How do activists learn?


How do activists learn their craft, and what might this teach social purpose educators (Mycroft, 2013) about theirs?

How do liberatory systems (social movements?) teach? How is structural oppression entangled with structural liberation?

Can the public pedagogy of social movements teach socially engaged practitioners anything about their personal pedagogy? (Are the structural dynamics (McCabe, 2014) of social and personal emergence self-similar?)

What is Social Action? Is it, as defined by the UK cabinet office ‘practical action in the service of others’ (Cabinet Office, 2015)? What are its other meanings? How do these different meanings impact on the lives & learning of young people engaged in programmes designed to develop social action? How do they inform youth workers’ pedagogy?

“If you just pick one human you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art [or teaching, or activism] is.” – (Seth Godin, 2014) via @brainpickings

Teaching, activism, art practice are all engagements in the practice of personal and social emergence. By occupying the smooth space (Deleuze, via Kidd, 2015) between the disciplines, what emerges? Anything useful to improve our practice?

Some (sketchy) notes on how… practice-as-research-as-practice
…anything people use to make sense of the world (Snowden, 2012)… visual communication of data (Lima, 2013)… narrative… participatory action research… distributed interpretation: who interprets what? (Snowden, 2012)… diffraction (Kidd, 2015)… feedback… amorphodology (Kidd, 2015)

…& why… to develop a contextualised pedagogy that catalyses emergence of liberatory, socially engaged practice. To get better at what we do.


Cabinet Office (2015) Social action: Harnessing the potential. Available at: (Accessed: 30 January 2016)

Kidd, D. (2015) Becoming Mobius: The complex matter of education. United Kingdom: Independent Thinking Press. ——— @debrakidd

Lima, M. (2013) Visual complexity. Mapping patterns of information. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. ——— @mslima

Louise, M. (2013) About TeachDifferent – social purpose education. Available at: (Accessed: 30 January 2016). ——— @TeachNorthern

McCabe, V. (2014) Coming to our senses: Perceiving complexity to avoid catastrophes. United States: Oxford University Press.

Popova, M. (2014) Seth Godin on vulnerability, creative courage, and how to dance with the fear: A Children’s book for grownups. Available at: (Accessed: 30 January 2016) ——— @brainpickings @ThisIsSethsBlog

Snowden, D. (2012) Keynote speaker: Combining complexity theory with narrative research. Available at: (Accessed: 15 January 2016).  ——— @snowded




Can I borrow your ruler?

My maths teacher in high school had this really unfunny joke he used to tell all the time (didn’t they all?!).

Pupil: ‘Sir, can I borrow your ruler?’

Sir: ‘No she’s at home today’

That was just a barely relevant aside about tools for measurement.

Here’s an idea for a research project…

It starts with a frustration at the limitations of assessment: vital in a lot of ways, but only tells a fraction of the story of teaching and learning. I recently realised that this was a good example of using a ‘simple’ tool to work out a ‘complex’ problem.

Assessment is a science of measurement.

Initial assessment: point a

norm / criterion referenced etc.: your carefully calibrated unit of measurement.

Summative assessment: point b

Draw a straight line between the two, measure the ‘distance traveled’.

It’s one dimensional geometry.

Complexity science is the paradigm shift that realises that with many problems, the points don’t join up in straight lines, don’t stay still in any dimension, or even stay as points; they could get bigger or smaller or turn into homo sapiens.

…and there’s these complexity scientists all over the world trying to figure out ways of visualising that complexity in order to better understand it…. in order to solve complex problems.

so… I want to investigate how people visualise their learning process. I think a good way to start would be to see that as mapping their learning journey. If we start drawing maps over the a to b graphs of assessment, we’ll start seeing the steep climbs, the brick walls, the scenic meanders. These metaphors are already embedded in our language (as are the geometric ones of course), but if we actually visualised  them in some way, we might understand our own – or our student’s – learning process better. It could make for better feedback cycles, and I think would enable more people to learn how to learn: become critically reflexive.

AND the added bonus is that if you commit to engaging with complexity as your method, you HAVE to look at all influencing factors or your model fails. So there is nowhere to hide for thorny issues such as identity, intersectionality, politics, community.

Thank you @teachnorthern for the question. And #rhizo15 for the latest round of rhizomatic thought explosions. You rock my world.

I have purposefully not referenced this any further. I think the next step will be to start collating all the things that got me to this point, and all the leads I’ve yet to follow up. At this stage that seems more daunting than coming up with ideas.

Mapping #Rhizo15


For the last week of #Rhizo15 Dave asked us to create an artifact. This is the week I got pretty close to actually doing what he asked. Above is my artifact. With thanks to (key)…

Peter Pan & Tinkerbell 
The Quiet Year (and my friend Will for telling me about it. There’ll be a blog post when we get round to playing it)
Nick Kearney for the new directions
Ordnance Survey for the symbols
Wendell Berry and Terry Elliott for the tug away from screens
Dancing Princesses for the dragons
Manuel Lima and his trees
Deleuze & Guattari for the tracings
… and all the lovely brilliant people I’ve bumped into just by saying things in the #rhizo15 world. It’s been an interesting journey.

Map your life onto fairytales

The last week of #Rhizo15 is about to start.

I have only dabbled. Commented a few times on other people’s posts. Started a conversation about maps on facebook. I wrote a blog post about measurement a couple of weeks after everyone else had moved on from that topic.

I don’t mind. One of the things #Rizo15 has taught me is that we find (our own) way through. I’m finding my way through a lot of other things in my life (aren’t we all) which I did instead of reading and writing in rhizoland.

I’ve just read Terry’s impassioned post turning away from the rhizome metaphor, and the wonderful conversation that ensued. He quotes Wendell Berry:

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

What a challenge. I love it. I think i’ll write it on a post-it and stick it to the corner of my screen.

I love that creative expression in many different forms has taken centre stage during #Rhizo15

It seems to be the way most people are able to navigate the chaos. It seems to be a way in to map, to visualise the learning(change) that happens as we explore. When straightforward, everyday language fails us and we begin to push out from the edges of the tools we know how to use. I think that’s a sign we’re learning(changing).


Summer 2009, in a forest just outside Bruges, Belgium. I was on an adventure. Taking part in a festival at protest site. I slept high in treetops, I slept at the centre of a labyrinth made of pallets. Running errands in the city felt like a series of sensory catastrophes. My body learnt the meaning of ‘culture clash’.

Bewildered and exhausted from the newness, from the bravery required just to have arrived here. Seduced by the magic, buzzing from the defiant romance of it all. In the centre of the forest an old munitions factory, now only a couple of walls and concrete floors warped by roots. Under the incendiary slogans scrawled across the walls, a typewriter. I sat at it and wrote this:

quote pop if there’s no other way to explain. Map your life onto fairytales if there’s no other way to navigate

Mapping Learning

The last line of my last post:

“In my next post, I will write about moments in my life that demonstrate each of these different ways of conducting relationships.”

I’m not going to do that.

Goal setting is important. It reminds me where I’m headed, and reminds me that I’m going to have to do some work to get there.

The down side is that as soon as I set a goal, it represents where I thought I was when I set it, not where I am now. Sometimes (a lot of the time) I change course.

So much of the language we use to describe learning is connected to travel; look how far you’ve come… they aren’t quite there yet… am I on the right track?… you’ve lost me! Just the word progress has that double meaning. We see learning as a journey because it’s a useful way for us to visualise the incomprehensibly complex process of change that happens when we learn (ooh, there’s another one… process… procession).

Davis and Sumara explain in a similar way how Euclidian geometry has formed our understanding of knowledge in their wonderful book Complexity and Education. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Goals for learning (or objectives) help us to understand the learning ‘journey’ by plotting a point on the map to which we need to get to. We head towards it, measuring the distance until we’re there. Then once we’re past the spot, we can look back and know we’ve ‘been’ there. A test score in that sense is a fixed coordinate on our journey. Confirmation that we have reached our intended destination.

This desire to ‘see’ our learning is an important instinct, but plotting coordinates is only one way to describe the journey. In fact, it doesn’t describe the journey. The only information you can really get from two fixed points is the distance from a to b. And doing that is pretty easy; all you need is a long enough ruler.

Objectives are useful for measuring ‘distance travelled’ in learning. We need a whole lot more information in order to figure out how to get there, or looking back, to explain how we arrived.

Maybe we need a map.

Or maybe we need subjectives. Goals that start where we are. Ideas that begin within our own understanding of ourselves and our place in time and space, then push outwards, not knowing what we might find. Just knowing that change and discovery are compelling enough to move towards. Trusting our own compass to point us in the right direction(s).

In an early discussion during #Rhizo15 I was captivated by Giles (Deleuze) and Felix (Guattari)’s concept of ‘maps not tracings’.

“A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back “to the same.” The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged “competence.””

p14 A Thousand Plateaus

I hope that the drawing of maps could be an alternative way to ‘see’ learning that doesn’t fixate only on fixed points and measurement.

This post has been inspired by the #Rhizo15dg facebook conversation I initiated by my excitement about maps and tracings, and by a brilliant blog post by Nick Kearney

It has also been inspired by my journey to the forests of northern Sweden. Both the space it afforded me to think, and what it taught me about travel and terrain. I left a little piece of my heart there in exchange.


Visualising Complexity

I have been thinking about complexity for a good couple of years now, but have not been able to communicate why I think it is important. What I’d like to do, in probably a few posts is to attempt to explain it’s usefulness.

Complexity is the study of relationships.

Complexity students have created images that help us understand different structures of relationships.

This classic diagram describes the different forms a network can take. The dots are commonly called ‘nodes’, the dashed lines ‘links’. These diagrams were developed to illustrate telecommunications systems, but they can help us to visualise many different networked relationships.

Think of a system of relationships you are a part of, or are interested in. Make sure you are clear about 1: what the network represents 2. what the nodes represent 3: what the links represent.

For example:

1: an ecosystem 2: living organisms 3: nutrient exchange, as in a food web

1: twitter 2: twitter accounts 3: connections made on twitter e.g. replies, retweets, favourites (for an elegant representation of this, see )

What would be the positive and negative impact of organising your network in each of these different ways?

Think about what would happen to the whole system if one link or node broke. Would it look the same? This is a question about the system’s resilience.

Think about how long it would take to get a ‘message’ from one side of the network to another. How many links would you have to pass through? This is a question about the system’s efficiency.

Complex systems tend to take the form of a decentralised network, balancing resilience with efficiency. Many organic systems organise themselves in this way, and the internet, with it’s complex mix of computational and social dynamics does so too.

What I’m interested in is how these images help us to understand social relationships. Try looking at these diagrams as:

1: society 2: people 3: power relationships

What are the ethical implications of these different ways of organising?
In my next post, I will write about moments in my life that demonstrate each of these different ways of conducting relationships.

Just one student…

Another post from the unpublished archive of Ellie Trees. This one is from July 2013, inspired by Lou Mycroft’s keynote at the TeachDifferent conference. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it at the time. All I’ve done today is delete one half finished sentence and add a clearer reference to the Angel Olsen quote.

“If just one of my students goes on to change the world, all my hard work will be worth it” People say versions of that sentence all the time and I tend to believe them because I believe it about my own work too, though I might phrase it slightly differently.

My teacher Lou Mycroft, speaking at the Teach Different conference at Northern College on Friday gave me a deeper understanding of the idea by following the statement with “For Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School, that student was Rosa Parks”. Lou has a knack for bringing huge names–and with them powerfully inspirational victories–in social history into the room with us. Into our everyday thoughts and actions in a way that instils radical confidence in our own ability to step up to the challenge laid down by Myles, Rosa and countless others.

What really struck me about Lou’s words were that they crystallised something I had been thinking about for months. That any great teacher sets their aspirations for their students higher than they know they themselves are capable of reaching. This is especially true for those teaching world changers.

It reminds me of a drama teacher I had in high school. It was common rumour that she had tried to be an actor, but had in some way failed and so had become a teacher. But she was the best damn teacher in the school. She taught us confidence, she drew out talent and brilliance and her love of the work lit up every moment. She must have known how hard it would be for those pursuing an acting career. Surely she was aware that her dreams for her students were the dreams she had failed to live up to. Of course in this case she didn’t fail really. Even if none of her students became successful actors (and one or two did) she taught generations of people that their creative expression was important for the world.

But what about me? Teaching young people about the need to dramatically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels is hard when I know that my generation is failing spectacularly, and that for their generation it will be exponentially harder because of our inaction.

This summer when I support a group of young people to discover the power of collective action to change their communities for the better, I will do so as someone who has felt the paralysing heartbreak of activist burn-out through trying (and failing) to do the very thing I expect from them.

Is there any truth to the old saying ‘those that can’t, teach’?. From this perspective it seems like there might be. People want to be empowered. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy doesn’t want to be overthrown. Bringing the values and experiences I had found in activism to teaching helped me recover from disillusionment and burnout. I found my lost hope in the brilliance and potential I saw in people who the authoritarian school system had all but given up on. In effect what I was doing was looking to others to take on a battle I had no energy left to fight.

Depressed yet? Don’t be. I didn’t write this a month ago because I didn’t want to leave it there.

In Counterpower by Tim Gee I found a way through in the form of ‘accumulated heritage of resistance’; the process by which social movements grow and develop, sometimes seeming to die only to spring back stronger armed with what has gone before (a community of praxis, one might say). To illustrate the point he quotes Joe Slovo, a South African anti-apartheid activist: “until the moment of successful revolutionary takeover, each individual act of resistance usually fails”.

Angel Olsen’s ethereal country track You are Song illustrates this concept beautifully with the line   ‘You are silence now but you are always song’.

As a recovering activist, this idea was incredibly redemptive. As a teacher struggling to find personal integrity whilst demanding the impossible from my students it was just as powerful.