When I first heard of the WEA, as a student, I waited with great anticipation for the brochure. ‘All human life is here’, I told everyone. Away from the increasingly mundane, exams-driven culture of school, here was a world where proper learning and fellowship went hand-in-hand. When I came to work for the WEA in 2002, there were elements of this approach still but it almost felt historic. We were about to enter a turbulent period of justifying our existence (our social purpose) to the funders and trying to survive. So, we saw the emergence of ‘skills’. The word ‘skills’ has taken over practically every discourse on education in the country today. We all have skills, which we gain in various ways. They need nurturing, developing, refreshing and gaining new ones, particularly as technologies change. This is a vital part of learning, of what we offer without a doubt but it’s not the only way.
‘Learning is Fun’ and ‘Learning for its own Sake’ were two straplines used under the old, old WEA logo. I’ve never forgotten them because they marked the WEA out as being different, allowing you a time and a place where you learned to reflect quietly and to take part in intellectually mind-bursting discussions which help you make more sense of where you live and who you are and how it all somehow fits together.
I grew up on a working class council estate, idyllic in summer with trees and gardens everywhere, having, I thought then, the good fortune to go to a grammar school, then watching uneasily as my education gave me so much while distancing me from my own parents and neighbours. I didn’t understand then that everything I was studying had been pre-selected and packaged, mainly by men, into boxes. As it progressed, it became drier and less inspiring. I suppose it did open up for me creative sources, particularly in literature – Orwell, Steinbeck and Wilde – as well as music, Simon and Garfunkel for which I am grateful. Reading the WEA brochure was like unwrappng a present, like reaching inside an old wardrobe, not knowing what you’ll find inside but knowng there might be snowflakes.
It has taken me, is still taking me a long time to understand and apply the idea that knowledge and education systems are never neutral. They always have someone’s intended purpose behind them. Never is this critical awareness more needed today when it feels like anyone who makes a comment such as ‘not everyone wants to buy their own house’ is jumped on for being against hard-working people. Why is it that? What does it say about our political culture now? You will be criticised in the press and on social media for being a left-wing throwback, out of touch, and a backward thinking fool.
I’m only asking for an affordable choice which builds and passes on housing stock from one generation to the next. Perhaps, it was more the other way during the 1970s and ‘80s..? Certainly, there were competing ideas and practices then. And why was that? Where do ideas come from? Questions, always questions…you may see an answer at once or it can take your whole lifetime. Or both!
I’m writing about Social Purpose in education. Everything I’ve said has been to do with my experience, my journey through life, exploring ideas, their emotional roots and sometimes putting them into action. Some of these actions are individual. I can write a letter to my MP, sign a petition or write a poem. Others are collective. I may join a day of action in support of a cause or join a group or go to a meeting. It starts with the individual and leads towards working with others. It takes time and space for people to grow. And as we all know, growth is painful! The passage of time may not be linear. You may have to retrace your steps. Confidence may grow, then take a battering.
This is what Social Purpose is for me and I’m so glad to be involved with the WEA as it explores afresh this commitment. Maybe, every generation has to relearn it for itself? I feel it’s timely when given the seemingly simplistic responses of politicians and in the press (us and them; in or out?) to what are complex issues, worthy of discussion, held, hopefully, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There are after all no ‘right or wrong answers’, to these matters but there are different ways of looking at something.
Social purpose starts with listening…to yourself, to what is going on in the world and needs curiosity and openness. Listen to your students – in their classroom discussions, over coffee – what are they talking about and start there. It may mean changing very little. The very fact people are coming and meeting and gaining support may fulfill your social purpose goal. The chances are, though, that new ideas will emerge, often suggested by the group, which you catch if you’re listening. It could be raising funds for a good cause, giving a talk in a dementia cafe or organising an event or display. Some may take up volunteering opportunities..
It’s an umbrella term, containing a number of different entry points. For some groups, say, engaged in practical subjects, making things may provide a space for people to share. Talk may lead in time towards action. The image I have in my head is of a ball, along which you can move on different planes, according to where you are in your life. So, the first plane represents where I am, where I’m heading, maybe, and is always present.
I must have time for thinking, for quiet reflection, perhaps, experienced while walking or cooking, writing or swimming. At least at two points, my individual plane crosses and connects with the group one. Here in the connections is where I learn from the tutor and the other students in the group. My creative processes are working. I am challenged, inspired, deflated, demoralised and helped up again for another day. Hopefully, a skilled, imaginative facilitator (you, the teacher!) leads (takes the initiative in a relationship – George Lakey) the exploration.
And time passes, revealing a third plane of multiple connnections with other groups and ideas over time. I call this the ‘working in the garden’. You may have a different image – the kitchen, a coastline or in the market. This is where organic, developmental growth happens. Some of this, you’ve planned but a lot of it just happens, bringing unforeseen benefits. Tutors may never know the effect their classes have on a student. They may not know it themselves till much later. Or you may see a lasting legacy, such as a community garden, a glass mosaic in the community library, a short story published or a song performed and recorded. We move between the personal and the collective at different times. We need both. Individually, we can achieve so much. Yet, where the planes connect, we are stronger and can have a greater impact.
What if you have a core of people in your group, attending regularly over two years or more? How far might you take them in this time? Rather than working in isolated blocks of learning (from 21 to 21 hours), would it make a difference if you prepared linked modules of 21 hours? That would mean 84 hours or even126 hours, quite a lot of hours. Do you know the tutorial classes in the early days of the WEA ran over three years? It’s unrealistic to think we can do this again but can we restore its purpose with what we have or can obtain?
The WEA way is not revolutionary in its approach. We are capable of producing revolutionaries and revolutionary thinkers, we hope! Yet, if we stop in one place, we may appear to be so, as the political culture shifts around us. Learning has always been about opening up individuals and groups by asking creative questions. So, is Critical Action Learning (CAL) social purpose? As this involves a group project as its stated outcome, it has to be. And Community Engagement (CE)? This has to have at least one learning outcome, explicitly addressing the benefits to the community, arising out of the group’s activity, so yes, I’d say it is. Whereas Creative Facilitation is an approach, which helps you make sense of a particular theme or problem in an imaginative way, often drawing on the visual or drama, poetry or stories. What of critical thinking…?
Are these all facets of social purpose, then? Yes, I would say so. Starting with the individual, and moving to the group, where what people learn impacts on the lives and critical thinking of the students, their families, friends and those they come into contact with.
So, is that it? It doesn’t sound like very much and I’m doing a lot of it already. Well, that’s great, then. Carry on, build on it. See where it leads and enjoy the journey. After all, our tutors are also students with much still to learn, I hope. The WEA is one of the few publicly-funded institutions where this is still possible. So, make it happen, colleagues and friends, while we still can.
The Ministry of Enthusisam, Centenary Esays on the Workers’ Educational Association, Edited by Stephen K Roberts, WEA Pluto Press, 2003
A Very Special Adventure, The Illustrated History of the Workers’ Educational Association, 2003
Raising Our Voices, 100 Years of Women in the WEA, WEA Women’s Education Committee, 2003
A Century of Learning, The Workers’ Educational Association 1903-2003
The Social Purpose unit, intended as an introduction
– version 2 (revised on WEAVE under Tutor Induction)
– version 1 (original version – http://www.wea-yh.org.uk/esp/index.html )
The Social Purpose module (you will need a log in for this) – http://www.wea-yh.org.uk/esp/index.html
Training for Transformation website – http://www.trainingfortransformation.ie/
(Tutors gain access to Partners Organisation’s resources for creative facilitation when s/he completes the social purpose module)