I’m sitting in a café on La Rambla in Barcelona following a couple of days participating in an international learning spaces summit in Barcelona (#ILS2019). (nb. I use ‘participating’ not ‘attending’)
We are getting really close to Brexit now and I haven’t given up thinking that the whole bad idea might just fall apart. Being away from the UK in a European country and participating in scholarly work, sharing practice and thinking through how we experience learning in universities spaces, underlines with great clarity my belief we are making a huge mistake. Let’s look at a few of the conversations I have had in the last two or three days.
The conference began with a speed dating icebreaker in which I met and found connection with six other people from six different countries. The people were architects, estates managers, academic researchers and teachers, furniture suppliers, and developers.
I worked in table-based activities with other people using techniques such as Lego Serious Play to explore ideas and to discover, inevitably, that communicating complex and emerging thoughts and beliefs is easier than might have been expected. (It’s fun playing LSP with architects btw! It still works). Working with Lego continues to surprise me, taking me deeply into what I believe and what I seek to communicate and learn about in ways that elicit social exchange. Being part of a Lego conversation is incredible, especially when in the final phase of the challenge that we were given, we were asked to re-assemble and combine our models to form a collective narrative or comment on the topic we were given (the future teacher, in our case). The diverse voices encouraged by this method bring a richness that knows no boundaries, only diverse and complementary perspectives. (An example of assemblage theory in practice btw).
The scholarly community that I have been with is mostly a European community, though I met one or two people from North America and an Australian person. None of us were constrained by our national identities. None of us had secretive attitudes and ways of thinking. Our purpose was scholarly and generative – that is, we appreciated each other as co-creators of knowledge. If we were giving away our research findings, or simply our questions, it is because we know the value of the discussion that will ensue and that together we will co-construct new knowledge. Populist, inward-looking people do not seem to understand this. Perhaps they have never experienced an education in which they learn from, and have respect for, each other?
This is a failing of the UK education system, if so. Of course, similar failings are evident wherever populist politics hold sway.
Perhaps this is why I am such an advocate of active learning and co-operative learning environments.
Talking about space, for me, equates to talking about experience as a locus for learning in a social context. In the conference, I learned a great deal from presenters including those from school education, from architecture, from facilities management, and from so many different countries. This was an interdisciplinary, interprofessional, intercultural exchange, albeit for two days. A fertile ecology. Why is Britain determined to face inwards to cut off the wealth of knowledge and thinking that a pluralistic context affords?
It’s not only about Europe. The problem with Brexit is that it is indicative of an insular, anti-global attitude. Those ‘leavers’, it seems to me, want to leave everything that does not resemble a romantic ideal of times past. The only international outlook is a colonial one in which our relationships are assumed to be waiting in the wings (despite our history of bad will and patriarchy).
It is interesting being in Barcelona and enjoying the culture and architecture. But the culture that the tourists flock to see is founded upon an expression of populism in the early twentieth century – a reaction against the industrial revolution. As in British arts and crafts, there is a strong nationalist romantic undertone that harks back to the myths and legends that come from medieval folklore. Coincidently, Saint George is the patron saint of Barcelona and held in similar revere to the English. How ironic. The gothic metalwork and the turrets and towers that give structure to Gaudi’s architecture are tinged with, or tainted by, an idealisation for times past typical of Art Nouveau. Beauty is skin deep. Beneath the surface, more sinister moods and beliefs may be evident. The Spanish Civil war was not far behind this cultural outpouring of populist disquiet which then grew and vented itself in European countries through the two world wars. We came to our senses only when we formed European alliances.
In the work I lead on employability, a key message to our students is to embrace the global opportunity for developing their knowledge and their professional futures. We graduate to a global stage. It feels that this message of openness and opportunity is about to be thwarted by the brick wall that is Brexit. Am I now meant to change my message of connectivity and global possibilities and advise our students to focus on parochial possibilities that are ill-defined, lacking in evidence, and limited by politically abstract geographical borders? I have heard Vice-Chancellors talking about the implications of Brexit for research and investment, but I don’t think this message of parochialism, of cutting off our nose to spite our face, has come across. A message that affects the employment opportunities of all of our students, but more importantly, one that will adversely affect their view of the world as they go onto forge their careers.
Colleagues at this conference felt sorry for the British representatives and we are feeling sorry for ourselves. How embarrassing. How stupid we are.