Au Revoir, Tristesse

Please note: this blog first appeared at http://www.steeltrapmind.wordpress.comand was authored by myself, Lou Mycroft. I’m sorry that, in transferring, the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments have been lost.

It was hard to commit to Bootcamp today. Although writing is rarely something that fills me with dread, in fact usually the opposite, I was half wishing that the few people who wanted the opportunity would find something else to do on a sunshiny Spring day. After an emotional and very tense week, I was concerned that the experience would be too bittersweet to bear. But tristesse has long been an effective muse and although the words came a little slower, come they did.

I’ve been focused on self-reflexive processes* which I find myself thinking of as tangential to the main event, but I’ve figured that this is the only way I’ll work through the finer detail of my research methodology.  Funnily enough, when I returned to it today it didn’t seem as dreadful as I’d been thinking.  Broad, yes, unthinking – and in need of much more work, but each of the five figurations stands up, albeit treading on each other’s toes.  I deliberately closed my eyes to the literature review (cartography) and Image of ancient mapscrolled through to the methodology, noting as I did so a slight feeling of impostorship when I tried to mentally explain the difference between ‘methodology’ and ‘method’. One for the homework list, there, and just when I’d tentatively grasped ‘epistemology’ too.  My mission was to grapple with the methodology, annotate and interrogate it.  I was switched on to nuances of language, after some of the conversations I’d had in class that week.  I found myself largely focused on ethics.

I’d got the proposal through with a tiny ethics section which more or less said, posthumanism requires a new ethics and I’ll figure it out as I go along.  I’m guessing the reason I wasn’t pulled up on this was because it was true; ethics are part of the self-reflexivity which seems to be playing an increasingly key part in the development of the methodology.  Makes sense.  Rosi Braidotti describes ethics as:


It feels important to question this.  Does it exclude anything that ethics is conventionally defined as, and which is important to keep?  BERA (2011) do not, interestingly, define what an ethic is, although many individual ethics are laid out in some detail.  A conventional dictionary definition of ‘ethics’ would be:


BERA (2011) are clear that “deliberation on these guidelines” is essential, and “compliance [only] where appropriate” (p.4, my parentheses).  This leaves open the possibility of operating a new ethics, which may find points of tension with the BERA recommendations.  Those points can be fruitfully explored as part of the self-reflexive narrative invited by Braidotti’s definition (2011) and further informed by a reading of others’ work around posthuman ethics, notably Patricia MacCormack, who defines ethics in a dynamic way:


This resonates and also gives me a little insight into my own thinking.  The BERA (2011) guidelines felt terrifying before I’d actually read them.  My fear of making a ‘mistake’ against them amplified existing feelings of impostorship, limiting assumptions about consequences.  This reflects contemporary happenings in my life, which cannot be written out of the narrative, as Sparkes (1995) would say, only acknowledged.  I have fear around anything that is ‘fixed’ and which I might get wrong, and this made me afraid to read the guidelines.  Now, with the wriggle-room in BERA (2011) and the invitation from MacCormack (2012) to be dynamic in my thinking, alongside a little help from Brene Brown (2013) to deal with my sense of ‘shame’ and fear, my mind is fizzing with possibilities.

What started all this today, when I had no clear idea of what I’d write, is the annotation process and it’s something I’d like to continue.  Revisiting my colleague @cherylren’s original Revision Bootcamp set-up helped me understand that there are two audiences for my writing – me, as I work it all out (with the help of my supervisors) and (ultimately) the reader.  This is going to ring alarm bells for version control, but maybe there could be two versions of the work:  one which is worked and reworked with annotations and a ‘clean’ copy for outward facing view.  And maybe the time for the cleaned-up version has not yet come.

I’m glad Bootcamp happened today.  It’s halfway through the day and, although the words are not quite flowing at the rate of previous Bootcamps, the demons in my head have had to step to the side and allow me to think.  Today I have only felt sadder when I’m not writing.  There’s an imperative that I would like to hold on to.

*At the moment I am very into I-Poems, having heard about them from Jim Reid and Jean Hatton at last week’s @HudCRES day.  Based on the work of Mauthner and Doucet, which I’m currently reading about in Edwards and Weller (2012) – why? – the I-Poem works when reflexive accounts are already written.  It mines the accounts for all statements beginning with ‘I’ and forms them, edited but not displaced, into lines of poetry.  I’ve done two of these from my earliest Steel Trap Mind entries and I’m looking forward to more because they are so evocative of time and even place.  It did make me wonder, however, whether now that I know I have a plan to use I-Poems, it would affect the way I wrote this blog, but it genuinely has not been in my head at all.

British Educational Research Association.  (2011).  Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research.  Online 

Brown, B. (2013).  Daring Greatly.  New York.  Vermilion.

Edwards, R. and Weller, S. (2012).  Shifting Analytic Ontology:  using I-Poems in qualitative longitudinal research.  Qualitative Research.  12(2) 202–217.

Merriam-Webster. (2016). Definition of ‘ethics’.  Online 

Sparkes, Andrew (1995) Writing People:  reflections on the dual crises of representation and legitimation in qualitative inquiry QUEST (National Association of Physical Education in Higher Education) 1995:47 158-195

Unthinking Vitruvian

Please note: this blog first appeared at and was authored by myself, Lou Mycroft. I’m sorry that, in transferring, the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments have been lost.

Question 1:  So, what does a posthuman curriculum look like?

I’ve got to answer this question, however rough and ready that answer may be.  I’m learning that my commitment to praxis is more than tokenistic, that the interplay between theory and practice is essential in keeping me hooked into my academic thinking. Once I’ve figured out the answer to Question 2 (1), practice gets rolled up into my research, of course, but I’m not there yet. In the past seven months (really?) since I got home from the Human/Inhuman/Posthuman Summer School in Utrecht I’ve been figuring out how to teach some key aspects of posthuman thinking (learning them simply and deeply in the process), so this is my attempt to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together.

Human and Posthuman

For human, read Vitruvian Man, that famous Leonardo sketch that inspired a million Leonardo's Vitruvian Mandifferent takes (Vitruvian Cat anyone?) Vitruvian Man is buff, the David Beckham of his day (he might share Beckham’s philanthropy, but probably not his working-class origins). He’s white, he’s young, he’s European, he’s physically fit, he is fair-skinned, he’s probably pretty well off (with those abs, he’s not under-fed). Middle-class, if that’s not an anachronistic concept for the time. Difficult to guess at his sexuality, given his provenance; certainly by the time of The Enlightenment (2) there was probably an assumption that he’s straight. He might have a hidden disability, but I doubt it. He’s almost certainly Christian, despite the struggles some Enlightenment thinkers had with organised religion.

But he is ‘human’. And so it follows that any individuals that don’t fit the pattern are somehow less than human. Thus begins the intellectualising of difference as ‘other’; not the root of slavery and oppression, but in some quarters the justification of it. And he is culturally internalised, particularly in places of power and amongst people who are not cognisant of the privilege they carry. When we say ‘human’, somewhere in our thinking, we see him.

Vitruvian Man is at the heart of understanding the #whitecurriculum (4). Of course he is. Because it’s his power, his privilege and his structures that have constructed the world we live in. They have certainly constructed our education systems (5). Therefore it also follows that any posthuman curriculum is focused on dismantling and rebuilding these structures. The post in posthuman refers to the ending of the Vitruvian time.



Enlightenment thinking formally established the dominion of ‘human’ (see above) over other species and thus established ‘speciesism’, described by Peter Singer as, “…an attitude of prejudice towards beings who are not part of the same species as us.” The notion of dominion is very much part of the Christian tradition, a dominant choice to read Genesis in a certain way.

This human/nature divide (sometimes referred to, interestingly, as a culture/nature divide) explains much that has come later in terms of raping the earth’s natural resources and decimating its wildlife (not just hunting, but intensive, super-destructive factory farming methods, check out @cowspiracy to find out more). Some thinkers refer to the Stylised image of the Earthtimes we are living in as anthropocene – a new epoch where humans have themselves become a major (negative) geological force, as impactful as the Ice Age on the Earth itself. The claim is that the Earth cannot now repair itself from the damage humans have done. Politically, the term ‘anthropocene’ is being used to call for a recognition that dominion has gone too far. So posthuman thinking is fundamentally concerned with environmental and animal rights, as well as human welfare.

We see humanity as a positive concept, a value or belief even, in the fact of all the real hard evidence of what ‘humanity’ does:  Auschwitz, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Bhopal, Calais, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Guantanamo, Chernobyl, the Atlantic Slave Trade, ISIS, Srebrenica, Syria, the Congo, the Gulags.  Enough already.


What posthumanism is not doing is to call for the end of the human race. Because some early posthuman thinkers (eg Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles) have a focus on the more science-fiction (6) end of technology, it’s easy to overlook the fact that ‘technology’ can actually mean basic engineering, everyday affordances such as clocks and cars, printing presses, stuff we now take for Anime of androgynous superherogranted, as we are coming to take for granted computers and mobile phones. What about hearing aids, prosthetic legs, contact lenses? We are already technologically mediated (or, as posthuman thinkers like to say, embodied in a technological world). We areposthuman. We are already there.

If posthuman thinking seems very new, it’s because our #whitecurricula are so often based on the work of dead white men writing sixty years ago. In fact Robert Pepperell already had a solid grip on what posthumanism meant back in 2003, not about the “End of Man, but the end of a man-centred existence…”, where technology was an extension of the human. (Interestingly, Robert is a Professor of Fine Art. One aspect of posthuman thinking is that it crosses the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. And who decided what those boundaries were, anyway?)

So a posthuman curriculum is already necessary, it can’t be pushed to one side because your workplace bans mobile phones, or you don’t have laptops in the classroom. It’s not about that, or not only about that. It’s about facing up to the here and now.

Which brings us to…


…sometimes called neo-liberalism (7). Put simplistically, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 any real challenge to capitalism disappeared and it became one of those taken-for-granted things, the only system that works. In fact, it was simply the winner out of two greatCover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes 12" meta-narratives:  Capitalism vs. Communism, Reagan vs. Chernenko, VHS vs. Betamax, Right vs. Left, Winner vs. Loser. Marxists would point to the hegemony of how we each collude in accepting capitalism as the only norm:  watch yourself doing it, it can get quite addictive.

Capitalism encourages us to think in binaries and it is even more addictive watching for these: Employer vs. Worker, People vs. Profit, Traditional vs. Progressive, Academy vs. State School. We take it for granted (that word hegemony again) that the structures of capitalism – hierarchies that always have someone at the top and someone at the bottom – are the way of the world, that they are unavoidable. Posthuman thinking shares with Marxism the imperative to deconstruct these structures, to imagine a world constructed differently (it doesn’t share with Marxism the conviction that this brave new world should be communist).

Which leads us to…


…because new futures need first of all to be imagined.

So that’s some of what posthumanism is. Thinking about imagining new futures brings us onto how.


Rosi Braidotti, with whom @kaysoclearn and I studied in Utrecht, draws on the (dead, white) French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (with whom she studied) to explore how we might take affirmative posthuman political action. Discarding the binaries of capitalism, which they describe (unfortunately, but of their time) as Famous photo of Carlos the Jackal‘schizophrenic’, they use the metaphor of the rhizome to challenge traditional notions of leadership and campaign. A rhizome (ginger, iris, couch grass) spreads unseen and underground, forming nodes which emerge unexpectedly, possibly in the ‘wrong’ garden. It is persistent and subversive, hard to dig up, a guerrilla plant (if you can de-couple that word from negative images of the Baader-Meinhof gang and Carlos the Jackal).

Nomad War Machine

In rhizomatic political action (as in rhizomatic learning), people – and things, if we reject ‘dominion’ – form and reform in ‘affirmative assemblages’ to become a nomad war machine, popping up all over the place to weaken the foundations of the capitalist machine/sausage-factory education system. Within this model, leadership takes on different forms at different times, people assemble around an energy, disband when the work is done, re-assemble elsewhere to do ‘the work’, rather than constructing themselves tiredly into the same old hierarchical frameworks. Social media affords a transport system to move the nomad war machine around much more effectively than Gilles and Felix ever imagined and I believe this is at the heart of some of the affirmative politics we are beginning to see.

Affirmative Politics

All this sounds very testosterone-laden and it is. Rosi exhorts us to understand all the histories of our thinking (battling that #whitecurriculum again) and these metaphors from Gilles and Felix arise from their work with Michel Foucault and before him Jean-Paul Satre, who thought and smoked Gauloises while Simone de Beauvoir did the photocopying with a young and starstruck Rosi. But posthumanism also draws on Baruch Spinoza, one of the most Image of Simone de Beauvoircapricious of all the Enlightenment thinkers, and he finds the affirmative in the every day. Our work is above all to identify and carry out positive practices and if their cartography (another posthuman concept and the metaphor Rosi uses for knowing all the histories of your subject) is Vitruvian, then it’s our job to bring in the ‘other’ through what we read, the people we seek out and with whom we assemble, to challenge ourselves over #whitecurriculum thinking and to ensure that our nomad war machines are always meaningfully diverse.

Examples of this kind of approach abound, but only when you start looking for them. Do you follow Upworthy, or even Russell Howard’s Good News, gentle political satire with a smile not a sneer? Have you seen the knitted scarves around the trees in Sheffield threatened with felling because there isn’t the money (where?) to maintain them? What about Free HugsSpoken Word? Some of the Occupy activity was affirmative (though the leadership structures not always), as were the singing women at Greenham Common back in the day. How about the challenging, amazing examples of refugee Image of yarn-bombed treesartwork such as Za’atari in Jordan, shared every day on Twitter (if you are looking in the right place). Or Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way‘ (listen to the words), or Beyonce (8), Banksy? Witty internet memes engage ‘non-political’ people in political debate, which is sometimes more nuanced and less binary than in days gone by. Pitch these against so-called grown-ups shouting at one another across the House of Commons…and go figure.


‘Becoming’ is the final piece of the jigsaw (I hope. There might be some more which have fallen under the table). Remember those rhizomatic assemblages, which form the ebb and flow of the nomad war machine? They combine in the energy of their action to make something new; put simply they learn from one another, they learn to ‘become’ each other to some extent and that’s how we break down the impact of othering that we’ve all grown up with. You might term this ’empathy’ but it’s more than that, it’s about blending bits of yourselves and you go away with that mingling still in you. Apologies for going all Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit like the old idea of becoming blood brothers (or sisters) by each cutting your palm. Possibly less painful, but in the act of recognising your own privilege and sense of entitlement, maybe not.

Becoming impacts on your identity,  permanently. That’s why it’s useful to do this work alongside keeping a reflexive account of what’s happening with you, as I’m doing here. Writing this has been a bit like giving birth (I have given birth, so I feel it’s OK to say that). This is not my PhD, but it feels like blogging first is the only way my PhD is going to get written, at least in my own voice.

Why is all this theory important? 

If you drifted off at the talk of Spinoza and co, you may have drifted back in when that cheery bloke on the telly Russell Howard was mentioned. Why is that? You’re as bright as anyone else reading this but it could be that the culture around you is anti-intellectual; as Frank Furedi asks, “Where have all the intellectuals gone?” If you’re feeling impostorish about reading philosophy/theory, that’s possibly because you, too, are not quite Vitruvian. Believe me, if you’d gone to Eton, you would only not be reading it because it didn’t interest you, not because you thought you wouldn’t get it. You’d have a complete sense of entitlement about that.

The language of theory is also tricky, because it is often unfamiliar and that feels excluding. Sometimes it is meant to be, but why should that matter? You don’t have to be friends with a philosopher, just learn from their thinking, stand on their shoulders, as it were, so that you can see further than they could. New concepts demand new words – or Poster of Noam Chomsky redefining anarchynew definitions of existing words – given that the language we have is part of the structures we want to undermine (a bit of Chomsky there). So read with a dictionary metaphorically in your hand and get over it.

Theory is important because it’s what drives us on through those times when going against the norm seems too much like hard work, when everyone’s moaning and you’re trying to be positive, when the bitterness rises and when you feel infected by the politics of envy or identity. There are powerful forces working hard to keep the status quo in place (9) – the media, political structures, the arms trade, the education system – hierarchies all over the place which, if we tackled them head-on, would be impossible to beat. Sometimes it’s easier to give in and go work for The Man. But theory connects us to something bigger, it connects us to thinking differently and reminds us that we are not alone.

Not that posthuman theory is easy to read, and this is where we come in. The concepts are so dense, so multi-layered, nuanced and counter-cultural, that it’s difficult to absorb what they mean (and how to use them). It took me seven months to figure out the nomad war machine (thanks @geogphil) and I’m still not quite there, though I’ve learned to be more comfortable with explaining Vitruvian Man. More of us need to dig into this stuff and Image of ancient mapwrite our own posthuman stories; stories with global cartographies – one of the criticisms of posthuman thinking, which most posthumanists accept, is that it currently operates from within the narrow confines of white European philosophy. We are where we are, but we need to keep pushing to hear othered voices. Thinking posthuman involves us taking the hegemonic (remember?) fetters off our minds.

And keeping affirmative.  I’ll leave you with Rosi Braidotti from her lecture last year, Spinoza Against Negativity:



(1) Question 2:  So, what does a posthuman research methodology look like?

(2) A period of (largely male (3), white, European) thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries, the foundations of which proved so influential over the next 200 years that we are only just realising that they were basically just one way of looking at the world.  (The novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is a great – if humanistic – introduction to continental philosophy of this time).

(3) Women were involved.  Men got published though.

(4) Not just about race, though NUS Black Students did kick-start the campaign, but about Vitruvian ‘human’.

(5) Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant insisted that one could achieve ‘human’ through education.  They did not explain how education could make you become white – or male.

(6) But not any more, not really.

(7) Political scientists will argue nuances of difference, but this will do for now.

(8) When the bloke under the table is introduced to the concept of intersectionality. That.

(9) Have you been watching The Night Manager?  Episode 5:  The Permanent Secretary, “…her job is to preserve the status quo, whatever it takes.”


Want to read/see/hear more? Follow the links within the narrative and have a look at the ideas below.  Some are tougher to get into than others, some I’ve not nailed yet, but you might easily.  We are all different, don’t let The Impostor in!

Rosi Braidotti Punk Women and Riot Girrls

Rosi Braidotti Nomadic Theory (book)

Rosi Braidotti The Posthuman (book)

Noam Chomsky’s Website

Dave Cormier Open Education and Rhizomatic Learning

John Weaver Educating the Posthuman and Posthumanism and Educational Research (both these books are quite expensive, so try libraries or Google Scholar)

Frank Furedi Where have all the Intellectuals Gone? (book)

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – Baruch Spinoza(podcast)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Two Tribes




This is the Moment

Keynote from the PDNorth Conference #PDNconf2017 at Myerscough College, 6th July 2017.  The session began with a Thinking Environment question: “No-one has truly arrived until they have spoken.” 

IMG_7153It might say on the slideshow, rather grandly, that I am an Independent Thinker by trade, but in fact I have lots of professional frocks and until very recently I was an FE teacher too. I might variously describe myself as a writer, public speaker, facilitator, digital nurse and even a dancing princess – but what connects all of this work are my values; valueswhich are focused on strengthening the public sector workforce. I want to help make public service a national treasure again – in my view, it always has been.

The values I work and try and live by are enshrined in a process called The Thinking Environment and I wish I’d been the first to write about it but credit goes to the woman who trained me in its Applications – Nancy Kline. On the first day I met Nancy, she greeted a room full of this many people by saying, “No-one has truly arrived until they have spoken,” and then she asked everyone to spend two minutes in a thinking pair. It was excruciating, but I’m going to ask you to do the same, because I’ve come to recognise the absolute truth of those words.

I’m wanting you to do a little more than simply introduce yourselves to each other in pairs. I’m wanting you to introduce yourselves attentively, because good quality attention generates the best thinking. So although the room will be in complete Young women students at a Gujarati University, representing dancing princessescacophony, what I need you to do is find a little ease, turn to your partner, ask them what they want to say about themselves, then shut up and really listen for one minute, even if they run out of things to say. That involves not even interrupting a silence. It’s completely counter-cultural, as teachers we fill silences all the time.

Don’t start right away! A word, before we begin, about equality. You have one minute each and we’ll do it on the clock because it’s important that each of those minutes is 60 seconds long. I know it sounds like a no-brainer, but how often do we give up our own time, to hear others speak? Or dominate the time that we have with another person?  To safeguard equality, the very least we can do is give one another equal time. So I will start the clock, I will listen for the one minute alarm, and I’ll tell you when to change over.

Two minutes pass…

Welcome back, we are all in the room! Thank you for participating. The Thinking Environment is why I was asked here today. Claire and Sue recognised how powerful these processes could be for a Professional Exchange, which is, after all, about us learning from each other and learning about ourselves, developing self-awareness to take back control of our own professional destinies. It’s all about agency for me. My work on national projects over the past couple of years has enabled me to sadly see that the A shabby whiteboard house, with the following words graffitied in black paint: "Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes."further education workforce is suffering from a collective low self-esteem, a loss of self-belief caused by the cloth that enfolds us being cut way too thin…our organisations shape and re-shape, merge and un-merge, we are reorganised, inspected, observed, scrutinised, reduced, downsized and generally done to. To borrow a Brexiteer’s phrase, it’s about time we took back control. Professional Exchanges are all about that for me, a steadfast beacon of critical friendship in these choppy political seas. I think of Professional Exchanges as constellations of mutual inspiration and support and it’s a delight to me to be invited here for the end of your time with PDNorth.

The best Professional Exchanges are anti-competitive. Everyone who cares enough about their practice to rock up here knows that the old days of hoarding skills and resources are long gone. The web is changing the nature of engagement in education and if that frightens you I’m here today to help you get with the picture – here not as an technical expert, but as someone whose practice was transformed by Twitter. Anyone here remember the impossible price of resource books in the early days? I remember one of the first things I did when I started teaching twenty years ago was spend £80 of my budget on a book of adult learning activities that were copyright free. £80! That was a lot of dollar for a charity to find! These days I’d find every one of those activities (legally) Tiny, hand bound books, representing teaching resourcesonline, plus a million more – they weren’t rocket science to be honest, but someone was making a lot of money from them. Now, it’s all out there – Open Resources, Open Research, Creative Commons…no need to stockpile ideas because they can be refreshed in a heartbeat. Professional Exchanges are about encouragement – another of those Thinking Environment values. You’ll see that encouragement encapsulates the word courage: going beyond competition to work together as critical friends. In those parts of adult education that are exploring co-production, anti-competition is extending to genuinely collaborative work with students, too – students as equals.

And this is the moment. This IS the moment. There’s a change in the air. I’m not talking party politics here, I’m talking a murmuration, a growing sense of outrage – even before Grenfell – that public service is sleepwalking into a nightmare. The fractured political landscape is opening up progressive alliances and new thinking; further education is once again being talked about in decision-making places. Even committed capitalists are starting to believe that austerity has gone too far and policy-makers are waking up to what we have been telling them for years – to be successful on any terms, this country needs a functioning, robust adult and further education sector.

It’s a quiet revolution. It’s the moment when values-led decisions make slow and patient ground, after years of money-first decision making. The practices we’ll explore today – attentive listening, community building, effective digital practice – are in my view the only sustainable future for education.

It’s a quiet revolution. It’s the moment when values-led decisions make slow and patient ground, after years of money-first decision making.

Throughout today, I want you to tune into your own values base. I’m going to talk you through the Thinking Environment values and I’d love you to make cognitive and emotional connections with your intentions for today.

Brighton Beach, representing the Thinking Environment value of AttentionAttention is generative in a Thinking Environment, by which we mean that the quality of it is so fine, it generates the very best thinking. Knowing that you will be heard and won’t be interrupted – even if you fall silent for a while – is a powerful cultural shift. Interrupting derails thinking. I really hope that you get the chance today, to be listened to without interruption. You’ll never go back.

North Norfolk Saltmarsh, representing the Thinking Environment component of AppreciationAppreciation is not praise. There’s something in praise which suggests the praiser and praisee are not equals. Appreciation is a succinct, specific, affirmative comment from one equal thinker to another. It builds self-worth, creates really good karma and, given a ratio of 3:1 appreciation to criticism, it also allows challenges to be heard and taken on board.

Clouds over a beach, representing the Thinking Environment component of EqualityEquality is at the heart of my own practice and is a value I believe we need to reclaim as a profession. Our sector has become so hierarchical that the thinking creeps in that one human being is better than another. Really? The belief of the Thinking Environment is that one thinker is the equal of another thinker, no matter where our relative positions in the hierarchy are. The Thinking Environment is an equalising practice.

Whitby Harbour rocks, representing the Thinking Environment principle of EncouragementI’ve spoken already about Encouragement. Embracing the word ‘courage’, takes us beyond the cutting edge of competition, to a world where we truly believe we can work together generously as critical, collegiate friends.


Snowy Cliffs, representing the Thinking Environment component of DiversityIn the public sector, the word Diversity takes us down an equalities monitoring pathway, or drifts us into endless mission statements, so let’s reclaim this essential concept. Diversity happens when we bring perspectives into our thinking that are formed from experiences which have been different to ours. This includes seeking out absent identities and listening to what they have to say. It’s Diversity that lets the newness in.

Place matters. Place matters because it says back to everyone there, “You matter.” I’ll Wells Breakwater, representing the Thinking Environment component of Placeleave the charred image of Grenfell Tower in your mind, while you think that one over.

We can’t make a decision if Information is unknown or withheld from us. Information helps us dismantle our own denial and unpick the assumptions that get in our way. In a Thinking Environment, we differentiate between Information and that which masquerades as Information – opinion (often the opinion of the powerful). As A lifebelt at Sandsend, representing the Thinking Environment component of Informationprofessionals, learning the twenty-first century skills of curation, discernment and critical questioning is vital, to bring accurate information to our thinking.

Wind Turbines at Marr, representing the Thinking Environment component of FeelingsFeelings are absolutely allowed in a Thinking Environment. This doesn’t mean weeping all over the place; it does mean allowing the appropriate expression of feelings, in order to get beyond their power to block thinking. Here, the Thinking Environment dovetails closely with the work of Brene Brown around vulnerability, particularly in its application to leadership.

Beach Huts at Southwold, representing the Thinking Environment component of EaseSo many of us struggle with Ease and no wonder, when our lives are out of kilter, as so many educators’ are. Yet finding Ease is possible, even in the busiest of working lives. Research into the Thinking Environment shows how it can save time, by investing time in efficient thinking and decision-making. No more pointless, drawn-out meetings. What’s not to like?

Seashell in sand, representing the Thinking Environment component of Incisive QuestionsFinally, Incisive Questions enable thinkers to get beyond the assumptions that are blocking them. There are precise questioning frameworks in Thinking Environment practice, for people who are fundamentally blocked, but we don’t need those for today. The Incisive Question for today is ‘What’s your Freshest Thinking?’ I’ll be asking this of you and I’d love you to ask it of each other.

Thinking Environments are found wherever these Ten Components are in place. That won’t be everywhere, all the time, today, but some are better than none and to keep them in mind will get us a long way to all doing our best and most unexpected thinking. I’ll be in amongst you all day, Tweeting, earwigging, asking you your freshest thinking: I’ll be around at lunchtime as a digital nurse. If you tweet, use the hashtag #PDNconf17; if you don’t tweet, let me show you how. Indulge yourself in your own practice, learn from others, take time out to think. After all, this is the moment, and we’ll need education’s finest thinkers as we reimagine what Further Education can be.


A Sustainable Life

I’m beginning my second month of being ‘independently’ (i.e. self-) employed by reflecting on this more precarious existence. I’ve only ever grafted in the service of others and the reward for that is to know how much money was going into my bank account each month (for most of my working life, anyway). Thursday will be my first ever ‘pay-day’ with no pay and I feel a little apprehensive about that. But this is what I wanted; I’ve wanted it as much as I’ve feared it for the longest time and above all I’ve done in the last month, I’ve spent time re-learning myself as a freelancer.

As a freelancer, you are your own ‘machine’; your payroll and accounts, your leader and (self) manager, your marketing team. I’ve committed to averaging 30 hours a week in my new career and much of that is going to be technically unpaid (the paid bits won’t happen without it). Getting that balance right won’t be easy; I’m determined that the appeal of backroom stuff won’t lose its shine once I see the glimmer of dollar. Much as I like the idea of surviving on my own wits, I’m not a natural capitalist and there will be danger always in me giving away my skills for free and not covering my backside when it comes to paying the bills. But what I’m after here is a sustainable life, not a greedy one.

As the weeks passed, and opportunities – including opportunities to apply for proper jobs – presented themselves, I’ve become more certain that this is my best shot at being congruent with the posthuman philosophy I’ve been embracing in the past couple of Botanic painting of a ginger plant, which is a rhizomeyears. Of the many concepts embraced by posthuman thinking, the one which is resonating most strongly right now is the opportunity I have to work rhizomatically, in project-focused, time-limited constellations of practice with other activists, playing out my conviction that the work can be the organisation, after many years where the organisation was the work. I know that I don’t want a job, but I do want to work with others where our energies collect around an issue or initiative; work as equal thinkers to challenge and complement one another and then move on.

It has been liberating to spending time writing and working social media channels without feeling I was robbing someone else’s time. The problem with conventional ways of working is that we all buy into them as ‘the norm’ (i.e. we hegemonise them), even as we are attempting as individuals to work differently, so it’s easy to feel guilty even if no-one is calling you to account. Conflict is intrinsic to change within organisational structures, whether change is welcomed or not. That’s why we talk about new practices being ‘disruptive’ (again, a neutral word, but with negative connotations, unless, like me, you’re that contrary soul who loves a bit of disruption).

So the opportunity I’ve yearned for, to work smarter once freed of systems designed to suit a previous age, is here, and I’ve already made strides in terms of organising myself digitally: figuring out what to pay for (insurance, Google G-Suite) and what not to pay for (LinkedIn Premium), how and where to store stuff, developing online spaces, finding and building banks of open source images, using my calendar effectively and committing to weekly blogging (oops). I’ve still got much to learn re analytics, marketing and PR and I know I can plan and strategise more, but I’ve got the purpose and principles in place.

‘The work’ for me is about influencing how effectively other people think – about the world, about education, about health and wellbeing, about themselves – and I know that influence is partially about creating an echo chamber (it’s also about strategic focus) but there are dangers inherent in this. I want to make my work count; whether that’s in terms of education policy or a woman in Mexborough making a powerful healthy choice because she’s come out of my Slimming World group feeling good about herself. So there’s no good only ‘reaching out‘ to people who already think like me. There is very, very much that I don’t know and can’t see because of my experience, bias and privilege. I don’t want to uphold the status quo, I want to disrupt it and that means ethically drawing on different perspectives. So I’m figuring out how to stray into diverse spaces and encourage others to do the same.

I’ve been busy enough not to worry too much about the future (yet) and I’m loving being myself across the breadth of my life. I was talking with a friend yesterday about how we dress for work; having special ‘work clothes’ (I’m not talking technical gear here) and whether what they express about us in the workplace is really congruent with the people we are.  Keeping work and ‘life’ (is work not life?) separate only really makes sense within capitalism, where the majority work to further the minority. The theory I’m testing is that it really is OK to be myself, without shame, no matter where I am; that I don’t need the exo-skeletons of ‘management’ or codes of practice to conduct myself appropriately in any environment. Slimming World requires a ‘smart yet comfortable’ standard of dress; to me that’s an exhortation to go clothes shopping, not to put on a uniform that doesn’t suit my style. The same goes for behaviour: any prospective commissioner of my work won’t find a foot out of place if they check my social media profile; at the same time if they are offended by a bit of political ranting on Twitter we are probably not going to get along and I’d rather know that now, thank you very much, than live with the pain of it down the line.

It has been really helpful to answer the question, “what’s this new enterprise?” numerous times over the past couple of weeks. I think I’m getting better at being succinct! At first, even though I don’t really think like this, I separated out the ‘Culture Change’ part from the ‘Wellbeing’ part and – if I am to be completely honest – foregrounded the Culture Change work as being ‘proper‘, more ‘social purpose’ therefore more important to the world. How pompous is that? And why do I believe that some work is more credible? It’s definitely not about what pays the best (if it ever does become that, make me watch Ken Loach films). The amount of time I spend writing would not justify itself in terms of how much money I make from it but I’m not going to stop writing (or not see it as being ‘work’). Equally, selling Neal’s Yard products, whilst currently cringe-making to my public sector identity (CAPITALISM!) is doubtless an ethical way of making a living; more honourable than some of the abuses of public sector funding I’ve seen down the years (in every sector) for sure. It’s social purpose – organic, fairly traded, cruelty free – what’s not to like? Yet I creep apologetically around mentioning Neal’s Yard on social media, not out and proud like I am with my work as an educator – and I need to urgently deal with that because those are untrue limiting assumptions at play there. Equally, if you compare the impact of a successful Slimming World intervention on a woman (and her family), with – say – a one-off educators’ CPD event, in terms of immediacy (and a solid research base, incidentally) there is only one clear winner (clue: not the CPD).

So the next month’s challenge is to step up in terms of affirming the decisions I’ve made to pursue certain social purpose constellations – twelve at the last count, including writing and the pro-bono political journalism I’m doing as part of the Campfire movement. Whether it’s paid or not, whether it’s private sector or not, whether it’s sales or not, whether it’s ‘academic’ or not (what does that even mean?) is it social purpose is the first thing I will ask myself when I’m thinking about taking on something new.