As my strongest personal interests are around learning and education, I also want to look at the ELL from a pedagogical perspective. One of the aspects that initially drew me to the ELL concept was that it was a residential learning community focused on generating ideas for social change. As I became more knowledgeable about the structure of the program, it resonated even more, given my work in guiding reflective practice work with community development and international development practitioners.
I was particularly impressed by the coaching aspect of the ELL. Each ‘maker’ in the program was paired with a professional life coach who accompanied them through the two month program, meeting each week by phone. The coaches also met together as group weekly via Google Hangout to share their reflections about the process and to discuss the best ways to support their participants. As part of my evaluation of the program I participated in these weekly calls and learned a great deal about the various trajectories of the makers.
The coaches shared a common belief that development of the makers’ individual projects was premised on the personal development and growth of the makers themselves. As such, the weekly phone calls between the coaches and their participants were as much focused on personal reflection as on the technical details of projects. As the ELL progressed, the connection between these two domains became clearer. Increased clarity about personal motivations was reflected in enhanced clarity about ideas. Increased clarity about values led to a heightened ability to articulate not only the structure of newly conceived organizations but also their potential social value.
The coaching space was only one of the learning dimensions of the program. Each morning all of the on- site participants—makers, facilitators and support team—met for four hours of collaborative group time. Here as well the focus was on project and personal development. Part of the time each morning was spent sorting through issues of group process and keeping communication open between members in order to keep the community running as smoothly and harmoniously as possible during a very intellectually, physically and emotionally intense program.
The remainder of the group time was dedicated to the curriculum of the ELL. The facilitators had key ideas and frameworks they wanted to share with the participants—these ideas were the conceptual soil for the ELL: ideas about the nature and function of the gift economy, liquid currencies, social development, value-driven entrepreneurship, methodologies for ideation, etc. Over time the curricular space became more collaborative. As participants became more comfortable in the learning community, they increasingly contributed to the topics and presentations that comprised the morning sessions.
Following the group time, the participants would spend a brief period reflecting about their goals for the day. Through the afternoon, into the evening, and often late into the night, the makers then set to focused work on their projects. During long stretches of the project time, the Lab would be mostly quiet as people worked at their stations. In the afternoon and evening, there were various impromptu meetings between and across projects as participants shared their latest accomplishments and sought feedback about ways forward. The projects were quite diverse—an internet portal and match-making site for intentional communities, a new open-source platform for knowledge mapping, developing the pedagogy and curriculum for a group of agile learn centers inspired by the agile learning movement in software engineering, and more. In spite of the diversity of projects, the intimate nature of the lab lent itself to continuous cross-pollination and collaboration.
In listening to and interviewing the makers and other participants during the evaluation process, I was struck not only to their commitment for proactive social change, but also their commitment to alternative forms of education, commitments born out intense frustration with the current state of higher education. Some of the makers had attended university, but other had eschewed it altogether, arguing that they could organize a better, more personalized educational program than any degree available at a university. Instead they were moving toward a bricolage approach to learning composed of numerous self-selected experiences.
DIY education, MOOCs and other online resources are a source of endless debate in the world of higher education. My concern with these processes is their general lack of relationships, with both peers and mentors. Content devoid of relationships and collective reflection is easily misconstrued. Moreover, the content itself cannot facilitate the growth and development of students. I found the ELL exciting because of its attempt to bring together the best of both worlds—a student-driven, largely self-organized curriculum that was situated with a dense network of social relationships generated by the residential community.
The ELL also lent itself to an added pedagogical dimension that is difficult achieve even within a formal education environment. This was the dimension of embodiment. As one of the support team members commented about the program, “We are doing it by be it.” While every classroom offers the opportunity to model more democratic and participatory ways of sharing and creating knowledge, there is little opportunity for enacting change at the organizational level. Students long for their universities to embody their personal ideals, such as around sustainability, but such goals are achieved only through years of slow change. However, in a program as small and as agile as the ELL, the facilitators and participants are able to design systems that are congruent with their ideals—in this case, modeling the gift economy, deciding through deliberative dialogues, and mandating full participation in the labor (cooking, cleaning, etc.) of the lab. The participants experienced firsthand the excitement—and also at times the frustration—of radical, immersive experimentation. But over the course of two months, iterative learning and rapid adaptation occurred until the group had created a functional organizational system which was a living, breathing embodiment of their values and aspirations for the world.
All said, the ELL was not simply a place of learning, but a space for being and becoming, which will likely have a strong and lasting impact on the participants, on their lives and on their work well into the future.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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