07 May 2020

Community Action and Lifelong Learning

Chair: Mr Emerson Csorba

Ditchley’s virtual programme is designed in response to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives. The programme considers the impact on our personal lives, our communities and changes in wider society. We start with a focus on individuals, communities, and, in this session, on how community action may hold a key to opening up new opportunities for lifelong learning (as well as the language used to describe this learning and its value within democracies).  

The focus of May is on communities and the economy as an aggregation of communities connected by systems. In time this will progress to a broader focus on the systems underpinning societies, from ones we can determine such as the economic, to systems we depend upon – the climate. At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenge and questions the pandemic raises for democratic societies. What the pandemic is surfacing as to what people care about and why, and how can democracies respond? 


Community responses to crisis 

We’re familiar with the formal and institutional settings for education and learning, but what is less obvious is the learning that happens in informal networks: the initiatives driven by individuals and communities to deliver services, create new enterprises, campaign or self-organise. The importance of community action as a setting for lifelong learning became clear in the first phase of Ditchley’s work on lifelong learning and renewal of democracies undertaken in partnership with Lumina Foundation between Nov 2019 and Feb 2020. In this period, a movement toward local community action and collective values was re-emerging in the UK. This now seems to be expedited in the pandemic response. A key question now is how this kind of learning can be recognised and valued.  

A resurgence in local, community-focused innovation – seen in a range of initiatives from individuals, neighbours, charities, local authority collaborations and business – has been getting stronger over the last decade. That said, the idea that learning is life-long and integrated into community action has been reinforced by the way communities have mobilised in response to the coronavirus pandemic, even if ‘lifelong learning’ is not the actual terminology used by many communities and people. Throughout the session, participants commented on the appetite and willingness to take direct action, highlighting the capabilities for effective organisation and delivery to meet essential needs. Participants generally felt that the connection between citizen action with the future of democracy is becoming ‘real’. There was a sense that community action, building from the ground up and facilitated through the sharing of skills, could become a recognised form of learning as we work through the challenges of the pandemic.   


Education and models for change 

Early in the discussion, it was noted that traditional models have seen adult education as a human right, part of the story of cohesive societies that allows for second chances and ensures that no-one is left behind. From an economic vantage point, adult education has also been approached as an issue of human capital, a process to equip people with the right skills and to develop talent. But learning has always also been fundamentally the means by which people understand the world, and therefore, to shape the change they want to see. It is this sense of individual and collective agency that links with community action. It became clear in the discussion that we must therefore be careful not to impose on others language that does not capture what individuals themselves want (and hence detracts from a sense of agency).   

Education has typically been core to a model of social change in which social mobility is delivered by acquiring educational credentials. Higher degrees and skills training both translate within markets for jobs and rewards. The globalisation of low skills, however, has broken this model. For people in areas where there are few jobs, it has become much harder to apply a universal story where the value of education can be exchanged for rewarding work.  

Participants felt there is scope for new models. A better understanding of learning, of care and of community action, may inform learning in ways that build on people’s actual expressed values – on what they want and need at this moment. It has been mentioned in other recent Ditchley virtual sessions that a focus on care work and a new appreciation of our own vulnerability and dependency may lead to a re-valuing of care, so that it accrues greater societal respect. Respect was again a theme in this session. Participants in this session wondered whether new forms of recognised learning and work could be built around values such as care and the respect that is developing for them.  


Valuing what people value 

The starting point is to support what people value themselves, and in a democracy to develop tools that help people to chart their own course. It was agreed that people want resources that help them get income and value in their lives. Jobs are a primary concern, but there was also some discussion on the point that values such as care and solidarity may inform new types of work as we emerge from the crisis. 

Participants largely agreed that the rapid development process adopted by tech companies is a useful model, and one that other sectors can learn from. It allows for direct responses to the ways people learn. The development process within tech is fast and has been used to create products for mobile phones that lower barriers to learning. It was agreed that this approach is quite different to the one taken in educational policy research. Technology moves fast to create product-market fit: producers relate directly to learners. If a product works, then it can be enhanced and refined.  

The production of this kind of educational technology was said to be disconnected from most educational policy and research; the speed of innovation is just much faster. But the broad approach can be mirrored in other areas. One participant commented that we have seen non-tech industries innovate in similar ways, for example with pop-up restaurants, where shops apply ideas of rapid direct testing, building on what people want. Can these ideas be applied more fruitfully in learning? There may be parallels between online access and physical access to learning.  

There was a related discussion on trust, or lack thereof, within the session. It was asked whether the recent demonstration of community activity may encourage greater trust by local authorities? A key point made was that there is a basic lack of trust in people to act on their ideas and initiatives, which not only holds them back, but suggests deeper institutional reluctance to relinquish power and to genuinely engage with people in developing their own enterprises, for instance when re-purposing buildings and creating new uses for them. It was generally agreed that regulation that prevents people from acting on ideas and initiatives represents a simple and startling lack of trust in others. The recent community action in the pandemic response is a testament to the significance and potential of trust.  


Re-thinking learning 

The lockdown is bringing about a re-thinking of learning. For those fortunate enough to take part in courses or just to explore their interests, the chance to learn new things and to be creative has been eye-opening. There has been a new appreciation of family, of home schooling and on-line learning, as well as opportunities for elderly people – groups not generally considered part of this picture. Universities are widely expected to be forced to re-assess their business models.  

It was agreed that these experiences under lockdown are creating paths toward longer-term change. A rethinking of how we learn is already underway, not just in terms of what on-line can deliver but in what we particularly value, such as conversations within trusted networks. 


Role for government 

Has the community response uncovered weaknesses both in government and in business responses? And, what might now have to change? The discussion speculated on the future role of government in providing a regulatory framework to create better incentives for business to make decisions in societal interests, particularly in areas such as carbon reduction.  

There was faith in the role of government in setting ‘the rules of the game,’ especially as far as the relationship between business and society is concerned. Some participants noted that international and national regulatory frameworks are important but so is devolved power – the coming-together of health agencies, businesses and educators at the local level and to set their own agendas in response to their own needs. There was brief discussion on the point that goal-setting in learning from the top-down (e.g. setting of national targets related to skills development) can actually hinder informal learning and kill real use value.  

Can learning and the groundswell for community action be better recognised? Should there be universal life-long learning? And if so, what is the best level to generate it? We did not discuss in depth how more community-oriented values can be recognised more effectively, but there was some initial consensus that whatever recognition occurs needs to occur with some speed – facilitated perhaps by technology – and that multiple levels of organisations should be involved in this process.  

The city level may be better than the national, but what about the divides between urban and less urban/rural? We heard of Korean cities applying concepts of ‘learning cities’ to support inclusive, prosperous and sustainable urban communities, and efforts to create small libraries and ‘learning centres’ within short distances from people’s homes and work. There was a sense in the discussion that nation-states do not have a good record when it comes to funding short-term outcomes to meet the needs of existing markets. Moreover, there was consensus that centralised programmes do not typically meet the needs of learners based on what they themselves value. Centralised programmes may not sufficiently exhibit trust in people and hence reduce their agency.  

Participants felt that new models may need to arise from the ground-up, but with leadership and coordination across multiple agencies and organisations in the promotion and recognition of new forms of learning. The point of leadership was faint in this session but emerged somewhat in discussion on government setting new rules for business in its relationship with society.  


Life-long learning in the process of social and economic recovery 

Life-long learning can be part of an economic rebuilding that can: 

  • start from what people value and the language and ideas they use;  

  • understand the economic opportunities in particular localities (and the forces that work against people, such pressure to take on debt); 

  • trust people and communities;  

  • revalue basic services of care;  

  • understand the processes and models offered by technology and their applicability.  

Solutions can be evolved differently according to local need but these were important themes in this virtual discussion. 

Participants: Emerson Csorba (Chair), Chief of Staff, Ditchley Foundation; Tariq Fancy, Founder and CEO of Rumie and former Chief Investment Officer of Sustainable Investing at BlackRock; Liz Greenhalgh, Impact Lead, Ditchley; Anna Jahn, Director of Learning Programs and the Action Canada Fellowship at the Public Policy Forum, a policy think tank in Ottawa; Frances Northrop, Director of Programmes and Practice for the New Economics Foundation; Darius Rahimi, Minister Counsellor and Deputy Head of the Political Department at the German Embassy London; Gareth Rees, Senior Developer, mySociety;  Evgeny  Shadchnev, Founder and CEO of Makers, a tech training provider in London; Sir Alan Tuckett, Professor of Education at the University of Wolverhampton and Past President of the International Council of Adult Education.  

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.