or reminding people what they already know to be true and showing some ways forward to rebuilding a society based on that truth.

Anti-capitalism, for example, frightens many people. But if it’s just about relating to others from  a position of common humanity and letting that run its natural course…. nowt too radical there. Make it a ‘system’, conceptualise it, and it can become too distant, too irrelevant for many, and risks becoming the preserve of the academic or activist elite. Whatever change we are making, and asking others to make, it has to be framed in human terms, or so it seems to me (today at least!)

The spark for today’s sermon was a lively debate I found myself in last night on making change. One member of the small group seemed to be advocating a very traditional top-down, academic, model of change. I’m going to paraphrase, and I’m aware it’s not an argument I have immediate sympathy for, so apologies if that comes through loud and clear and I stereotype…. “To make change we need knowledge, to access knowledge we need to speak an appropriate language, and oh dear, how do we communicate that to the masses who don’t speak the language? We need to educate them as they aren’t currently capable of understanding the change that is required”.

I’d prefer an approach that allowed for the possibility that people already have the answers and the experience to make change and all that’s needed is a drawing out of that experience, a sharing, and a collective analysis. And that can happen in any language. The best one? The language of the people making the change and not the language of academics, facilitators, professional campaigners or capacity builders.

So step by step or let ’em have it? I’d like to think that if we take the time to connect with the humanity in the issues we are active on, and phrase them in the language of the people we’re communicating too, then we can afford to be open about our vision from the start.
Implications for day-to-day activism? There’s a comments field below….



Sharing values

I spent an hour and a half on the phone today to Jeannie and Steph, 2 of the facilitators that attended the Transition Network Dreaming Circle back in December. We were talking about meetings, more specifically trying to shape some meeting training agendas for transition groups.

Very quickly the conversation turned to values, and how we facilitate a process of helping groups articulate their values, shared or otherwise. Values seems to be one of the areas prone to assumption. We assume everyone else has the same ideals, beliefs and principles until we discover otherwise – a discovery that often leads to confusion and conflict and can be a real obstacle to groups functioning well. We noted that many groups hit problems when they expand. The founders are drawn together by a sense of shared values. Because that sense is strong they don’t feel the need to carefully articulate what they mean. Why should they? After all they all agree… Then new folk join and cracks begin to appear as the realisation dawns that there’s now a diversity of perspectives, and worse still of values. Sound familiar?

OK, time for a quick step back, because one of the problems is that it’s not always clear what we even mean by values. It’s a slippery word that can mean different things to different people… and as such I’m hesitant to try to pin down a definition here. I suspect for some it’s an emotional affinity with certain ideas or actions. For others a more cerebral yardstick by which to measure the ‘right way’ forward. As a facilitator I think it’s more important to raise the question “What do we mean by values?” than try to have the ‘right answer’. Phew, that’s wriggled out of that one.

Steph is facilitating a session to explore values for her local Transition initiative, so the whole discussion was given a definite context. We talked about tools and techniques for exploring values. The interesting thing, for me, was the realisation that we didn’t have a whole host of them at our fingertips. So we shared the ideas we did have, customising tools we’d used to for other more conceptual discussions. Many of the tools I use for this kind of discussion share a common approach – using some form of provocation, ie: a statement to bounce off that helps clarify our position. I’m thinking of spectrum lines, or of the process I co-facilitated with Rich from Seeds for Change last summer to explore the values people used to make strategic campaign choices. Here we used images of action, followed by a local radio-style interview using a few simple questions (see below) to provoke thinking and discussion :

  1. tell us about the action you’ve just taken part in
  2. what were you hoping to achieve?
  3. do you really feel this one action can make that kind of change?
  4. what would you say to those people listening that are thinking this is well-intentioned but won’t change the big picture?

It seemed to work, and it can’t be that hard to rework these or similar questions for different ‘values’ contexts. And I’m sure that provocation can be used Edward de Bono style for this purpose to.

The conversation also took in the work of John Adair, specifically his action-centred leadership model which balances the group’s task, with the needs of the group and the needs of the individuals. This could easily be rewritten as the group’s task, the values of the group and the values of the individual. Now I’m not a fan of top-down leadership, but strip out that assumption and replace it with a co-operative one and the model has useful implications for supporting groups to consensus through shared leadership. Clashes of personal and group values are often at the heart of blocks to consensus.

All in all an hour and a half well spent. As always, your thoughts, comments and, of course, tools and techniques are very welcome.