1 May 02008

Culture and Learning: response to consultation paper

A couple of months ago the UK think tank Demos published a consultation paper with the title Culture and Learning: Towards a New Agenda. The paper aims to challenge cultural professionals and educationalists "to provide a new and coherent direction for creative learning and for encouraging creativity through culture", and the consultation period runs until next Tuesday.

I find it a curious intervention, because in some ways it seems to be swimming against the tide. There is a strong emphasis on centralisation and standardisation, the favoured interventions of old-school bureaucrats.

Hat tip to Bridget McKenzie whose own response to this consultation brought it to my attention. And following her lead in making her response public, here is mine, organised according to the six issues that the paper encourages us to address.

1 How best to define cultural learning

The definition of cultural learning on page 11 suffers from comparison with the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) definition on the previous page, and the difference between these definitions highlights issues that run through the rest of the Paper.

I understand (and support) the reasons why the Paper has restricted itself to the 'art' definition of culture rather than the 'ethnographic' definition. But even with this restriction, we cannot get away from the fact that cultural interpretations are a proxy for hammering out who and what we are.

The MLA definition captures this by using terms such as active engagement and making sense of the world. The definition on page 11 goes off the rails as soon as it speaks of acquiring behaviours, knowledge and values. The former represents learning as a fluid and dynamic process of exploration, interpretation, debating of contested meanings and identity formation. The latter represents it as paternalistic transmission of a set of approved and standardised meanings.

As a secondary point, the page 11 definition risks getting mixed up between cart and horse in cultural learning when it refers to enjoyment motivating and enhancing learning, as though culture was somehow the sugar coating on the (bitter?) pill of more serious lessons. Learning should enhance enjoyment as much as vice-versa. There seems to be a hidden agenda between the lines of the document that culture is a means to the end of making us all better citizens. (When culture and politics get into a tussle, politics may win the battle, but culture will win the war — it runs slower and deeper.)

Throughout the Paper I had a sense that what the author really wanted was a 21st century, vaguely interactive version of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation TV series from forty years ago, which could be 'implemented' nationally. Irrespective of how the landscape has changed since then, it's important to remember that the subtitle of that series was A Personal View, not A Standardised (or Canonical) View. Even the patrician strand of cultural education has acknowledged its roots in subjectivity and the possibility of alternative, incommensurate frameworks.

And the landscape has changed. We live in a world where we choose our cultural 'programme' to fit our interests and social relationships, rather than having its parameters set by Reithian overseers. I have written about the new behaviours of cultural discovery that are emerging as a result (in my recent book: see About Me at the end of this letter), which I describe as 'free-range foraging' whereby we group and swarm around common cultural interests. Yes, we still absorb what institutions and mass media put out to interest and entertain us, but we also re-interpret and re-present it to each other in blogs and on social networks. This is good old-fashioned meaning-making, made newly visible — on a grand scale — and durable by digital media.

It's a brave man or woman who goes up against these anarcho-democratic dynamics by seeking to conjure a national framework wherein citizens can reliably acquire the behaviours, knowledge and values that will "equip people for the world of today and tomorrow". I salute your courage in staking out a position that goes against the prevailing intellectual fashion for more 'emergent' and 'participative' approaches. But I have to ask (a) what's driving this return to centralisation and standardisation, with its open disdain for localism and specialisms? and (b) you and whose army? (Hence, I guess, your questions about leadership...)

2 How to embed cultural learning more firmly in the education and learning sectors and in cultural organisations

In its own discussion of possible solutions, the Paper references the National College for School Leadership's network learning communities. With my associate Seb Schmoller, I have recently done a consulting project for NCSL to recommend the design directions for the next iteration of the infrastructure that supports these communities. Without giving away any confidences, the approach aims to define a small 'centre', managed by the College with appropriate controls and standards, but a wider 'penumbra' where the participants have a great deal of autonomy to collaborate on terms that they decide, and using their favoured tools and approaches. The only discipline imposed is that participants are encouraged to make the outcomes from this work readily accessible to the centre, and may be rewarded for doing so.

The relevance of this model to embedding cultural learning in education and learning sectors and in cultural organisation is this: embedding doesn't have to mean whipping organisations into line to create a whole new strand of activity on top of what they've already been whipped into submission to do. If you create a minimalist framework - or just an enabling platform - for organisations to make visible and share widely their existing cultural learning, there is a good chance that more sustainable standards and voluntary frameworks will emerge. Create the conditions that make it easy and rewarding for organisations to collaborate, share and develop cultural learning practices, and they will do so.

Organisations in the cultural and education sectors could also adopt a similar approach, creating a permeable membrane between what they do as part of their core mission as an institution and the many activities that go on beyond their control, beyond their intervention and without their sanction, yet which have potential relevance to its aims. Significant numbers of students and audiences are motivated to learn about, and from, culture. Too often they do so on their own terms because they feel the terms of cultural and education organisations are too constraining.

Those organisations can thrive by positioning themselves as cultural exchanges where people communicate and share their interpretations. At the moment Bebo is probably doing this better than most libraries and public collections.

3 How to identify the most effective leaders to drive improvement in cultural learning

Put simply: create the conditions for these leaders to identify themselves.

Create a platform that helps cultural learning practitioners discover the projects, people and resources that might be relevant to their own aims, and that supports them making entrepreneurial connections. With the right channels and information infrastructure in place, leaders will soon make themselves known.

4 What the leadership role in cultural learning should comprise

I'm not sure that they're any different from leadership in other areas, but here are a few traits that spring to mind:

  • the ability to spot the seed of a good idea, or a good implementation of an idea, even when it's hidden in a lot of extraneous rubbish and noise;
  • the ability to enrol the people with promising ideas in an ambitious vision, to influence and engage in circumstances where you can't control;
  • the ability to work across boundaries, recognise the value of formal and informal interventions in cultural learning, and manage the ecosystem so that both kinds support and feed off each other.

5 How to develop a set of shared standards, and a definition of excellence relating to cultural learning

Page 23 of the Paper suggests adapting the MLA's Inspiring Learning for All framework for wider use. This seems to me one sound foundation on which to build: the framework has the benefit of several years of experience, and is sufficiently generic to be adaptable to specific contexts without being so generic as to be lacking in substance.

Having said that, with regard to the process for developing shared standards, I would recommend starting at the point of aggregating existing practice in the cycle of standards development:


If you start with analysis or specification, you risk missing potentially important practices in cultural learning.

I confess I have little time for the idea of 'defining excellence', possibly as a result of the experience of ever-sprouting Centres of Excellence that serve mainly to accelerate the cycle of fads and generally seem to peddle mediocrity with a short shelf-life. At the same time, I concede this not an argument against assessment or judgements of quality. The range of things we can measure is growing significantly, particularly in the digital world, but it's not clear which of these metrics are going to be the most valuable.

I'd recommend that the first stage should be to benchmark several cultural learning initiatives on several different measures at each stage in their lifecycle (recognising that individual initiatives go through a lifecycle of conception, growth and death, even as the collective 'river' of learning continues to flow).

6 How to improve the profile, scale and effectiveness of cultural learning

I hope my answers above have gone some way to addressing this point.

To address the effectiveness point, we need to agree what cultural learning is for. The Paper doesn't discuss this at length, and refers just to "how to equip people for the world of today and tomorrow".

There is no doubt that cultural learning can play a role in building social bridges and deepening trust and cohesion. Much of what goes on in social networks (broadly defined, online and offline) is driven by a desire to connect with culture through people and to connect with people through culture. The culture we choose to explore makes us who we are.

I worry that the Paper may underestimate the amount of self-motivated and informal cultural learning that takes place off the radar of governments, schools and cultural institutions. Activity that takes place without institutional sanction or support inevitably ends up having low status within institutions. Frequently they dismiss its non-institutional nature as 'fragmented', missing the point that its diversity, flexibility and high degree of personalisation are precisely its strength. It will be a big challenge to change this. And I am wary that the solution to this should not be to institutionalise spontaneous behaviour, but to capture its essence, accelerate its momentum, and make links to related activities.

7 About me

I am independent consultant, working through my company DJ Alchemi Ltd. I help organisations tackle any issues they may have with online learning and discovery. Recent clients include NESTA, the Association for Learning Technology, unionlearn and the National College for School Leadership. I am the author of Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll: How Digital Discovery Works and What it Means for Consumers, Creators and Culture (published 2007). For more details, please see http://alchemi.co.uk/about/ or http://alchemi.typepad.com/about.html .

I hope this response is useful, and wish you well with your final report.

Yours sincerely

David Jennings

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Curatorial, E-learning on 1 May 02008 | TrackBack

Thank you David for this Blog post, it is very helpful in terms of the paper which I read but found to be a bit of a turn off...helpful in helping me articulate my own aims and objectives (to myself)...there is such a lot of bureaucratic nonsense out there...as depressing as the gatekeepers attitudes to a new social network I have set up to get the students at the school where I work engaged with sustainability and climate change issues (why do they need that)...well I've just got to go in there and persuade them that they do...

Posted by: Lucy Johnson on 9 July 02008 at 10:43 AM
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