Think Big, Teach Local

It’s an exciting moment in the Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. We’re at the point where we try to move away from bothering busy people with important jobs, asking them to do things they wouldn’t normally do, and towards a role supporting people moving ahead with their own projects. Where the RSA stops being ‘doer’ and begins to act in the role of ‘supporter’. Communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point.

The point of an Area Based Curriculum is that communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point. Eleven years of working with schools on Opening Minds has convinced the RSA of the power of a curriculum that is conceived, designed and implemented by teachers in a school. The Area Based Curriculum goes one step further: reaching out beyond the school gates and asking the people in a local area to pitch in and work with teachers, bringing their ideas, resources and expertise.

The problem is, of course, that in order for the work to be worthwhile we of course do have a view on what should go in the curriculum, and who should be involved. We insist that the curriculum reflect the diversity of a local area, and seek to engage those not normally involved in education. We ask that the projects take proper account of the national entitlement of all children to a certain set of shared knowledge, at the same time as reflecting local knowledges and priorities. Our reasons for doing the work in the first place are based on principles – educational and ethical and political. For it to be worth doing we must care about the outcomes, and take responsibility for ensuring that our intervention is not a hollow one that reinforces existing power structures and exclusions, fails to secure different outcomes to what existed before, or worse.

Our project in Peterborough is at the point where we do what we said we went there to do, and try to provoke a genuinely community owned and led curriculum. We have to hope that we have got the balance right: between providing enough steer to the work so that we achieve and can measure what we set out to do, and stepping aside at the right time to allow the teachers and community partners in Peterborough to develop and own their own projects.

The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother?

This tension between the stated aims of a given intervention and local ownership, of course, is present in all work by agencies seeking to enable people to do things for themselves. This includes central government espousing ideas like the Big Society. At the beginning the intervention, or policy, or suggestion for change is just that – ‘centralised’, ‘top down’, ‘external’. The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother? At the same time the enactment of the Big Society needs to be internalised and owned by communities, professionals and individuals. What are the mechanisms for making this happen? How do we establish a shared sense of what we are trying to achieve? And how far does or should the original intervener (in this case the Coalition Government) retain responsibility for the outcomes?

The Area Based Curriculum is, ultimately, about culture change. It’s about subtle but crucial shifts in perceptions of ownership, responsibility and expectation. So too is the Big Society. We will soon find out whether our assumptions about how to effect change in a way that empowers have been correct, and we will learn a lot on the way. Sharing this learning with others doing similar work will be crucial to informing the success of the Big Society.

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The Ecology of Innovation

Our approach has been to teach these principles to local residents and help them apply them to the behaviours that underlie local environmental problems. We think that giving community activists the knowledge and support to “nudge” their neighbours could be a better way of encouraging behaviour change. National attempts to apply these principles could leave people feeling preached at, or alienate people by taking covert approaches.

Instead, we think that training community activists with the knowledge they need to nudge their neighbours can harness their local knowledge, their “one-of-us” status, and their existing trusted relationships with their community.

Towards the end of last year we tested this approach in a two-day workshop. Twenty-five enthusiastic residents learned about the effects of personal, social and infrastructural factors on human behaviour, then worked together to apply this knowledge to Peterborough specific problems. After a pitch to a panel of judges, two ideas were selected for seed-funding and non-financial support to allow them to become pilot projects.

One of the pilots will encourage a wider segment of the community to manage local plots of unused land. The group behind this project plan to map unused land in their neighbourhood and throughout Peterborough, then run small interventions to encourage local people to take an active role in stewarding the land.

The other pilot will encourage residents living near an area of ancient woodland to take an active forest management role. Currently neglected and the scene of anti-social behaviour, the community decided to create a woodland walk to make walking through the forest a normal activity for local residents.

Part of this approach to local nudging was informed by a paper – The Ecology of Innovation – that we published just before Christmas. It presents a few simple principles that could be used to encourage and support local people in getting projects off the ground. These principles include ensuring that local community organisations are able to participate in contributing their ideas, and supporting their ideas with financial and non-financial support so that they can be tested. You can read the paper online or download it here.

In 2011, we’re looking forward to getting these ideas off the ground, and also holding more workshops to encourage and support more ideas that could make Peterborough into an even greener place to live!

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Art, Ecology and Citizen Power

Tomorrow, the Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman arrives in the UK to begin her residency atClare Cottage in Helpston, near Peterborough. Her stay marks a shift in focus for Arts & Ecology, towards exploring how the arts may engage people locally with environmental change and sustainability. As part of this, Marjolijn has been invited to stay at the home of the local romantic poet John Clare who died in 1864, so is no longer living there. The cottage was refurbished last year and Marjolijn intends to explore contemporary ideas about ‘place’ with people in the surrounding villages and the city of Peterborough, which is where the RSA Citizen Power project is located.
Wandering Through the Future (installation) by Marjolijn Dijkman, 2007. Commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 8: ‘STILL LIFE, Art, Ecology and the politics of Change’. Photo by Lateefa Maktoum

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The Great Fen Project

I write this as we set off for a meeting in Peterborough which is, wonderfully, interested in the connection between the arts and environmental issues. I had a brilliant taster with respect to the Fens in an extraordinary concert at King’s College, Cambridge in their stunning chapel. This was in support of the Great Fen Project – “the most important conservation project in the UK for 100 years” – With Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, the music soaring upwards as the dusk light spread through the building, it seemed anything is possible!

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