Monday, 29 April 2013

Doing it for the kids

Last year I considered the (supposed) differences between andragogy and pedagogy as part of my PGCE course at Northern College.  Andragogy focuses on learning strategies for adults, rather than children and is commonly associated with the work of Malcolm Knowles (1973). Knowles based his model of andragogy around four assumptions about how adults learn (my summary):

  1. Changes in self-concept.  Adults are self-directive; therefore they do not need direct instruction as used in pedagogy
  2. Use of experience.  Adults carry a wealth of life experience which can be brought to any learning activity; this can be significant life change such as becoming a parent as well as day-to-day experience at home and work.
  3. Readiness to learn. Knowles infers that learners become ready to learn at various developmental stages connected with their life experiences.  He emphasises the importance of timing learning correctly; so that it is real and relevant. 
  4. Orientation to learning. Adults have a more problem-centred approach to learning; they come into a learning setting in order to resolve or overcome an issue and then want to apply their knowledge immediately (as opposed to subject-centred learning in which children acquire knowledge purely to move to the next level of study).Considered what they already knew about elections and politics (more than they thought)
I found some relevance in these assumptions, but was uncomfortable with the implications about how and why children learn – and why their experience is different.  Surely children are also self-directive, when and if they are allowed to be?  Children are also brilliant problem-solvers; watching a child build a den, make a collage or learn to read are such natural and common problem-solving processes that we don’t even notice them happening.  It is more likely poor curriculum design that pushes children into subject-centred learning.

This debate was interesting but academic for me, until I found myself (as so often happens) – getting the opportunity to test out my theory.  I was involved in a ‘Schools and Democracy day’ aimed at helping young people from a local school to find out more about the Council and political processes.  I offered to take a class on ‘Voting and Democracy’, centering activities around not just the practicalities but to also questioning why and how people vote.  And of course I couldn’t do this without talking about suffrage. In fact there was so much I wanted to cover, my first challenge was to rein myself in!

I opted for a mix of group-work, discussions and a quiz.  Despite my nerves (why was I so scared? I was 13 once, I think!) I thoroughly enjoyed that hour with 20 kids.  But of course, what’s more important is what the kids thought of it, and whether they learnt anything.  In the session they:

  • Considered what they already knew about elections and politics (more than they thought)
  • Learnt about women’s suffrage – during a quiz where only the boys were allowed to vote
  • Discussed why young people don’t vote, and came up with these reasons/ideas:
    •  People don't know enought about it, or where to go
    •  There’s more interesting things to vote on, like X Factor
    • Why isn’t there an internet voting system or an app so you don’t have to leave the house?
    •  It should be more entertaining
    • Kids should be able to vote over the age of 11, so that it encourages them to vote at 18
  • Created a tweet that they could use to encourage people to vote (thanks to @samthewestie for this idea); and I then tweeted these from my @cllrdevleeds account.  They loved puzzling out how to get their message across in 140 characters!  Here’s one example:

“If you vote, you can change our country for the better. Just pop on down to your local polling station, it takes just 5 minutes of your time.”

So, did I find much to evidence Knowles’ split between pedagogy and andragogy?

  1. Contrary to Knowle’s assumption about self-direction, the kids had no trouble directing themselves to group activities. What they did need, however was facilitation to help the group work effectively and engage quieter participants (still not dissimilar to adults!)
  2.  They considered innovative ways to solve the problem of low turnout in elections.  “I could write an app for this”.
  3. There was no compulsion to learn in this session but they still asked questions to take their knowledge further: “so, why can’t you vote when you’re 16?”
When I look at the session plan and consider how it would have been different for an adult event, the only thing is around levels of knowledge.  For adults, (rightly or wrongly, perhaps) I would have assumed a greater understanding of political processes and a better command of political terms.  Otherwise the session would have been no different.

However, there was one very noticeable difference between this session and an adult one.  I got called ‘miss’!

Knowles, M. S. (1973; 1990) The Adult Learner. A neglected species (4e), Houston: Gulf Publishing

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

"The way it is around here" - surviving and thriving in local politics

For a week that focussed heavily on the death and legacy of a female politician, there was a marked lack of informed and constructive debate about the role of women in politics.  It was therefore really refreshing and timely for me to attend and speak at the residential course 'Women into Grassroots and Local Politics', run by the WEA at the University of Nottingham.

I decided to talk about resilience in politics and explore the kind of things that women need to thrive in a political environment.  Below is a summary of the themes I talked about, having observed resilience in action at a variety of different local authorities; and seen the often toxic effect of the political arena on both male and female councillors.  I'd love to know what you think!

Queen Bee syndrome

This is essentially where women reach a position of power but then keep that power to themselves, to the detriment of other women following them into politics or working with them (Thatcher, of course, was a classic example of the 'queen bee') .While I don't condone the behaviour I appreciate why it can happen - for some women, this has been the only way to get on and survive in a predominantly male space. 

So how can women in politics mitigate this?  One way is to avoid working alone; build networks of like-minded women, and if they don't already exist - create them.  Networks should extend beyond political groups and councils and don't have to be 'official'. Twitter, and other social networks are a great way of developing this kind of support.

As an aside, it's interesting to consider why this 'syndrome' is only mentioned in connection with women - surely men behave in these ways too? Or is this just the accepted way for men in politics to behave anyway?

Feeling the pressure

Most people do not appreciate and understand the pressures faced by, and the sheer volume of work that confronts local politicians.  Coping mechanisms are needed to deal with piles of (often distressing) casework, and these are skills that can be learnt. Most local authorities have courses and resources available; there are also national programmes available through the LGA and other bodies. Topics might include: managing your time, using social media effectively, dealing with your casework.

Coaching is a great way to help set goals and track progress, in a safe space - and there are some great coaches around who specialise in political resilience.  Keeping a reflection diary and collecting all the complements and thanks you receive can be very positive actions, as well as being great records to look back on.

Many political groups provide mentors for newly-elected councillors, but it is a good idea to identify your own.  A mentor is a powerful role and the choice of mentor should always rest with the mentee.

The passion and drive needed to be a politician can work against you and be misunderstood by even those closest to you.  The late MP Mo Mowlam wrote about achieving balance between politics and family:

"Make sure you have a hinterland...make sure you have something else in your life that is important. Make yourself as normal as possible; if not, you become addicted to politics and forget what life is about and what other people are thinking."

Political space

On countless occasions in my career, when questioning behaviour or the status quo I have been told 'it's just politics.'  Politics is used as an excuse for a lack of respect, rudeness, ignorance and discrimination and the effects of this are far-reaching.  It is hard to change a culture but that is no reason to accept it.  Questioning accepted practice and language is a great way to start to unpick and explore assumptions.  Why do Council meetings have to be held this way?  Does politics need to be combative and aggressive? If so, why? Can we have a discussion about it?  Why, why, why? (you can tell what kind of 5 year old I was...!)

I came across a quote by Saul Alinsky that sums up how I feel about the power of the question:

"It's not co-incidence that the '?' is an inverted plough, breaking up the hard soil of old beliefs, preparing for new growth."

So the next time someone uses the phrases 'that's just politics' or 'that's how it is around here' why not take that question mark and start digging around and exposing assumptions?

More information about the 'Women into Politics' programme run by WEA can be found here:

and for general info and debate about women in democracy