Action Research for Unschooled Masters Update
A boring Ronseal of a title
Last time I wrote about this masters project six weeks ago I had a plan for planfulness and an idea to post more consistently with small updates of the project’s progress. That hasn’t happened however that is mainly due to the pace at which the project has progressed, and so now that the term has ended it seems like the time to take pause and put down some briefs notes on what has been happening over the last month. We have another change cycle to go through for the next season (half-term) and then my plan is to draw this action research to close and spend the half-term break writing up the research and publishing it.
Firstly, I would like to thank Simon Robinson who has been visiting our learning community for the last couple of months from Okinawa. Simon is a language learning expert and teacher of English in Japan but also ran a democratic school for a number of years. Seven years ago his last trip home to England to see family coincided with the opening of our learning community and he turned up on the doorstep and said can I help you start and he did. He is an old friend of our community and his thoughts, advice, and perspectives on our practices around meetings, plans and culture have been extremely valuable.
Musings on Self-Directed Education is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
One of the key takeaways that I will take from these last six weeks is recording of data. We meet weekly as mentors and talk about the things that are occurring in our community, the patterns we see, but to make records and notes of my observations over a longer period of time has been a valuable practice. In addition mixing in quantitative data into a mostly qualitative approach has been really interesting. And that led to our first real change we enacted this season.
Meeting start times
Meetings are the gatekeepers for plans, and whilst planning can happen outside of meetings of course, the meat of planning is done in meetings, which is why I focused a lot of my thinking on how meetings meet the needs of the young people as planners.
My initial thoughts were that meetings felt long because they sometimes took too long to get started for a variety of reasons. Though our handbook commits to starting meetings at 10:00, it was rarely happening, sometimes things down at the gate meant we came up late, sometimes we had come up but things were happening in the space that delayed the meetings. So I started recording meeting start and end times and noticed half way through the season that the days on which our meetings started promptly the day progressed well with respect to the things that had already been planned in for that day.
Meeting after Meeting
Now I had some tentative data, but ideally I wanted a little more for a more conclusive pattern, however, in week three the older group, who have signed up to our self-managed learning programme of goal setting and plan making, complained about the length of meetings that they were having to endure (probably the correct word in all honesty) on Tuesdays. They had to do a check-in meeting, then a weekly review and plan session and then a Project Lab meeting where they timetabled their plans on the community board. The purpose of the Project Lab is scheduling plans, negotiating with people you might be working with on a project to ensure all can attend, ensuring the mentor you need to support you is free at the time you want to do it, making sure you don’t have too many plans back to back so that you don’t lose energy near the end of the day, etc.
They felt like Tuesdays were too meeting heavy and the day was over by the time they had done all the meetings and then taken the inevitable time required to relax from all the meetings. As this was now live action research I presented the data I had collected to the other mentors that evening and we agreed to enforce the handbook and start meetings promptly at 10:00.
We also met with the older group the next morning and after listening to their suggestions about how we could change the meeting structure I suggested that the weekly review and plan session can have a planning feel to it if we have it on the first day of the week, or a more review feel to it if we have it on the last day of the week and that perhaps we could distribute the meetings over time and then one day does not feel so meeting heavy.
Conclusion: agree to start meetings promptly at 10am and have the project lab on Tuesday morning and the review and plan for next week session on the Thursday afternoon.
“Plans” and Intentions
When I joined this learning community in 2021 the schedule was planned daily in a section of the meeting called plans, where the negotiations that I mentioned above that happen in the project lab, were played out every day. We moved towards an ALC (Agile Learning Centre) model around a year ago and one of the changes that we enacted the time was a project planting meeting (the predecessor to the Project Lab) that happened on a Tuesday morning for the start of the week. This was an optional meeting mostly used by tweens and teens and so the plans section of the meeting was never dropped. Having that meeting at the start of the week however did mean that the time spent “planning” daily did reduce, which was beneficial for all as it often took a long time.
This year we have introduced setting intentions at the start of the day and reflecting on them at the end of the day. This is common ALC practice. What is also common ALC practice is not to plan daily but to plan weekly as a community. Your intention is your daily plan and it does not need to be negotiated with everyone.
I have lots to say on “plans” and intentions, but I don’t want this to become too long, so for now I will say that I find them at odds with each other, the mode of being that one resides in for setting intentions and the mode for discussing plans are very different. One is internal introspection and one is communal negotiation and I am not sure that having them sat next to each other in a meeting works for everyone. And also the plans section still takes up a lot of time that is unnecessary, mainly in that often the things being discussed don’t include everyone, and that impinges on other people’s autonomy, which is a central tenet of the learning community. We have talked about how to reduce the plans section in the meetings and the older group have for the most part done that, and next season I think that we will move towards that with the younger group as well.
Set The Week
To help achieve that we have changed the Project Lab meeting name to a Set The Week meeting. This is the standard ALC first meeting of the week planning out the week communally. This is not just a change of name, but a change of approach including changing the layout of the board that we use to plan our week with.
Adding in an additional section called offerings/requests on the left does a few things. It allows the things that are solidly defined as ongoing projects to remain at the bottom of the board in the Doing and then moving to Done section. It differentiates out what is a project from something that is more of either a one-off activity or maybe an ongoing series of events that are adult led such as language learning or Big Ideas Club - these definitions are never concrete but they point to differences that are important. By making clear that there are attached needs (third column along) to offerings/requests it means that we can point things that don’t have strong needs that need negotiating to the intention part of the meeting and out of group discussions, thereby answering some of the problems that we have with the plans or intentions being at odds and taking up a lot of time mentioned above. Things which can be stated as an intention can then be discussed informally outside the meeting if there is a need for a conversation, either between the young people or a quick check-in by a mentor that they have the resources that they need to make that intention happen.
At this point I would like to give thanks to all the young people who have offered suggestions and opinions about meetings and plans throughout the whole season. That latter point I had in the back of my mind already but it was stated very eloquently and passionately by a young person that helped clarify it for me. This was by no means been a one-off event, there have been numerous insights throughout this process given by lots of young people.
The aim is that the board can help map out the meeting structure - projects first, offerings next, then intentions - and allows us to keep longer projects, offerings and requests that need communal negotiation and intentions that need minimal formal negotiation all separated out and in the correct place, thereby making the meetings much more efficient, which for the most part they have been. Efficiency is a word that seems at odds with a lot of what the purpose of self-directed education is in other aspects, it seems very geared towards being productive, which is not in line with the essence of process over product that runs through so much of what we do. But when you make meetings mandatory and you want to optimise for autonomy as a central value in your community if you are not being efficient you are likely making someone sit their thinking this a waste of my time and I can’t even leave; I don’t have the agency in this space to claim the autonomy everyone keeps banging on about here!
I am indebted to fellow facilitator Tomis Parker whose blog on learning sprints inspired me to play around with them this season. I started with a seven and eight year old on sketching out a Roman project, and then seeing the success that it had I decided that I wanted to try it on the last day of term with my learning group. I told my fellow facilitator of my plans and they suggested that we try it for both of the learning groups that make up our self-managed learning programme simultaneously.
A learning sprint is a tool to map out a task list for a project for a short period, a sprint so to speak. Some may be as short as a week, some might take up half a term. I proposed that we aim to do one for the couple of weeks we are off for Easter.
And so we tried it. Unlike Tomis we already had goals already so we just asked them to chose one goal and complete a sprint on it. As per Tomis’s later reflections we changed the backlog column to possibilities as it is feels more like you are opening a goal up with that terminology. We also, because the self-managed learning programme is a collaborative reflection programme added in another column between possibilities and story called suggestions.
We first asked people to come up with possibilities for their goals. In our programme we have an induction week where we spend time thinking about questions of what to learn but also how we can learn that particular goal, so we made it clear we wanted possibilities that could be about either the whats or the hows. After fifteen minutes we then all moved around the room and read two other people’s possibilities and tried to put in suggestions that they might have missed or not thought about. By doing this we can improve people’s thoughts by giving them feedback on their ideas at the initial stage.
We then asked them to think about how they could take the possibilities and create a story out of them. I worked with people to help them notice the themes that they had written down and if the themes could help them to pull together a story. Someone who wanted to learn Japanese had alphabet based, reading based, and speaking and listening based possibilities, once he saw that he realised that the possibilities for speaking and listening were where he should focus first. Someone who wanted to make YouTube videos had themes of gaming (the content), editing and creating videos, and publishing and understanding the algorithm. There a clear progression of learning paths opened up when he saw that the path of progression was thematic in nature. Someone who wanted to get better at a game realised that one possibility was that task, the rest were either how he could do so in the game, or how he could do so by playing with friends (social themes).
They then wrote out stories and started to pull together a task list. We didn’t complete this for everyone as we reached the hour mark, but for the first time working with this group of self-directed learners there were no complaints about the time it took. An hour seemed to fly by and everyone was really focused on the task and enjoying it. There was some negative feedback in the feedback section, but only pertaining to parts of the task, not that we had spent so long on it and the overwhelming feeling was that we should incorporate this tool into our toolbox for project planning for next season.
There have been a lot of changes and a number of trials started that we need to pursue and think about further, some ideas that I have not touched on here for brevity and some more thoughts of things to change (especially for the older group but the mantra of don’t change too much too quickly is very much being heeded!), and there are maybe more thoughts that will come up in our mentor planning session we have over this Easter break before we come back.
However, at this stage I can say that this term has been both really successful and highly enjoyable, and the process of guiding and being guided by the young people and their concerns has been really rewarding. I am looking forward to the future changes that we make as we focus on planfulness and projects and have so many things to say already for the conclusion of this project in another two months.