Social Distance Inc.

Sunday, 15 November, 2020
Alt-9

Elliot Perkins

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It’s late August 2020 and it seems the country is in convulsions as we prepare once again for the annual mass ritual of sending kids back into schools to begin the new ‘school year’ – a modern activity which seems to mark and structure time like no other. The current discourse around ‘lost time’ that pupils now have to make up demonstrates clearly how the current education system overstates its own importance that every day not spent in formal tuition is deemed ‘lost’.

After months of remote learning, media discourse, national and local conversations portray the relief of families happy to hand that responsibility back to schools and teachers. For many this struggle has been waged under the most precarious of conditions in cramped housing compounded by health needs, time poverty, work demands, isolation and lacking support structures not to mention the coerced being-together to engage in a learning whose aims are principally external to the needs and desires of those doing the learning.

This is also true for teachers and support staff who have been confronted with the real and ever-shifting situation of school closures and remote learning in which many tales of tireless dedication and compassion have emerged and school persists …

But there is one question which all of the public health debates, exam results fuck-ups, high-level resignations/sackings and grim assessments of future impact on children’s lives fail to obscure; we might ask what exactly has been so burdensome about the act of learning outside of school that we are so ready to give it all up? Could it be that once the novelty of spending time together learning and teaching with our kids has worn off, it is in fact that we realise that what they are given to learn is in fact dull, often abstract and lacks any real connection to the urgencies and materiality of our everyday lives?

The programmatic approach to learning as prescribed by the national curriculum not only schools us in the practice of finding answers before we even know how to formulate a question, it teaches us to find answers to questions we haven’t asked. Instead of a set of given outcomes which we are supposed to learn and master through narrowly choreographed instruction and testing, how can we create the learning space necessary to  find and ask the questions we might have about the world around us?

In a crisis such as the current pandemic, school in this form shows its impotence – it does not teach for crisis. Enormous and admirable lengths are gone to to mitigate the impact on those students worst affected but this invariably stays in the realm of ‘educational support’ and is kept peripheral to academic programming and content. What could we learn about solidarity, care, struggle, a sense of place if this were otherwise?

With the contradictions of the capitalist economy becoming more visible by the day in the forms of housing crises, struggles for racial, gender, social and environmental justice and the swelling ranks of the poor and precarious how do we organise for education in which these conditions are central to the curriculum? How do we build a schooling model which teaches to, from and for the social realities of both the learners and the teachers?

As it stands, schools are in most cases the embodiment of ‘social distancing’; distanced from the reality of the communities in which they are situated, delivering programmes which alienate learners from their own experience. Behind the grand claims of the “community school’ these hermetic spaces for abstracted learning see the community as merely the venue for programme delivery.

There is an argument here for an education grounded in the social relations of the learners, a model of learning which substitutes predetermined educational content, given outcomes measurable by bullshit testing with an enquiry-based learning which unfolds in homes, streets, parks, town centres, workplaces, community centres, allotments, places of worship, hospitals, care homes, hospices, courts, contested development sites, community-organised projects etc. in a school’s own postcode.

The act and process of enquiry leaves the self-evident, unassailable set of organised ‘facts’ of conventional school programmes behind for the contingency and uncertainty of collective learning. Curiosity, questioning, difference, subjectivity and lived-experience allow for an embodied learning to emerge. Tentative, shaky outcomes which need re-testing, tensions, full-blown contradictions and all the negotiations inherent in social group dynamics make for a shared, commonly produced knowledge.

This type of knowledge speaks to our own experience and understanding of the needs, histories and power structures in our own neighbourhoods and how we might organise around them. How we listen for these needs is determined by those shaping their own learning: What do we need to learn? What do we want to learn? Who are our co-learners? What do we already know? Who do we want to share that learning with? Where do we go to investigate?

The absence of any guarantees, resolution of a given problem or of predestined learning outcomes enable a space within the enquiry for everyone to be a teacher. We all have something to teach out of our own experience and something to learn from somebody else’s. Peer-teaching in this way aspires to a collectivity of difference. Differences are seen as something to explore and deepen as something pedagogical rather than something which needs to be resolved or eclipsed by established fact or truth.

Of course all the above assumes community control of schools as a public resource which is there to serve the needs of the neighbourhoods they are situated in. This will require a radical renegotiation of the relations between schools and their host communities and their respective understandings of what each needs from the other. Since the outbreak of the pandemic communities have carried schools through the crisis by turning our homes into a public good for schooling and for work. The contract between schools and their constituencies have already been reconfigured in ways we could hardly have imagined. In a transformed world beyond the now can these possibilities be tested further? Organising for a radical shift through which the community becomes the learning venue, can demands for participatory programming, teaching, budgeting be spoken and heard?

New term is soon upon us. What do we want to learn?

 

Elliot Perkins

Elliot Perkins is an educator with the home-ed collective Alt9  based in South Devon, UK. He is also a member of the international sound art collective Ultra-red.

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