An unfond farewell to 2021

Wow 2021 was tough, wasn’t it? 2020 at least had the occasional frisson of excitement, big moments when it seemed the world might change…2021 for me – and maybe for you, if you’re reading this – was digging deep, finding the fundamentals of what matters and holding tightly onto them, in the face of…so much. So much! I’ve had bigger years, and deeper sorrows, but my word for this year has been ENDURANCE. Recognising what’s in the way and holding on tight, while we figure out which hills are worth dying on – and which are not (yet).

This year I’ve watched in appreciation and awe the endurance of those around me. And through the emotional courage of my son I have learned that nothing is more important than being awkward, brave and kind (in the words of #BreneBrown).

The small rituals of daily visits to Little El, morning broadcasts (all those times I wanted to get back under the duvet), regular #IdeasRooms and not fearing vulnerability each time I post in brave spaces like #JoyFE💛

And the rewards? Deeper connections, strength to channel sorrow and fear into joy, learning to love myself and others deeply in the process of holding on…joy is a practice and yes, so is hope, walking the tightrope between naivety and cynicism, figuring out what I can do and what I can’t.

And at the end of the year I celebrate community and also difference, I celebrate the latter with cartwheeling joy. And I have never believed quite so much in my purpose, or in love.

So as the year turns, I will be celebrating the people who came (back) into my life and those who are determinedly still there. I might still be a bit of a lone wolf, but I am deeply connected.

This New Year’s Eve I will be sending tipsy messages of love, knowing that they are reciprocated a million times. New Year’s Eve is joyful precisely because we feel the losses and sorrows so acutely. Put that joy to work, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Wishing you hope, health, wisdom and joy in 2022 ❤️

📸 @beinvauxhall

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.

Future Imperfect

Input to Right2Learn Conference Panel 20.5.21

Good evening. I’m Lou Mycroft and I’m here tonight representing the #AdultConversations campaign, which is attempting to channel activist energy into adult and community education. Three friends co-founded the campaign at the start of the year: myself, Jo Fletcher-Saxon of the FE Research movement and Mel Lenehan, Principal of Fircroft College. Jo will be posting links into the chat as I speak, so keep an eye on that. The idea came out of a #JoyFE💛 Ideas Room – a thinking space – and it’s a tripartite campaign. Firstly, we are publishing 52 pieces of writing about community education, one a week for the year, and bringing them together in a publication at the end: 52Weeks52Speaks. Secondly, on 28th June we are running a Big Conversation which will bring people together in an activist thinking space to make commitments to action. We’ll reconvene at the 52Weeks launch in December, where we’ll also announce the winner of the third strand: the search for a word to describe ‘adult community education’, like the Finnish ‘sivistys’ or German ‘bildung’. We’d love your suggestions! The campaign runs for one year.

When we started, we had an aim of getting people talking about adult community education. Well that’s happened – and we can’t claim the credit! But what are we talking about at events like these? We know that adult community education has a dignified history and a lot of high-punching support – that it flies in the face of current ideologies which deny inequality and promote meritocracy. There are good people here tonight who are working on making those messages land at political and policy level, people who have the clout to do so: potestas power. But there’s another kind of power. And that’s the potentia of people who are engaged in activist projects together, playing tag team with their energies, influencing thinking and driving the work in to new places.

It’s time to be more radical, and by radical I don’t mean “more to the left”, I mean radical. The question tonight is not the right question, because the answer is quite simply: everyone. Obviously it’s not as easy as that because our way is cluttered with barriers to equality – hierarchies, systems, processes, assumptions and biases – and the funding silos which limit our thinking. My PhD research attempted to make these briefly invisible, so that participants could see beyond them, if only for a moment. The results were extraordinary.

Given the chance to redesign community education, people ignored the containers that dominate and restrain our imaginations. They saw ‘adult community education’ as embracing yes, the stuff funded by the Adult Education Budget but also youth and community work, adults on FE courses, mature students at uni – many nurses for example – libraries, public health, sports and leisure, social enterprise. The focus was ‘community’ and what we have to offer to each other, based on our own experiences. Community researched, co-created, reciprocal education; held in existing community spaces (including outdoors) and online: all of us as teachers and learners, pollinating new thinking and new and old skills across generations. We’d need a rethink about what ‘teacher training’ is too. 

Clearly, this is a significant project. It’s time to smash open the filter bubble and let go of some of our givens – and our assumptions about who is and who is not vulnerable in these challenging and uncertain times. Let’s hear all the voices! Collect in activist spaces where we are equal as thinkers. Operate not only as the tree, punching up to try and challenge stubborn ideologies but as the rhizome: persistent, subversive, unexpected and invasive. Our gathering point is social purpose education. For example, what could a social purpose employability programme look like? Civic engagement plus a recognition that people want work – work that is meaningful. We’d need to work with employers on that one too and we’d need to open our minds to new funding ideas – they are out there.

That’s just one example. If we can get beyond our echo chamber, beyond the hauntology of yesteryear and actually listen to a diversity of thinking, the possibilities are genuinely endless.

The Practice of Values

#Adult Conversations

I sat down to summarise my research for the second week of #52Weeks52Speaks but something else was on my mind. Any piece of research has to end somewhere and I cut the threads on my Community Education Imaginary when I handed in my PhD dissertation back in October 2020. But it was an activist project from the start and so the Imaginary itself has rolled on past that point, gathering and developing ideas. And I am caught up right now in the idea of replacing structures with practices; specifically practices of care.

I spent several years looking at English community education through a posthuman lens: fresh concepts which enabled me to question the fundamental structures, processes and language of our service(s). My reading, thinking and discussions with others encouraged me to make a new design for my own life, based on regular practices and a personal, affirmative ethics of joy, rather than operating within the framework of an organisation (I talked about this for TEDx Doncaster in October 2019). This approach isn’t for everyone, but as I sifted through the generous contributions of 400 research respondents, I glimpsed how it might be possible to construct education itself as the practice of values.

My research identified ten practice values and five lines of flight for activist projects: values led practices of design, pedagogy, alliance, research and professional learning. #AdultConversations falls squarely in the practice of alliance and it’s a delight to see this activist campaign begin to unfold.

Adult and community education is not without alliances and at a level where people try and influence policy, you do tend to bump into the same people in different settings. We wanted to be certain that #AdultConversations added something new.

Firstly, we are time limited. The three of us – me, Jo Fletcher-Saxon and Mel Lenehan – are giving this campaign our best shot for one year – 2021 or bust. By January 2022 we sincerely hope that conversations spinning out from #AdultConversations will have their own activist energy and that change is happening on the ground…we’ll step away from the helm and be involved then in the projects of our choosing.

Secondly, we are expansive and by that we mean we’ll be actively seeking out people to join the movement from all the tributaries of adult and community education – that means not just further education, not just higher education but all those places outside of education where adults go to learn – third sector community work, the climate change movement, trade unions, youth work to infinity. We’ll build relationships with other campaigns in the same space, such as Right2Learn whose excellent manifesto was published a few days ago.

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – we’ll practise those those ten values in everything we do: not least, right now, the practice of an ethics of care. We model this in how we three take care of each other, noticing when someone is tired and needs to step out for a bit. In how we encourage others to write for #52Weeks52Speaks, offering a helping hand whenever we can. And when we bring people together for our #AdultConversations Regional Roundtables you’ll notice that our facilitation is focused on making sure everyone there is equal as a thinker.

It feels like the right time to be doing this, while we are all going through it. If my research taught me anything, it’s that people want to work and learn in environments which care not only for the whole human, but for the landscapes and creatures with whom we inhibit this earth. We’ve got a chance to build our little corner of a better world and we’re here to take it.

The Stars Collide ✨

This blog was inspired by this morning’s #JoyFE💛 Ideas Room. I’m writing it, but equal credit goes to Jackie Rossa, Jo Fletcher-Saxon and – above all – Hannah Woolgar, because I wouldn’t have got here without our constellation this morning. Thanks also to the genealogy of thinking which led me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s ‘Antifragility’ via Nancy Kline’s latest book, ‘The Promise that Changes Everything’ and onto the brilliant work of Sam Conniff Allende, author of ‘Be More Pirate’.

Caveat: I’ve still got a lot of reading, thinking and listening to do.

The stars collided this morning around all of this and our enduring experience of the pandemic (and everything else that’s happening in the world), plus the posthuman perspective of my thinking and practice over the past few years and a desire to articulate the philosophy I bring to #JoyFE💛 – which is both the place I get my strength and the joyful work of my heart.

I’m reading all of the above, at the same time, plus Brené Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’, which is always pertinent and also timely, as it’s the subject of the #APConnect Reading Rooms on Friday. I’m trying to practice an ethics of joy and care in everything I do, which involves challenging a lot of my own internal narrative.

And I’m seeing a convergence which has so much promise. As I read it, ‘antifragility’ is the counterweight of what Jennifer Thetford Kay so helpfully termed ‘gobackery’ right at the start of first lockdown. It’s a concept which means that not only do we survive adversity, but we thrive on it. It means seeking out and challenging the assumptions, norms, binaries we take for granted and which are enshrined in the monuments and documents of our society so deeply that we believe not only have they always been there, but they always will be. They are held in place by language and by the hierarchies, structures and processes we operate within.

What would it mean to operate out of communities, rather than organisations? Those of us involved with #JoyFE💛 and other grassroots constellations already do both, which creates tension – yes – but also opportunity to find new spaces in which to unfold our thoughts. Here we can recognise gobackery in all its forms and start to challenge documents, in the hope of pulling down the monument. As we said right at the start of #JoyFE💛 we want to do different things, rather than the same things differently.

In the Ideas Room, Hannah was reminded of her time at sea. Seafarers have to be antifragile, since every moment is unexpected. They learn not just to live with that but to embrace every wave. We are in the ship together and we’re not just trying to reach the gobackery of the distant shore. We want to embrace our identity as pirates, sailing on the sea.

Photo by Per Bjørkum on Unsplash


getting beyond places of pain to an ethics of joy

Working Class Academics Conference 14th and 15th July 2020 (may have embroidered a bit in presentation 🙄).

Lou Mycroft

Since this conference was announced six months ago, I’ve been on a journey inside myself and back out again. So I want to start off with a big thanks for even the idea of the next two days. Also, you’ve probably noticed already that my slides and me are not aligned. This is deliberate – I find it freeing! So the slides will rotate and I’ll talk and you, hopefully, will let your thoughts go wherever they need. 

Like many people here, I didn’t know that I was working-class until I went into an environment where people treated me as though I was less important than them, on the basis of where I came from. On the contrary, I’d been accustomed to seeing myself as fairly privileged because, although my dad – a plumber, a real grafter – was permanently out of legitimate work by the time I went to uni, we didn’t live in the kind of abject poverty I often saw around me in early 80s South Yorkshire. 

I failed my honours degree and that crushed my aspirations for the next ten years. It wasn’t until I had my son Fraser – who is speaking in the first session tomorrow! – that I started to believe I could have some influence on the world. 

This presentation isn’t about me, and at the same time it’s inevitably about the way my life has coloured the work I do.

I work in further education and further education is a working class service, as my friend Rania Hafez says. We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that black, brown and white working class people make up the bulk of our students, many of our teachers and hardly any of our leaders. And we treat them – staff and students – like battery hens. Which, when you think about it, is a fine preparation for a life working like a battery hen in places like the Amazon warehouse because, after all, as the education secretary Gavin Williamson said only last week, the main purpose of education is to get you a job.

I’ve educated myself out of having a job. Like my dad in the early 80s, I’ve found that the only way I can be myself is by working for myself, though I have to say that I do – eventually – pay my taxes. I both jumped and was pushed from my 20 year career in an FE college – jumped because I liberated myself through European philosophy – more of that in a moment – and was pushed because, eventually, I was just too much myself by which I mean that I wasn’t content just to be working class, letting middle-class colleagues leapfrog over me with my own ideas, I had started to talk about it too.

Have you found this in public service, in academia? It’s OK to be working class as long as you don’t talk about it? Cos it’s cool to be around 

I want to talk with you today about how doing a PhD has liberated me to think differently about what FE can be. I’m studying with Huddersfield, where it’s OK to be working class though I do have to say it’s a bit more awkward to be a working-class person who rejects Marxism in the course of learning how to think. My frame is posthumanism, and even as I tell you that the genealogy of posthumanism comes from the Enlightenment Dutch philosopher Spinoza via Deleuze and Guattari and Paris 1968 I feel a complete dick. You can take the girl out of Mexborough! But posthumanism allows me to lift up the huge crinoline of social construct we labour under and take a glimpse of what’s really there – humans and the non-human world that’s all around us.

Don’t worry, I’m not going all, ‘All Lives Matter’ because it’s very clear some lives matter more than others. At the core of posthuman thinking is Vitruvian Man, elevated in Enlightenment times to become the ‘perfect’ human, the David Beckham of his day. This is the biggest crinoline of all, that concept of ‘human’, internalised as it is in us all. Vitruvian Man formed the theoretical base for colonialism, for the othering of any one of us who isn’t as white, as male, as ‘whole’ (I put apostrophes round that), as privileged as he is. 250 years later, the philosopher Simone Bignall wrote that the further away we are from Vitruvian man, the nearer we are to death in this global Anthropocene, this time when humans have done so much damage that the Earth will never recover.

We like to think that education can transform lives and there’s enough truth in that to make the exception seem the rule. Where I used to work there was a culture of gratitude which obscured how many people actually slipped through the net and much of FE is the same. But education can’t make you more white, more male, more straight – and nor should it of course. So, in the world we live in, it can’t make enough of us more equal, for it to make a difference.

What the Enlightenment set up – what Descartes set up – was a monument that holds us all in thrall and that’s the monument of the binary.  FFS, it’s even how computers work. Our challenge is not just to end the struggles of inequality – but the structures that cause those struggles and our wholesale acceptance of binaries is one of those structures, if not the fundamental one. 

Ourselves vs ‘other’

Mind vs body

Man vs woman

Black vs white

Straight vs queer

Middle class vs working class

When I take up my posthuman lens I’ve got half a chance of seeing past those binaries – that monument and the documents that support it, documents like: 

What I choose to wear

What I choose to eat

What I choose to drink

What I choose to do with my free time

I want to be very clear that I am not less working-class because I enjoy an avocado salad with my glass of red wine. I am working class because that has been the experience of my life, an experience which still shapes how I think and act. 

The documents which exclude me, despite my privilege as a white person:

My accent

Where I grew up

Where I went to school

What middle-class people think working class people are like 

Where I live now etc etc etc

I am working class because, as D.Hunter says, I “constantly commit acts of solidarity with my class and against the systems that seek to divide us”. And that’s the heart of it for me:

I am working-class by experience and as a practice.

That’s why the people who give me grief on Twitter for how ‘unhelpful’ it is to mention class, even if our grandparents, our parents or even ourselves shared a working-class experience growing up, can’t shift me from my path. They choose not to practice working-class solidarity any more. I choose to build my career around it.

Since 2017 I have been a nomad, which is a pure Deleuzian concept (again, I’m sounding like a dick). As a nomad, I work for myself on various projects, never completely alone and always with a constellation of others – constellations which are time-bound, coming together as we do around shared ideas and energy for the life of the project. Not a team By not being employed, I’m not ‘owned’ and I can walk away – and have walked away – if the work diverges from my values. I make my decisions based on a personal, affirmative ethics which is very live in me and which I revisit at least daily. Sometimes I get paid, sometimes I don’t, it’s cool, there is enough. I swerve any attempts to territorialise me and I won’t be infantilised, no line management for me. These lines of flight are freeing up the best work I’ve ever done. 

And I came to all of this through doing my PhD, because before that, as a working class person (even a bolshie one), I’d been conditioned not to think, or at least not to think for myself. By the left, as well as the controlling hegemony of the right. 

The value that most drives me is joy – Spinoza’s notion of joy which is relational, all about the connections between people, the energy that comes from that. Joy as a practice. Working class solidarity as a practice. What a combination! Absolutely what we need in the world.

Anyway, as this joyful nomad anarchist I get to talk to loads of people across the whole of FE and I have come to realise that the work I am doing – with others – is to open up spaces where ideas can flourish – where people can flourish. Spaces which always begin with the humanising, “how are you?” not the siloed crinoline of “who are you?” As my friend Stef Wilkinson says, I am asking, “What matters to YOU?” 

Lockdown has accelerated the work and we have a real moment now to change the culture of FE so that the nonsense of othering, of disowning, of infantilising, of patronising, is transformed. We’ve got a moment because we have learned how to do this and we’ve got a moment because there’s going to be the money to do it – if we can make the case powerfully enough for an affirmatively joyful way of working, that money might create some space, rather than continuing the “misery of academia” as Moten and Harney call it. 

Three examples of what is changing FE:

  1. Ideas Rooms, facilitated in a #ThinkingEnvironment, a practice of equality, where role, rank and ego are left at the door and individuals are empowered to think for themselves whilst remaining fully present as themselves, in all their identities so it’s genuinely intersectional work. If your mind has drifted to unicorns and rainbows – STOP. This is a disciplined practice, which is why the power people resent it. The ideas generated here are already shifting stubborn cultures across FE.
  1. #JoyFE💛 a constellation of educators who have come together since lockdown to re-make a joyful education; a broadcast, a magazine, a podcast series, a manifesto, a message, a movement. A new leadership. Funnily enough, we are all women…I’ll just leave that there.
  1. Solidarity Thinking Spaces (#SolidaritySpace), a lifeline. A bi-weekly space, facilitated in a #ThinkingEnvironment which is determined to create a new narrative, and which is also just a place for working class people to be. 

This last adventure challenged my posthuman thinking, as do middle-class people on my timeline just about every day. If I’m all about changing culture through affirmative politics, turning anger into joy, why is it helpful to stay in those places of pain? I felt driven to open up the first Solidarity Thinking Space because someone I loved was in pain; I was driven by feelings and intuition (“How are you?” “What matters to you?”) rather than philosophy on this occasion but the thinking has followed. Every one of these sessions ends up in a more affirmative, a more activist space than it began so knock yourself out, haters. As long as working class people – in any community, across any intersection – are hurting because of how they are treated by The Man (the monument), we’ll keep opening up these spaces to find one another. We’ll keep practising working class solidarity. We’ll keep practising joy. We’ll channel that anger into joyful militancy and we’ll change the working class service of FE and so much more besides.


Foreword: The Joyful Noise of the Undercommons

Every PhD is compelled to add to the sum of human knowledge; that is its raison d’etre. In many cases, this is achieved by finely contextualising the experiment, in others knowledge is genuinely new and yet others bring protagonists into a plane of encounter, to observe a process of catalysis which could, of course, result in a damp squib. This dissertation[1] belongs to the latter category in that it is an attempt to mobilise via posthuman thinking a genuinely fresh perspective on English community education. Put simply, we need new tools if we want to imagine something new. It is a fundamental assumption of this research that off-the-shelf methodologies and tick-box ethics will guide us inexorably to what we already know. What follows is an attempt to test that assumption and do something different, rather than doing the same thing differently.

The central research question could be paraphrased, after Manning (2016), as “what else could community education be?” In order to keep this space genuinely open, the posthuman lens works to stay within the ‘encounter’ (staying with the trouble, as Haraway (2015) might say), resisting the gravitational pull of what community education is now, is limited to become, or used to be[2] and working together[3] to be completely in the here and now of moving forward affirmatively on a dying planet[1] . Findings are presented as a Community Education Imaginary, a phrase borrowed from anthropology, where it is used to describe meaning-making around culture and identity (Wolf, 1999).

There is no posthuman literature on community education that we[4] have found. This is genuinely new territory, full of clashing tension and likely to be messy. To employ a standard methodology would be to find solutions for things we already have the answers to[5] and in a rapidly changing world that seems like a monumental waste of time. The research is looking for, “…the clarity of the radically new and absolutely simple idea, which catches as it were, an intuition.” (Bergson, 1998). This makes it a risky venture. Having no methodological road map it’s impossible to see the destination or whether anything “radically new and absolutely simple” could come out of the data at all. But in these apocalyptic times[2] , maybe a single throw of the die is a worthy endeavour.

The research does have a methodology and ethics, just not one that had an identifiable and pre-formed shape at the start. Our goal: not just to end the troubles of community education (which are well documented and which will be summarised) but to end the structures which cause those troubles. The process emerges from an “undercommon refusal of the academy of misery”, the term described by Moten and Harney (2013, p7) as a “joyful noise”, a “tentative holding in place of fragile comings-into-relation, physical and virtual, that create the potential to reorient fields of life-living,” (Manning, 2016 p.8). The research question will be answered collaboratively and as far as possible without recourse to old frames of reference, by those of us who are already present in the space. It therefore stands a chance of challenging the ‘monument’ (Braidotti, 2011) of what community education is perceived innately to be (which is of course not innate at all, but a series of social constructs) and maybe even start to tear down some of the ‘documents’ – procedures, processes, policies – which uphold it.

Time for this “subversive intellectual[6]” (Halberstam, 2013) to introduce the two protagonists whose convergence will hopefully spark something new:

Protagonist: Community Education

Community education is defined for the purposes of this research as any adult learning opportunity which takes place outside a traditional college or university environment, though not necessarily outside formal qualification structures. The absence of a rigorous and agreed definition of community education in England (it has a separate history in Scotland, Ireland and in other parts of the world), alongside any persuasive political rhetoric supporting its survival, has led to a fragile provision which currently exists precariously in the eye of an unprecedented storm: that of regional devolution. Since community education has no political or theoretical champions, no convincing evidence base and no agreed definition it may indeed be a lost cause. Certainly our experience of the 2015-17 Community Learning and Mental Health Research Project (DfE, 2018) revealed a petrified, terrified, sector on the brink of collapse (Mycroft, 2019a), yet it endured until at least the start of the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, albeit in a mummified form.

The research is driven not by any belief in a community education ‘golden age’ (inadvisable to revisit out of context, even had it existed) or by any desire to preserve the status quo, but by a belief in the potential, just over the horizon, that community education could be something else, something it has not yet had the chance to be.

Protagonist: Posthuman Thinking

Critical posthumanism as defined by Braidotti (2018) is also a convergence: of posthumanism (critique of the humanist ideal of ‘Man’) and post-anthropocentrism (human exceptionalism).

How can this help free community education from the chains of its history and (low) expectations? There are so many taken for granted ‘truths’ hardwired into the structures of community education that stripping back the layers is an unfathomable task, not least because the weight of assumption is so heavy that the thinker will find it difficult to withstand “the gravitational pull of the old,” (Braidotti, 2019, p.214). A significant disruption is necessary to unsettle the norms, assumptions and givens. The decentring of ‘man’ from human, and ‘human’ from all forms of life, might just do it.

This posthuman ‘frame’ provides a lens with which to trouble the structures and systems of a setting where, typically, adults return to education “having successfully diagnosed themselves as the problem” (Moten and Harney, 2013 p.36), ie they don’t fit the Enlightenment ideal of ‘man’ and are in some way ‘othered’ from society’s privilege, whilst maintaining the privilege of being human. We know, and will explore below, something about the demographic of community education being far from the middle-class ‘leisure learning’ of politicians’ assumptions (Blunkett and Tuckett, 2018); like all of English further education it provides opportunities from those marginalised by the mainstream academic pathways of school, A-levels, university.

The determination of posthuman thinking to seek out binaries and assumptions in order to see beyond not only the ‘monument’ or structure (Braidotti, 2011) of community education but also the “standpoint from which [the current system] makes sense”, to paraphrase Halberstam (2013, p.8) with reference to Frantz Fanon and colonialism, a connection which will make more sense later. Without this vital disruption to the norms of thinking, any re-imagining will be impossible.

Monuments and Documents

Throughout this dissertation, there will be frequent references to the ‘monument’ of community education (or English education more broadly) and to the ‘documents’ which uphold it.

The terms are common in historical analysis. Ceserani (2019, p16) explores the etymology, paraphrased here:

Monument – from Latin mens (of the mind), memeni (memory) and monere (recalling the past). Monuments are therefore the heritage of the past, what remains of what was established then. The ‘monument’ of education is as it is, because of a) what happened in the past to establish and maintain it and b) what remains of that, ie what historians choose to tell us. It “connates intentionality” (ibid), that is to say, it stands for something (or a set of somethings).

Document – from Latin docere (to teach or instruct); this evolved in the Middle Ages to mean ‘proof’. It has “connotations of truth or objectivity” (ibid.) The documents we see are always a selection of what ‘evidence’ has been available, however ephemerally, and the human mind – believing itself, as the essentialist human, to be the curator of the process – has made the selection. The documents therefore uphold a certain form of monument, which is believed to be its essential form.

Foucault, exploring the archaeology of knowledge (1972) contended that any examination of history had to examine the monument, rather than the documents, otherwise the original monument constructed by those documents would continue to stand. This is another way of saying, we want to do something different, rather than do the same thing differently.

COVID-19 – Stepping out of Time

The unique (and unintentional) timing of this research, bridging as it does the first wave of the COVID19 epidemic in England, provides a further counterpoint. The disruption to ‘life as normal’ during three months of lockdown, when people were told to stay in their homes unless their work was essential to the basic functioning of society, meant that lives were suddenly being lived online and access to ‘community education[7]’ was beamed into living rooms as (some) people exercised with Joe Wickes, learned to paint with Grayson Perry or danced alongside Oti Mabuse and her family.

The timing of this dissertation will probably mean that there will be little research to draw on about the uptake of these unexpected activities and certainly we won’t know about their impact on future community education curricula. And, naturally, the velocity of life is such that any piece of research is moving out of date the moment it’s submitted. But it was impossible to ignore such a schism, and so the original survey was revised and re-sent, to see if the disruption to everyday life had also provided a disruption to thinking. Nearly 400 contributions were received, including 40 received post-lockdown, in which the ideas were qualitatively different from many of the original submissions, when the potential of community education was perhaps more fixed.

In this pause to ‘normal life’ there is an opportunity to step out of time. Community education has been largely suspended in England and its future seems more uncertain than ever. As part of my stepping out of time to process this research, I was influenced by the Walking Lab’s ‘research-creation’, which “is the interrelated practices of art, theory and research,” (Truman and Springgay, 2016). They use performance art-based walking tours to take that temporal mis-step (Springgay and Truman, 2019) in order to unsettle conventional understandings of the past, present and future. This research does not use art in the same way, nor does it operate in the settler context of Springgay and Truman’s Canada. While it is impossible to remove this research from its context I can only hope that by keeping thinking open, some measure of the conclusions will be usable in any new world which ensues.

Joyful Militancy

The activism of the “subversive intellectual” (Halberstam, 2013) is probably the messiest element of this dissertation, and the most risky. Beyond the stated ethics of the methodology, there was no standing back in the name of ‘clean’ research. If an opportunity for activism presented itself, it was taken, and there is no denying that this, in turn, influenced future reading and thinking in the analysis stage. The literature review, essentially, did not stop, and activism inspired by the research process itself would have been unethical to delay.

This was due, in some part, to an emerging work around “joyful militancy” (a term coined by Montgomery and bergman in 2017, which shares the same Spinozen genealogy as this research). Joy, as defined by Spinoza[8], is ‘immanent’, ie not belonging to some transcendental ‘God in a cloud’. It is present in the connections between people and in the energy that erupts in activism in these constellations. In the spaces where we discussed this research, connections were made and activism happened[9] which in turn re-informed the research. No claim is made, therefore, for the sterility of metaphorical ‘laboratory conditions’.

The activism continues but the threads have to be cut somewhere (Latour, 2004) and in the relatively conventional narrative presentation of this dissertation there are hopefully enough anchor points for it to fulfil the requirements of the academy.


[1] Conventionally in the UK, the written submission for a PhD is known as a thesis. This word is also used in an Hegelian sense to set up an opposition and some form of victory or consensus: thesis – antithesis – synthesis. As the Hegelian dialectic is explored, challenged and critiqued by this work, the use of the word becomes problematic. I have chosen instead to use the term ‘dissertation’, which is more widely used on the European mainland.

[2] Within a given spectrum of ‘truth’: Duffy’s “rosy retrospection” (2018, p.238).

[3] For how that collaboration is achieved, read on.

[4] Following Moten and Harnay and in the words of Halberstam, (2013, p.25), “…we is always the correct mode of address here.” Wherever I use ‘we’, I am referring to some element of diffractive practice, ie my thinking is re-made because I have explored it with others.

[5] Community Education: underfunded, under-theorised and overlooked. We know this so unequivocally that it hardly seems worth spending six years of my life finding it out.

[6] The subversive intellectual, “enjoys the ride and wants it to be faster and wilder; she does not want a room of his or her own, she wants to be in the world, in the world with others and making the world anew.” (Halberstam, 2013, p.9).

[7] Defined above as, “…any adult education which takes place outside a school or university…”

[8] Spinoza wrote of ‘God’, his work was secularised by Deleuze (1970: 1988)

[9] An example of this is the #JoyFE💛 movement during lockdown, of which more below.



Thinking Environments

Update: The Greek Cream Bun

Many years ago I went on holiday to Greece. We were young and skint, we had enough saved up to drink beer, eat cheap food, party a little and sunbathe. Every day, on our way to the beach, we passed a bakery with tantalising cream cakes in its window. The cakes were nine times more expensive than anything else in the village, so every day we walked on by, promising ourselves a treat at the end of the fortnight.

On our last day, we had a few drachmas left so we called into the bakery, each emerging with a cream horn. We bit into them with relish…to discover they were actually made of bread, with some sort of synthetic Dream Topping inside. Not even Angel Delight! They’d clearly been made by an enthusiastic baker who had seen a picture of English Cream Horns, without having an actual recipe.

It’s exactly the same with the Thinking Environment. We call each process – Ideas Room, Time to Think Council, the basic building blocks of rounds, pairs, dialogue – an ‘application’ because the facilitator applies the Ten Components (or values) of the Thinking Environment to that intervention. It’s a deal-breaker. As Sophie Stephenson said, so much more succinctly than I do below, it’s not enough to do a Thinking Environment. For it to properly work, you have to be it, and that means an intentional practice of holding the components in place, even when that’s resisted.1 If you apply the rules, without the components…well, it’s just a Greek Cream Bun.

Here’s the original article:

Reaching the Third Horizon

I began my Thinking Environment training nearly 25 years ago at the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health in Sheffield. I know precisely when it was because I was still on maternity leave, in fact my baby was with me that first day.

He’s a man now, is Fraser, raised in a Thinking Environment and regularly coming to the #SolidaritySpaces I’ve been opening up for working class people like us to think, feel and just be ourselves in a challenging world. Thinking Environment spaces where – sometimes for the first time – we can breathe a sign of relief just to be there.

Thinking Environments online have been a revelation.

Witness, too, the exponential success of the #JoyFE💛 Ideas Rooms, a new application of the Thinking Environment which has emerged in lockdown. English Further Education is re-making itself (in some places) because of the ideas people have explored and incisive decisions they’ve made in those efficient spaces.

If you’d asked me at the start of the year whether Thinking Environments could thrive online, the answer would have been a qualified ‘yes’. I coached regularly via Zoom and I was no stranger to online spaces. I knew the processes would be helpful. But I could certainly never have guessed that Thinking Environments could be better online, and not just because of the possibilities afforded by lockdown to hold them regularly with people who became familiar with deepening their ideas. There’s something about the stripped down intimacy which really works.

There’s a critical mass of interest now and Thinking Environments are about to have their moment. To borrow a Three Horizons notation, useful for leadership in uncertain times, the disciplined space afforded by Thinking Environment processes allows for future horizons to be explored, current horizons to be scrutinised for the best they can teach us, and what’s within reach to be planned for and achieved.

If you have started imagining unicorns, please stop. This is robust, efficient, rigorous stuff. There are rules and they are applied with firmness and discipline.

Thinking Environments can’t be subverted. They can be sabotaged, but it’s really obvious to all (and can be dealt with). Any Thinking Environment session leaves role, rank (and hopefully ego) at the door, meaning that the people who resist are:

  • those with power and airspace who don’t want to give any of that up
  • those who hide behind lack of power and don’t want to step up and be counted
  • those who refuse to be disciplined in their encounters with others

I trained with the best. After Thinking Partnerships training at the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health, I learned to be a Coach, Facilitator and Consultant with Nancy Kline. I studied alongside Ruth McCarthy and Linda Aspey, two leading lights of the Thinking Environment world. My coaching practicum was supervised by Anne Hathaway (and I didn’t pass first time, either).

I trained for approximately 30 intensive days, plus a significant practice requirement, and regular quarterly attendance at the International Time to Think Collegiate. Had I paid for it all (which I didn’t, thanks NHS, EU Objective 1 and the generosity of Nancy Kline) it would have cost me something like £15k even back then.

So when people tell me I make it look easy, that’s why.

I am absolutely not being protectionist. Because of their growing popularity, the #JoyFE💛 Ideas Rooms are also practice spaces for facilitators. Thinking Environments are changing things and we lack facilitator capacity. The moment is now and we need to seize it. But it takes more than a trip to an Ideas Room to be able to hold the discipline in place and this is how I know…

I was using Thinking Environments in all my practice – and my parenting – from 1996 onwards. It was my pedagogy, my community work, the way I chaired a meeting and managed a team. But there was resistance in my organisation and when I finally got the chance to take the processes to a staff meeting, I mucked it up. I wasn’t skilled enough at that time. And so the saboteur had his moment, the process was discredited and the culture of that organisation did not change.

This is my warning, offered to you with love and respect. If you want to use Thinking Environments to change the culture of an organisation – and you are likely to meet with some resistance – get the experts in and get properly trained yourself – however you do that. I’m advocating practice, and starting small. Gather your allies around you and learn together. Work on the building blocks of rounds, pairs and dialogue until your facilitation is word-sharp and you have your own bank of stories. Practice forming incisive questions. Try your first Council out only when you feel safe with the people around you. Don’t try mixing ‘n’ matching with other approaches – this is a different paradigm. Learn why it’s so important to follow the rules (I still remember the times I didn’t, with a deep blush of shame).

The Time to Think Collegiate founded by Nancy Kline has some fabulous teachers on its books – Bryony Croft in Shropshire, Ruth McCarthy and Anne Hathaway in London, Linda Aspey in the Cotswolds and Sophie Stephenson in Sheffield. Nancy still keeps her hand in and her gentle, intensive style is unforgettable. I will be running some practice groups on a pay-what-you-can-afford basis via Patreon and the Ideas Room provides facilitation opportunities for regulars. I have #JoyFE💛 colleagues who are more than capable of facilitating practice groups too. However, that’s for individuals. Where organisations want consultancy, it’s only fair that they pay.

Thinking Environment processes can transform cultures, there’s no doubt about it. But they are not a magic bullet, particularly in cultures where discipline is lacking and has to be learned. As ever, strategic implementation is what makes change happen and, although the time for change is here, slow and steady will still win the race. Let’s do this together, and do it right.

1I was horrified to read in an evaluation recently that someone practising the Thinking Environment had omitted the component of Appreciation, “because people don’t like it.” Yes, the giving and receiving of appreciation – especially in teams or organisations where trust is low – can be squirmy. But if it’s sincere, specific and succinct, it virtually is a silver bullet for building trust. Plus, the opposite of appreciation is criticism. Practice appreciation to criticism in a ratio of at least 3:1 and you’ll find that when you have to challenge someone, they’ll actually listen to you with an open mind.

An Ethics of Joy

TEDx Doncaster 13.10.19 (images to be added).


“What would it feel like, to have more joy in your life?”

Several years ago, I started to practice an ethics of joy – and it changed my life. That sounds really fancy but my experience is a practical one and I’ll be sharing some ideas for you to take away. Together, practising joy, we can really change things here in Doncaster.

First, a little bit about me.

I was adopted when I was a baby and I was brought up in Mexborough, so you might be expecting some sort of tragic life story but in fact I’ve had a life full of love. At school I was the brightest of bright and it’s only when I went to Uni that I started to lose my way. Amongst all the middle-class kids I couldn’t find my place, I felt other and impostor syndrome kicked in. It took me decades to get my confidence back.

Here’s the thing. Having spent three years in the company of people I regarded as more privileged than me, I thought of myself as a victim. I was feisty and opinionated and yet I couldn’t see that the opinions I spouted weren’t my own. I could see injustice all around me, but because I didn’t feel powerful, it was always somebody else’s job to find a solution.

I patched together a public service career, I had my son and I started to think about what my values were. How often does someone ask us that? We are crowded by other people’s values: ‘British Values’ in education, religious moral frameworks, codes of conduct, political manifestos. It strikes me that by figuring out what our personal values are – our ethics – we equip ourselves with a compass for life.

I wanted my values to be more than words on a page. I wanted them to be a practice, something I actively did, rather than just talked about. And I realised that the word that kept coming up for me was joy. The sort of joy that happens when people interact.

I’m not talking here about happiness. Happiness is a commodity that’s sold to us. Nobody talks about doing happiness, unless you’re buying that dream holiday or the perfect brows. The happiness industry keeps us tied into spending – and if we can’t afford to buy what we see others delighting in, we feel like we’ve failed.

Doncaster is not the richest place on earth and that’s why we need joy around here, not more stuff. When I left the organisation I worked for I decided to see what would happen if I only took on work that brought people joy, because that seemed to be the best sort of help:

This is what I mean by an ethics of joy – a deliberate and affirmative practice. Not playing the glad game, but building relationships which play out in something good – a project, a collaboration, an exchange. This helps us be hopeful, which is the only weapon we have against the complexity and cynicism of modern life.

Joy gave me an ethics.

Good Help gave me a purpose.

Now I needed a toolkit.

Many years before I had been trained in a set of processes called the Thinking Environment: simple, disciplined rules to help people think for themselves and think better together. I’d raised my son in a Thinking Environment and I’d used it a lot in my teaching, so I figured it would help me practice joy.

One of the jobs I do now is run Slimming World groups in what used to be my school. Around 200 mainly women (and some brave men) come through that door every Monday, vulnerable and often ashamed. They are some of the 74% of Doncaster people who are overweight, something which is more likely to lead to isolation than to joy. Yes we get on the scales and we clap and give certificates, and we talk about recipes and getting more active. But we also teach each other how to feel hopeful and we do that by thinking together in a practice of joy.

Using the Thinking Environment, which does not allow us to interrupt one another, I ask everyone in the room, what is your non-scale victory this week? Where in your life have you felt hopeful? This is what they tell me.

I drove to Cleethorpes by myself.

I enrolled to be a midwife.

I asked him to leave.

What happens between us on a Monday is joy [PAUSE]: not something we have but something we do: a practice. And the more we practice, the better at it we get.

Last year, I was teaching a class that mirrored the town outside. White faces down one side of the room and brown faces down the other. No animosity, no connection. There was only one man in the room, a white guy, and he had 90% of the airtime. The Asian girls barely spoke. I practised my ethics of joy and we did round after Thinking Environment round. Slowly, the culture of the group shifted and joyful encounters started to happen. The guy relaxed – he just hated silence – and people began mixing in, having opinions, thinking. Their grades improved – massively. They spoke about one another differently. This is what one of them said:

That’s joy.

These students of last year are the teachers of tomorrow. I hope that some of them will come here, to Doncaster, where we have a school that is such a blessing because it knows how to practice joy. Do you know the school? Yes XP. Where parents didn’t want to send their kids at first and now there’s a second campus because their results – by any measure – are so outstanding. They are enabling kids to feel hopeful, identify their own purpose and confidently take action and that’s because they work together joyously – as a crew.

Every one of you here today can go out and practice joy by creating the conditions for others – and yourself – to be heard. It won’t happen overnight – people with power won’t want to give up their voice and people who don’t feel powerful will hide behind silence. But it will happen.

Here’s how. It’s all about the minor gestures.

  1. Checking in with your values and figuring out how you practise each one. This isn’t easy when they conflict – and they will do – with the values of your organisation, your church, your political affiliation, your family and friends. It’s a bit easier for me now in my nomadic career – when I feel my ethics getting crowded out, it’s time to move on. But it’s possible.
  2. Calling people by their name – accurately. Using their preferred pronoun. Asking if you are not sure. I’m shocked by how many teachers tell me, I’m no good at names. Get good at it! Nothing is more profoundly joyful than that.
  3. And give people space and silence to finish their thoughts. There are lots of ways to practice a Thinking Environment and you can look them up online. Go for a walk with someone and take it in turns to speak, not interrupting the silence until the speaker says, I’m done. Split ten minutes with a friend, five minutes to think without interruption each way. Once you’ve experienced that joy of being truly listened to, you won’t want to go back.

I am no paragon of joy. I get it wrong loads. I love a good moan. I’m certainly no relationship guru, I miss deadlines sometimes, and friendships when I overcommit. I’m a great parent, but perhaps not in the way that you might imagine. This was a little present from my son.

But I keep plodding on, joyfully, and all around me I see the ripples of change – real change, culture change. Joy is infectious. It’s a virtuous virus that passes between all of us. I hope today I’ve connected enough with you, for you to invite joy into your life, your work and your relationships too.