Lab Notes #14 — a detectorism dive into Trade School Dudley

Firstly, a big big thank you to the seven trade school teachers that shared their ideas, reflections and experiences of Trade School Dudley at our recent detectorism drop-in session. As ever I am humbled by the wealth of knowledge, inspiration and critical thinking that is shared in these sessions. I am also forever grateful for the laughter, kindness and spirit that is never very far away whenever we come together in our shared learning.

This invitation to the teachers to explore their experiences is part of our ongoing working out loud through detectorism (aka the way we do research together in the open). This session was in part a celebration of the teachers and the skills they are generously sharing, but also a reminder that they are part of a growing global movement of citizens nurturing sharing cultures as a way to make their home towns an even better place to live.

Before we dive in, a quick note on testing ‘seasons of doing’

We are testing out seasons of ‘doing’ here at CoLab Dudley. We are experimenting with working in rhythms of 3 months of intensive doing & learning, followed by taking a few weeks of reflection to identify the connections, skills, wellbeing and participatory behaviours that have emerged from that previous season’s doing.

Taking time between the seasons is an important practice in the lab work where we use the informal reflections and observations collected during this period by doers and encouragers to inform: the co-design of new projects, to aid older projects to iterate, and also to acknowledge and let go of the bits where an experiment didn’t work out. We ‘work out loud’ about our misses as much as the experiments that thrive. We will be writing about the momentum and energy that this seasonal approach generates in future lab notes.

Now, back to our detectorism dive into this season of Trade School Dudley

This lab note is a way to share the learning from a particular experiment of doing that is thriving. We wanted to share our detectorism findings about the simple, but beautiful bartering for knowledge platform that is Trade School Dudley. Trade School is a platform for local people to share their skills and knowledge in exchange for a simple barter item (like a pot of local honey, or a postcard, or the promise of sharing your own skills in a future trade school). [Link to Trade School global platform] Hosted in gather on Dudley High Street this exchange is premised upon celebrating local, practical knowledge; the rich social nature of that exchange; and an ethic of mutual respect. This was our 5th season of trade schools with over 50 sessions since 2016!! We wanted as part of the reflection period following this last season of Trade Schools to do some exploring with our teachers about their experiences, what they learnt, what they valued, and how we can together continue to unlock even more magic* from Trade School Dudley.

*The magic unlocked through Trade School Dudley as you will see below includes: meaningful connections with strangers; inspiration for more doing; peer to peer counselling and affirmation; behaviours that support more doing & sharing, such as, generosity, respect, celebration of all types of knowledges, or self organising; and the personal feelings of self worth, belonging, confidence and purpose that result from these connections and behaviours.

I want to concentrate on three themes that have emerged from our group detectorism — as ever conducted over fine coffee in the joyful and life affirming gather. As with all detectorism findings the results from one project of doing has valuable lessons for the ever blossoming portfolio of other projects and initiatives hosted at gather. This open, shared learning is central to CoLab Dudley practice and its role as a platform to support the emergence of a sharing and doing culture in Dudley.

This season we are reflecting upon our shared learning about:
1. the power of reframing a behaviour in a project (like the reframing of learning via trade school) that in turn unlocks potential from within new and existing doers and encouragers;
2. the multi-faceted social nature of exchange within our doing;
3. the cycles and connections between different parts of the sharing & doing ecosystem

1. Reframing learning as being everywhere, everyday, for everyone

What if we all understood that learning happens everyday, throughout our lives, in all sorts of wonderful ways? Imagine that we celebrated and valued that practical, local and personal learning. Even better, what if we intentionally shared that learning with others in an open and welcoming way. Trade School Dudley creates a platform for exactly this purpose. Some of the main things that get in the way of us all learning are designed out of the invitation and experience at Trade School.

So how does it do this? Trade School Dudley re-frames our understanding and experience of learning. It blows wide open accepted societal norms around what constitutes valued knowledge or skills, who can learn, when we learn, how we learn and who can teach.

Trade School Dudley values and celebrates all practical, local and everyday knowledges. It removes practical, social and physchological barriers to accessing those skills/ knowledge (such as: cost of learning, or lack of self-confidence and identification of skills to share; or absence of official certification; or even the absence of a free safe space to convene the learning).

At the heart of this reframing is an act of social justice in terms of increased assess to learning, but also in terms of recognition and mutual respect for our peers and their skills & knowledge. This re-framing is also concerned with a cultural shift towards recognising the collective value to this community of a wider learning culture. The dominant force behind this shift and access is the social nature of the exchange of skills, knowledge, time, barter items, space, emotional support, experiences and stories. While, foremost amongst the barriers to learning designed out via Trade School is the removal of costs that prevents many of us from accessing learning as explained by this teacher:

“I realised what a valuable skill it is to have in everyday life, there aren’t many sign language courses out there that you don’t have to pay a small fortune for, so if you do want to learn it is something that is inaccessible to people because of cost. I wanted people to have that skill in their skill bank, so if they meet someone in the deaf community [they can communicate]” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

As well as creating barriers of affordability, our formal learning spaces often unintentionally create hostile learning experiences that put learners in competition with each other, or are unhelpfully shaped by expert/ learner boundaries and uneven power dynamics. In contrast, the detectorism stressed the informality and peer based nature of the Trade School Dudley learning space and experience that helps remove barriers to participation in terms of feelings of belonging and inclusion.

From formal trained skills to local, everyday and practical knowledge, equality of all knowledge types is stressed throughout the Trade School experience and can not be overstated in its importance. It means that those that do not believe they have skills or knowledge to share — assuming as society tells us that only those with formal qualifications can teach — are unlocked from this negative framing of learning. Instead, the skills of local people are shared freely — enriching their community — and through this sharing their own feelings of self confidence, self-worth and purpose are emboldened. The detectorism highlighted how positive feedback from learners combined with feelings of gratitude and privilege stirred by people turning up to their class and being interested in being taught their skills strikes down feelings of self doubt as can be seen here:

“[I valued] how it has helped me grow, I am not naturally a very confident person. From that first trade school, to the most recent one I have done, in myself I have seen a complete 180! I feel confident now just standing up and just getting straight into it, no nerves at all and realising I am quite good at something.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]
“The first one [Trade School class] it made me braver. And I thought if I can be brave then I can help others be brave too.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

It is not just the teachers that grow in confidence and unlock their previously unrecognised skills, but also the learners. Many of our teachers, having overcome their own barriers to making and learning, are motivated by demystifying and democratising that experience for others. Through Trade School anyone can begin to gain confidence through ‘having a go’ at making & learning. Whether it is making a tote bag, a crocheted blanket, or a planter full of tomatoes; or learning about tools for mindfulness and slow living, ’having a go’ and the willingness to experiment is at the heart of all the CoLab Dudley platform projects and experiences. We know from our ongoing research and doing that this gentle experimenting behaviour is directly linked to overcoming the fears and risk based word-view that can erode our individual and collective creative confidence and self-efficacy.

This detectorism session also highlighted that the reframing of learning is also actioned through the different set of values the Trade School platform encourages. These alternative values manifest in classes gently prompting and enabling learners to think about our collective responsibility for the stewardship of our social and environmental commons (e.g. sharing cultures, peer based care, and re-cycling through creative/ craft practice). Learning and teaching in this context is not formal curricula or commercial enterprise values led. The absence of a transaction for the class connects with the social justice values articulated by the Trade School teachers around free access to learning and concerns regarding helping fellow doers respond to mental and emotional health concerns, loneliness, and our need to take better care of planetary resources through recycling and re-purposing materials. The stewardship of the social commons was also manifest in terms of teacher motivations for giving back to, and gratitude for, the benefits (emotional, knowledge based, & relational) they have personally derived from the different platform spaces and experiences over the last year.

This complex reciprocity underpins our commons stewardship and was openly articulated in this detectorism session. Trade School Dudley affords participants (teachers and learners) practical and ethical links between our individual, collective and planetary health, as well as small but meaningful steps we can take to combat challenges to all three.

“So I always come with a template, and one I can give away, & to have ideas about where to get your materials from, to encourage people to get stuff from charity, so encourage people before you throw old clothes away think about if you can re-use them, that thing of reusing and recycling, not just chuck away.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

With the recent season of Trade Schools we have also noticed how the skills shared emerged from very personal experiences of non-traditional learning that teachers are particularly passionate about sharing. This passion creates an emotional narrative that allows learners and teachers to more readily and rapidly relate and build relationships. Sharing skills and knowledge you have used to improve your own quality of life (e.g. mindfulness, laughter based support therapy, de-cluttering, slow living, action for happiness) seems right at home in a framing that rejects a consumer/ transaction based understanding of learning and instead prioritises the social nature of this exchange. Let’s talk more now about that all important and multi-faceted social nature of the exchange within Trade School.

2. The social nature of the exchange

The social nature of the exchange in Trade School Dudley is central to its value. Our teachers & learners discussed how much they valued meeting new people. The teachers noted how our usual fear of talking to strangers dissolved in their learners when they had the common purpose of learning together in the context of an informal and welcoming setting.

“One of the things that really surprised me is the amount people talked to each other. We are so used to people coming in [to learning spaces] and not communicating with each other. …you keep your head down. I don’t know if it is the format is quite informal, making people feel comfortable, and also people then asking people about Trade School itself which was nice to see, about the initiative at large [CoLab Dudley/ Gather], and the community which led to other conversations”. [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

They all stressed the peer support and sense of wellbeing that they recognised growing in their learners as the session progressed. Repeatedly the teachers explained the explicit social need for this platform, to convene, learn and connect, within the context of the scale of loneliness locally:

“We did a combination of fun and talking to each other, and we ended up doing a little bit of counseling, … it is about not thinking ‘I am going to see someone who is a counselor, who gets paid, I have got 40mins that’s it’ [rather] a safe, comfortable environment to say things, & nobody will judge.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]
“It is something completely unique — nowhere else in the locality does it and it is an opportunity for people in the community to learn new skills, to up-skill themselves and meet new people, because you know there is a lot of loneliness, a lot of people are on their own.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

The social nature of the exchange also makes learning more fun, personal and releases additional value in terms of emotional wellbeing through connection, shared experiences and peer based support.

“There are many people in Dudley who want to learn stuff and want to get involved in stuff like this and they don’t find the platform to do so, so finding gather, oh my god, is always something I wanted to do … People out there they want to do things they just cant find the places, the sources, the things that are happening, they are not confident enough. … This last session ended up as like psychotherapy, one lady had depression, one was off work for health reasons, they did say things about themselves, people need these personal [connections], they do want to be involved in places like this, they need to be part of movements like this, something to look forward to.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

Teachers repeatedly observed the value of this contribution to wellbeing within the context of a wider societal malaise of isolation and disconnect from the people around us that is heightening our fear of strangers:

“It is really hard to quantify it, it is a thing in the moment, the moment you are doing a trade school and you’re making stuff and you are chatting, and it is not even about what you are making, it is about coming together, and doing something different and being with people who are like minded, and yeah I will give that a go and see what happens, bringing people together, sharing stories and having fun. [Without it] you lose that element of coming together as a group of strangers, that is lost generally, people are scared of people, … it is the nature of society now, you have to seek it out.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

The social exchange is also responsible for unlocking our collective skills and knowledge. This is because in a Trade School the learning is peer based, meaning you are learning from the teacher, they are learning from you, and you are also learning from, with and through your fellow learners. The deeply social nature of the exchange means learning happens via the sharing of ideas, stories, memories, explanations, shared problem-solving and demonstration between all those involved. The learners and teacher build upon each others experiences and skills through this exchange. Furthermore, the social quality of the learning does not stop in the Trade School lesson, but rather ripples into our homes, families and wider networks, or as one teacher explained “it spreads like a vine”

“Something as simple as encouragement goes a long way, you don’t realise. Not only are they going to get their sewing machines out now, I am like oh I showed other people how to do that and one of ladies then said I am going to show my friend this. … It spreads like a vine, it is a skill passed on to another, to another, to another.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

3. Connectivity and reinforcing cycles of networks of doing

If it is the job of the platform to nurture a diverse and resilient ecology of doing and sharing projects and experiences, then one of the ways we can measure the health of that ecology is through the flows of information and intentional connections & exchanges between doers, encouragers, curious observers, spaces of doing and doing projects.

This has been a theme of detectorism in a range of spaces in this last season of doing, and was present again in the Trade School Dudley detectorism. This connectivity occurs across multiple scales and spaces. Firstly, the detectorism told us about connectivity in terms of how attending and teaching Trade Schools makes teachers/ learners (they often overlap) feel part of and connected to a wider movement of like-minded people who want to help bring about change in Dudley.

“It was being part of something that has a value that is relevant to my personal views, the value of taking part and offering that chance for others to take part, so it was definitely that sharing aspect, … it is not a transaction.” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

We also surfaced connections and interactions across projects in this session where teachers had started off as participants in one project (e.g. Crafternoon), and were encouraged by their fellow doers there to teach a Trade School. Without that encouragement they wouldn’t have had the confidence to value and so share their skills. This connection continued with Crafternoon participants attending other Trade School classes and making personal invitations to new doers to come and take part in Crafternoon. We also observed when the platform space is shared by multiple projects there is even more intentional invitations and interactions between projects (e.g. between first attending to take part in a social media surgery and ending up swapping over to a Trade School class). That connection wouldn’t have happened without the ease of proximity and multi-use of the space by two different peer based open shared learning initiatives. In another example, a doer wanted to give back into the platform as thanks for shared learning and so delivered a Trade School class on happiness which led to another Trade School Dudley teacher seeking to collaborate with her around developing a full course on action for happiness in Dudley.

“When you do something, other good stuff happens, xxx has contacted me (another Trade School teacher) because we were thinking it would be nice to do a course in Dudley. These ripples. That will have other effects. You won’t see it. ” [Trade School Dudley teacher May, 2018]

Even while engaged in the Trade School Dudley detectorism session teachers made connections between projects, and between different participants that are common to differing, but overlapping, personal social networks. From unpacking one teacher’s motivations during the session the lab team were able to make connections with other new emerging projects and doers whose ethics and ideas align, and whose creative practice complement each other.

Similarly, the nature of the lab open practice norms of both learning and designing of new projects out in the open meant that together as a group of Trade School Dudley teachers and lab members we were able to build on ideas that emerged and develop one of the trade school classes into an ongoing new project of its own (a language cafe). This project in turn was linked into and supportive of the workings of gather as a social enterprise.

While another teacher reflected upon the linkages between three different platform projects (Trade School, Teardown labs, Repair Cafe) that could be leveraged to aid the circulation and re-purposing of resources across the projects. As well as accessing shared learning and resources that connection is also nurturing the early testing phase for a new creative initiative incubated by the platform. The fluidity of the platform space and culture of doing results in a hybridity of projects. The detectorism shows that both platform and project qualities (fluidity and hybridity) are reinforced by this intentional connectivity behaviour. On a very everyday scale these open practice norms meant that a friend of one of the teachers who had never participated in the platform in any other way than as a customer of gather was warmly included in the detectorism session as she was sitting nearby. She actively contributed to the shared learning and the Trade School teachers went out of their way to make invitations and reassurances to her around taking part in other projects. This is all part of the intentional connectivity and openness of learning. It is also part of a culture that nurtures an authentic welcome and invitation to participate.

Importantly, as illustrated through the examples above, the intentional connections and flows across the ecology are animated by both doers AND lab team members. The movement of people through the networks of projects in different capacities as doer, encourager, or curious observer means certain behaviours are being made explicit, encouraged, celebrated, and so reinforced. The intentional connecting and authentic invitation behaviours are part of an ensemble of platform behaviours surfaced in our Detectorism Insights research that include: curiosity, creativity, affirmation, active welcome/ conviviality and sharing (of skills, ideas and resources). You can read more about those behaviours on pages 61 & 91 of Detectorism Insights#1 here).

We will be writing more in future lab notes about this connectivity from the perspective of active network weaving and network guardian lab practice that has been foregrounded in our recent experimenting around lab processes. In the meantime, if you want to take part in detectorism open learning pop along to the the next session of the detectorism collective on 11th June (2–4pm), or if you want to get doing in other magical ways check out our calendar here.