Last week, the Learning Together Network came together for our Annual Conference – a first day together in HMP Hull, followed by a second more focused day of discussion for partners who are actively involved in the Network. Our conference hosts were Dr Adam Calverley from the University of Hull and Gary Sword, Head of Reducing Reoffending at HMP Hull. Our programme for day one of the conference incorporated diverse voices from within and across Learning Together partnerships, with a particular focus on student voice and experience including those from the partnership between HMP Hull and the university of Hull. We were especially glad to welcome contributions from some of formerly prison based students from across the Network who are now contributing from the community.
Over the next few weeks, we hope to publish a few further blog posts with different people’s reflections about the conference. For now though, we thought we’d share an abridged summary of what Amy and Ruth shared in their introduction to day one of the conference on ‘Education as the practice of freedom’.
Education as the Practice of Freedom
Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it can become the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.
In 1968, Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, wrote ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. To our shame, it was only when our educational psychologist colleague, Becky Docherty, pointed us in the direction of this small book a few weeks into our first Learning Together course at Grendon, that we discovered its magic. In Freire’s work, we found a language that described the sort of critical pedagogy that excited us – the sort of pedagogy that repositioned teacher and learner as equal collaborators in a process of learning that politicised, contested, dynamised and personalised knowledge. His work has been an key influence on Learning Together, contributing to our broader interest in transformative learning, as one of the three main strands of theory that underpin our practices and research within the Learning Together community. Our vision statement as a Network is ‘Education as the practice of freedom’.
There is a wealth of evidence that attests to the benefits of education, but our body of existing knowledge is less clear about the conditions of transformation – when and how education is transformative. Research can paint a somewhat narrow and top-down account of what transforms, and a somewhat uncritical vision of the transformative process as inevitably positive in experience and outcome. As a community, we are interested to interrogate when and how education is transformative, particularly seeking to understand the contribution that Learning Together communities might make towards the building of more inclusive societies, which also support movements away from crime.
Since its inception, we’ve been carefully evaluating Learning Together partnerships at Cambridge. Drawing on learning from interviews with over 200 students from the last four years, we’ve been able to adapt and develop measures that seem to capture some of the transformations through Learning Together that our students tell us are important to them. Our preliminary data shows statistically significant increases in self-efficacy, social self-efficacy, perspective taking and self-esteem for students at the end of Learning Together courses at HMPs Grendon and Whitemoor. Data analysis from this year’s courses (including at HMP Warren Hill) is underway, and you can read more about this aspect of our work here.
But beyond these positive aspects of transformation, the last four years have taught us that not all learning – and Learning Together – is straightforwardly or universally positively transformative. Today, we wanted to share three key messages that we hear strongly in the voices and experiences of our students. We’d like to invite reflection on what these three messages might mean for our work as individual partnerships and as a broader community.
Message 1 – mere togetherness in learning is not enough
Although bringing together students who are currently under the supervision of two different institutions (HE and CJ) seems to be one of the ‘magic’ ingredients – that is to say that it seems to be an important part of what enables increased self-efficacy (a feeling of ‘I can do this’) – our students have helped us understand that merely bringing people together is not enough. How you bring people together really matters. In particular, their experiences highlight the importance of three things:
(i) The ‘right’ social climate – a climate that is challenging, in which there is a culture of high expectations, but also a culture of inclusion and a genuinely non-hierarchical approach.
I liked the fact that it was close, and that it was hard. You had to speak up, you had to get closer […] I liked that environment. It didn’t feel like a classroom, it felt like a gathering (Lewey 2016)
(ii) Content and learning that is subjectifying rather than objectifying, and which does not embed unthinking prejudices. This, our students tell us, is an essential basis for equality within the learning community which underpins positive connections between students and with content. Subjectification includes making it possible for students to share all experiences (good and bad) as are relevant to their learning.
When I’ve had other interactions with students from [another] University, it’s mainly ‘what are you in for?’, ‘how long have you done?’ and stuff like that. But with Learning Together it wasn’t like that. It was ‘how are you doing?’, ‘are you alright?’. It was more friendly […] more engaging, it wasn’t a thing where we are sort of guinea pigs […] I think the atmosphere here that’s created is what needed to be created. Everyone was friendly. You didn’t really see anyone on their own. (Neil 2015)
(iii) An non-judgmental atmosphere is vital.
Even in prison, I’ve always stayed away from education, just because of my experiences in the past. I think no-one judged you or anything in the LT classroom. If anything, everyone just tried to encourage you to do great things […] I think it’s everyone having that mutual understanding […] we’re here to do this, we’re not here to be making fun our of people. We’re here to encourage people to learn. (Rosca 2017)
Message 2 – transformative learning is not relentlessly positive
Our students have consistently described Learning Together as a complex emotional process, triggering negative feelings alongside more positive emotions.
It feels really good, now there’s literally nothing that I’d limit myself from doing. […] To you guys speaking in public probably seems completely matter of course, but that’s the kind of thing that frightens me. But I did it… I was really worried about [the group project], the potential for feeling silly or exposure felt quite high, but I was really, really amazed at how it went. You put the pressure on us, and it’s scary, but we came up with something I was proud of. (Adam 2016)
Newfound feelings of hope and possibility can cause students to reflect upon opportunities and their own potential, which they might now feel were wasted. Those realisations can be frustrating and painful.
Everything just aligned at that time for me to see how much I’ve wasted in life. What life is. What a man is. I don’t know how to explain it to you. (John 2016)
Transitions between the Learning Together environment and everyday realities (whether that be at university or in prison) can be especially difficult. When courses end, students sometimes experience ‘cliff edges’ and renewed senses of frustration, disappointment or sadness.
It was love really. It was like everyone really loved each other, and it was quite painful really, coming away from the prison and then thinking about the other students, going back to their cells. I’d come away feeling quite sad really that it wasn’t carrying on because I just wanted to keep going. I wanted them to be at the same place so they didn’t have to go back to their cells. Yes, it made me feel quite upset really a lot of the time. (Patrick 2017)
Message 3: the magic’s in community rather than one off courses
Our students have underscored the importance of continuation and progression within and between courses. For us, there seems to be little point, and in fact also some ethical inappropriateness, to take students to an exciting precipice in their learning, where they begin to think differently about their futures, to show them this beautiful view, but them leave them without tangible avenues for continued involvement. Exciting precipices can then become deadening cliff edges, risking compounding negative personal and social narratives, rather than propelling students positively forwards. For our practices, this has meant increasingly deep partnership working – building curricular, and sequenced activities across the year, and opportunities for all of our students to stay involved (e.g. through mentoring) and safely and positively connected with us and each other, including staying in touch with students as they move beyond prisons and universities. Our students’ reflections also underscore the importance of community between partnerships within the Network. This year, we’ve seen lots of exciting examples of collaboration and community building within the Network. A few examples involving our Cambridge community include:
Mo from Full Sutton and the Leeds Beckett Learning Together partnership, joining our community in Whitemoor and being able to complete his criminology module with us. Ellie, our student from Grendon, progressing to volunteer as a facilitator in Full Sutton, Megan, another student from Grendon, progressing to work as a prison officer close by. Plans are afoot for Yaw, one of our students from Grendon, to join the Lowdham Grange Learning Together community in partnership with Nottingham Trent University. Steve, from Grendon has head up to Thorn Cross where Edge Hill University has a Learning Together partnership, and Jake, who did his undergraduate at the University of York has joined us as an MPhil in Cambridge and as a Learning Together students in our partership with HMP Grendon.
This year, we’ve started a new longitudinal phase of research, with our colleague Victoria, following with on all of our Learning Together students from the last four years of partnership working at Cambridge. We’re interested to understand what role, if any, Learning Together has in their lives after individual courses have ended. We’re still reading and thinking about what students have told us, but responses so far consistently underscore the significance of continued community. When asked by Victoria, ‘What’s the most important thing about Learning Together’, Gareth, a 2015 Grendon student, answered simply ‘That it’s still there’. Similarly, John speaks to togetherness and friendship.
It is the sense of togetherness, friendship, and still being here, that seems to be critical to our students’ sense of progression and positive future. Our students are telling us how Learning Together has acted as a catalyst for their continued education both within and beyond the CJ system, including new ways of practicing and being learners and researchers. Our students are also telling us about how Learning Together is equipping them with skills and experiences that mean that they engage differently with difficulties and public institutions. Nick, one of our 2016 Grendon students, for example, recently told us about how, in the face of a small disagreement with the local council, he felt able to engage with official processes and express his perspectives, even to ‘pillars of the local community’.
Even more excitingly, our students are telling us how their individual growth through Learning Together is leading them to occupy themselves and their futures differently, through which many are now contributing to positive social transformation. Several of our Grendon students are now involved in work that seeks to increase social justice. Just a few examples: Marc is working for the Prison Reform Trust on day licence from prison, Jack and Gareth now work for Learning Together, each playing leading roles within our community, Maisie and Megan are now working as prison officers, Laura is working for the Ministry of Justice, Sarah is working for the Mayor’s Office on criminal justice in New York, John is working with JENGbA to push for change in the law on joint enterprise and Eddie is a violence reduction volunteer in Brixton.
All of this, brings us back to where we started, with education as the practice of freedom and with Paolo Freire’s vision of education that pushes beyond me and my transformation, to us and our transformation and the power of the social and communal in processes of transformative learning and transformative community building. When we ask people to tell us the one thing that they take from Learning Together, they often say hope. Our hope today is that our students’ voices will help us to push our thinking even further today so that we can build, nurture, sustain and catalyse on the hope that Learning Together engenders for the good of individuals, institutions and society as a whole.