All Things #JoyFE💛

All things #JoyFE💛 – what we’ve learned from a year of joyful practice.

Presentation to Coleg Ceredigion/Coleg Sir Gâr Festival of Practice 28.6.21

📸 Matt Barton via Unsplash

Bore da, good morning.

Two years ago I was here at the start of your Culture of Curiosity, your research journey. Since then, Coleg Ceredigion, Coleg Sir Gar have become a beacon for so many other learning providers. A beacon of how things can change when educators get involved in making change happen.

I’m here today to include you in another joyful remaking of education, if you’d like to step inside. #JoyFE💛 is trying to change education as a whole.

I’m not selling you anything, because no money changes hands in #JoyFE💛 I’m not pushing a power agenda because there’s no hierarchy. I’m here representing a growing collective of individuals who are all practitioners in FE. We are all part of the same landscape of change.

#JoyFE💛 is a groundswell of FE educators who think that education can be more than it currently is. It’s not a talking shop, in fact sometimes we think we don’t talk enough, because we are too busy doing! 

We also deeply believe in our own agency – we can change things. In fact, we are the only people who can – no use waiting for the cavalry folks. It’s not a party, unless everyone’s invited, as my Google coach friend Sammy White says. So, as I take you on a journey of #JoyFE💛 don’t imagine us as a group of ‘others’. Keep hold of that open invitation in your mind. 

#JoyFE💛 started on 23rd March 2020. I’m sure you won’t have forgotten that was the day the whole country went into lockdown for Covid-19. My friend Stef Wilkinson, who was Director of Learning at Barnsley College at the time, called me and said, we have to do something to keep people’s spirits up. We agreed to broadcast live on Twitter every morning at 7am, to help people start their day. We used the hashtag to invite people along.  And #JoyFE💛 was born. 

I’d already been working on a practice of joy. When I left Northern College in 2017 after nearly 20 years I’d promised myself that instead of chasing outcomes – e.g. “I want to earn X amount in a year” – I’d be guided by my values in a very practical sense. People who don’t like what I’m about often call me naive or ‘airy-fairy’ and I am absolutely not. I’m a pragmatic, working-class Yorkshirewoman who has always had to graft and continues to do so. My values had to be lived and enacted every day.

This was working out for me. I was making a good living by my lights and was able to do interesting volunteer work too. I’d done a TEDx talk back in October 2019 called An Ethics of Joy and people were taking a real interest in values-led practice and ethical leadership. (That red ‘TED’ square is a Dunelm bathmat by the way. Only in Doncaster!) #JoyFE💛 has been a brilliant expression of that work. 

So how do you practice joy? Well, it’s about making a choice – quite simply to practice joy – then aligning everything to that. 1% vision, 99% alignment. I’m not talking about toxic positivity – chasing individual nirvana by pretending to be happy all the time. Joy is not what we own. It’s more than an internet meme or those big letters from Ikea. But after 16 months of Covid I guess we all realise that now. 

My joy goes back 350 years, to 17th Century Amsterdam, where the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza is grinding spectacles lenses to make a living. Spinoza managed to get himself kicked out of every religion going because he just couldn’t make himself believe in a god on a cloud. He believed in the life force of the universe, the love and emotion and energy that sparks between us when we are in community with one another and in the world. I think many of us really get that, after last year, even if we didn’t before. That energetic joy of being in a space with other people who care about what we care, the peaceful joy of an ideas-creating walk in nature.

Don’t worry, I’m not going all woo-woo. I’m not religious myself, though you’re welcome to yours. But, encountering Spinoza during my PhD, I immediately fell in love with his philosophy. I’m a people person and I believe in what people can do.

This last year has been about community. We’ve all felt it – that surge of love for the NHS, for our neighbours, for families and friends we’ve been unable to see. That warm and fuzzy feeling when we are in community together? That’s joy. When our work is recognised? That’s joy too. When we are given appreciation which is sincere, specific and succinct? Joy. Out in nature? Also joy.

#JoyFE💛 is about aligning our practice to our values, in order to joyfully remake education. It’s not about accepting the status quo. We are critical when the need arises, but affirmatively so. Not cynical, negative or bitchy. In his book Humankind – which is wonderful, by the way – Rutger Bregman describes cynicism as: 

Cynicism is a gift to those in power, a legitimisation of hierarchy and inequality. Because if we can’t trust each other, then we need them…today it’s an act of defiance to believe in the good of humanity. Cynicism is out, hope is in.

What is further education about, if not a belief in the potential of humanity? Another thinker I admire, Rebecca Solnit writes about hope as being not a lottery ticket you sit on the sofa and clutch but an axe you use to break down a door. So we have do the work. And by doing the work we can sometimes (re)discover our own power.

Here’s Spinoza again. He was writing in Latin, back in the day, and this afforded him the chance to use two words for two different types of power: 

Potestas: power as usual, status.

Potentia: activist power, influence.

That energy I talked about, that shared life force, is potentia. Far from being some crystal ball woo-woo, it’s an expression of power. A world changing one. And this is a changing world.

We – the workforce – are powerful, but we’ve forgotten this and no wonder, after being prodded and scrutinised for 25 years, never good enough unless we are ‘outstanding’ all the time, told the only thing that mattered was the bottom line of learner achievement and KERCHING KERCHING. As educators, many of us choose not to buy into this, hence the endless exhausting effort of subversion.

In getting involved with #JoyFE💛 educators found communities of strength, support, inspiration and care which enabled them to do brilliant work in challenging times. #JoyFE💛 created spaces in many different media which invited people to explore joyful practice. This was about sharing rather than resources – sharing ideas, practice and hope.

The early broadcasts were soon viewed by tens, then hundreds of people. You’ll recall that after two weeks that felt like two years, it was the Easter holidays. By this time, we had a WhatsApp group of 20+ people who wanted to be part of this new movement. During that Easter some combination of us met every morning at 9am.

By the end of that two weeks we’d published our first #JoyFE💛 magazine, pretty much in the format you see today (link in chat). None of us had ever done anything like that before. It was an instant hit and over the months that followed we were able to welcome in guest writers. Welsh colleagues, already getting used to talking about their practice, were quick to support. Glenda Dowdell Thomas, I don’t know if you’re in the room but you were one of our first. In the pages of the #JoyFE💛 magazine you’ll find that critical but not cynical approach I talked about before. We believe that every educator has something to contribute to the joyful remaking of education. Everyone is invited to write for us although, having got ourselves organised recently, we *will* ask you to stick to our word counts or the whole thing gets too chunky.

That extraordinary period of creativity also inspired the Ideas Rooms. Many of us who initially came together were familiar with a set of practices called the Thinking Environment. You may have heard of this, and if you haven’t yet, I think you will soon. Thinking Environment practices are about enabling the conditions for independent thinking. They are values led, so they work with our mission of joy. In a Thinking Environment, values are literally enacted through facilitation. This can be applied to work with groups, individuals and pairs. That Easter, we created a new application of the Thinking Environment, our very own bootleg, the Ideas Room, and that’s what people most tend to think of when they think of #JoyFE💛.

In an Ideas Room, tiny seedlings of ideas are nurtured in a safe but stimulating space, which allows them to grow. You don’t need to come with an idea, you can bring the generous gift of your listening – you’d be amazed at how many lightbulbs you’d have. Ideas Rooms are magic. We run public ones every Wednesday at 8pm and Fridays term time at 9am and people float out of them like they are on a cloud (link in chat).

There are lots of things we can be as the #JoyFE💛 of the future. We’ll soon be part of an ITN documentary (don’t get too excited it’s not The One Show). We’re writing a JoyFE💛 book. The magazine, the curated Twitter account – which is a different voice from the sector every fortnight – the Ideas Rooms, the hashtag community #JoyFE💛, will all continue. And now we broadcast on Facebook Live every term-time weekday morning at 7.35am.

Where does this fit with your Culture of Curiosity here at Coleg Sir Gar/Coleg Ceredigion? Well, we have joined a broader community of FE educators doing it for themselves. Last year, the Association of Learning Technologies mapped the hashtag communities of FE and #FEResearch was right up there, as was #JoyFE💛 only a few months in and also #APConnect⭐️ a government funded programme in England that I also work on. Together we have been the engine rooms of change in these most challenging of years. We have called out how the world needs to change and we are not prepared to slip into ‘go-backery’ – a fabulous term coined by Jennifer Thetford-Kay of Shipley College – and yes, making sure we cite each other is part of the work. Before was not so great, that we can’t learn different ways to be. 

By not buying into the negativity of conventional cynicism we keep ourselves – and the people around us, including students – buoyant. Every day we dig deep into our anti-competitive practices of joy, care, solidarity, openness and equality. It’s worthwhile time because it keeps us fizzing and focused through tough weeks and months. It takes tenacity and discipline. It is perfectly possible to have both sound ethics and far-reaching outcomes.

We are not alone in this amazing ecosystem of practitioner-led professional learning, but we are leading the rest of education. It doesn’t exist in Universities and doesn’t really exist in schools, with the honourable exception of Early Years. And isn’t that funny, because alongside ourselves, Early Years has long been seen as some sort of Cinderella service, the afterthought. #JoyFE💛 and your Culture of Curiosity form part of a potentia landscape, which kicked off in 2015 with the publication of FE and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the first in a trilogy of books which reject the notion of the FE workforce as downtrodden Cinderellas. Sometimes the book can come first. Dancing Princesses rejected the old cynicism in favour of a collective approach – those princesses who escaped their captors every night and danced till their shoes were in ribbons. We create our own spaces to dance now.

FE is changing. The pandemic has helped with that of course, because we’ve had a taste of being trusted to get on with things and we want to keep hold of that. No gobackery!

We’ve also learned to tell the stories of our practice and these are narratives of hope. Along with the #FEResearch movement and associated #FEResearchMeets (which I know you had here a week ago), the original Thursday evening #UKFEChat and other constellations like #AdultConversations, #PDNorth etc, educators are singing from the rooftops about their practice. We are podcasting, thinking, creating, writing, co-producing, researching, learning from each other.

It’s not all about #JoyFE💛 and that’s the final thing I want to say. Two years ago, FE was eating itself. Colleges were hoovering each other up and Big Tech was waiting in the wings to pounce. Government policy had driven this culture of competition and it was beginning to take hold within our organisations too. Favouritism was rife across the sector and staff were protective of sharing their practice. Things are so different now. The sharing/inspiring culture which both Culture of Curiosity and #JoyFE💛 is part of is deliberately anti-competitive, intentionally values led. I think it’s world-changing.

Thank you for listening and we have time for questions I hope.

Moving FE Forward Together

My panel input for the C-Learning Event on 23rd June 2021. I’m sure to learn loads. Afterwards, don’t you always think, “Wow!” at everyone else’s stuff?


How has your practice improved and for those around you too? 

Where do I start? The levels of emotional intelligence I have seen in the past 16 months have been incredible. And also the intentional practice of care. I have seen how digital has facilitated relationships and enabled the conditions for independent thinking.

What does effective blended learning look like in design compared to traditional face to face and edtech integration?

It has the potential for relationship building, agency and independent thinking. The basic assumption that learning only happens when human beings are sitting in front of the teacher has been blown away. Asynchronous learning gives everyone the opportunity to discover different and powerful ways of learning, partly by being thrown back on their own resources, less passive. 

Synchronous vs asynchronous – best practice and learnings?

Synchronous – Thinking Environments, simple practical acts of discipline which build trust and community and enable independent thinking. Asynchronous – shared online spaces where people can learn alone and in community, bags of potential for social learning and co-construction but quiet times composting too.

Peer-to-peer connections and collaboration and how this can improve the learning process?

Before lockdown, decisions were often driven by the assumption that people would cheat if they had chance to work together. The last year has blown that out of the water. Peer-to-peer collaboration – transparent and ethical – builds trust and self-belief through the development of time-limited community: constellations. This is the revelation.

How can we support and coach others to improve their practice rather than just usual training and CPD?

The clue is in the question – coaching, but maybe not in a conventional sense always. Informal peer coaching has punched above its weight last year, in particular the Ideas Rooms, developed by JoyFE💛 and finding their way into FE organisations up and down the country. Here, educators come together to nurture seedlings of ideas, inspiring one another along the way.

Have you collaborated with more people outside of your organisation since lockdown?

1000% yes.

Just using edtech isn’t the goal in itself. How do we move forward?

  1. Acknowledging that relationship building is the foundation stone of any learning experience, even if its wholly asynchronous. Witness my 91 year old mum and her Scrabble bot, Zoe.
  2. Realising that we can both work towards outcomes and design our journeys using a practice of values. How is care practised in curriculum planning? How is equality practised in assessment? 

How do we ensure we use tech for delivering a wider curriculum not just subject (creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration)?

Embrace the right – whatever our overlords say – for education to have a social purpose. Begin to work in transdisciplinary ways. Plus the above.