Zahra Davidson: Enrol Yourself is a social business that aims to redesign lifelong learning by harnessing the power of peer groups.

It all began when my good friend Roxana Bacian felt stuck in our jobs and started having regular conversations about the kind of learning and development we wanted to participate in – and couldn’t find!

We wanted learning that was first and foremost a social experience. We wanted something that was affordable, flexible and wouldn’t lag behind the workplace. We wanted something that reflected values of cooperation and sharing. And finally, we wanted something with a bit of magic to it.

So we set out to create the thing we couldn’t find, learning as we went about how to make it possible. What we developed was a 6 month learning accelerator called the Learning Marathon which is self-directed and fully peer-to-peer (by which I mean there are no teachers, lecturers or trainers other than the peers themselves). We both participated in our pilot, and now I continue to offer the service. Enrol Yourself  brings groups of 10–12 people together to pool their resources, skills, creativity and enthusiasm, each working toward an outcome they couldn’t achieve alone, guided by their personal Learning Question. By synchronising their learning and development they make it more effective, deeper, and much more fun.

Enrol Yourself is an ongoing enquiry into how groups of people can turn to one other to produce powerful learning experiences outside of institutions and traditional formats. We base our activity on the assumption that there is enough experience, wisdom and creativity within groups of ‘ordinary’ adults to make this possible. We’re exploring how this assumption within adult education might empower people at the individual level, and contribute to a collective consciousness shift at the societal level.

The future of work (not to mention global challenges) seems set to demand more frequent and ongoing learning and development from adults. Our goal is to build a community-led model to make this possible. We’re piloting a distributed approach to growth whereby we ‘train the trainers’, facilitators who initiate peer learning communities where they are. Our facilitators are currently looking for pioneering participants in Glasgow, Birmingham and London.

I’m an avid reader of the P2P Foundation blog and have found the principles really helpful as Enrol Yourself has developed, a checklist for whether we’re embodying the values we intend to. So, how are we applying P2P and commons based approaches? Here are some reflections.

1. Information and other commons

Each peer group we connect creates an information commons, both amongst themselves but also drawing on the ever expanding information commons online. And it’s not just a commons of knowledge but a commons of vulnerability and experience that we aim to facilitate. We do this by encouraging peer groups to expose their thinking, their self-limiting beliefs and their ideas to the group as they go. The value of commoning such things within the group is to create a very safe space in which risks that would usually seem out of the question can be taken. Commoning the process of learning as well as the content also leads to a unique opportunity to develop ‘metacognition’ which means awareness and understanding of the learning process itself. Demand for this ‘skill’ is on the rise in the workplace as employers increasingly prize adaptability over prior experience which can be dated.

Placing support in the commons, rather than awarding it by merit, is another concerted effort that we make. I’ve written previously about the value of unconditional support for adults, and how rare and valuable a commodity it is, not just for learning outcomes but for wellbeing outcomes too. Our next step is to figure out how we can common publicly more of what we common within peer groups. This is a challenge for a small team with limited resources, but a live question for us nonetheless.

Market and state should be servants of civil society, not the other way round

Education has always had a crucial role in strengthening the will of people against (near) unstoppable market forces. Today this is more important than ever. Worryingly, in the UK participation in adult learning is actually declining. We can see in stats that show numbers of mature students have plummeted by more than half since 2011. Workplace training is declining too, and the self-employed population, who have no formal learning and development provision, is on the increase.  It generally follows that he who funds something gets to dictate the agenda. Which can be seen as a strong argument in favour of independent and autonomous learning spaces. Of course it is crucially important that learning connect to the requirements of the world of work: vocational is essential. But so is learning that doesn’t serve commercial, capitalist agendas. For civil society to take more power into its hands, instead of watching as it slips through our metaphorical fingers, we need a multitude of independent spaces within which people and communities can craft their own agendas, gaining purpose and resolve as well as skills.

Preparing for a consciousness shift toward networked participation

Participation is by nature a two-way, or multi-way process. It is not as simple as our governing bodies opening the participatory ‘floodgates’. For participation to be a positive thing, the quality of participation on both sides must be high. If our societal and global challenges necessitate an increasingly participatory and cooperative existence (debate whether this is the case separately!), then it follows that we must learn in this way too. We will need to be adept at accessing the knowledge, resources and support we require through networks, rather than through the one source, one teacher, one voice that we’re used to. What we lose in simplicity and ease of navigation we gain back in cooperative and collaborative skills, collectively setting us up for a brighter future.By nature participation requires compromise. On an individual level this can feel very ugly, damaging our egos who scream that their identities are being compromised by this new way of doing things! But the ugly compromises can give life to a new consciousness, more fit for the reality of the 21st Century. It is the role of educational structures, Enrol Yourself included, to make spaces for and support people to make these transitions which can be painful but ultimately rewarding.

A move toward work as creative expression

Maybe a future where everyone can earn a living doing what they love is now inevitable. Maybe it’s as much a utopian pipe dream as it always has been. Or perhaps the truth is that there is simply a wider divide between those for whom it is an inevitability, and for those for don’t have the option.

Whatever the reality, the process of mainstreaming purpose, creativity and problem solving as the heart of education and learning is very much underway the world over. I see this as a hugely positive thing, an energy that can resist opposing forces that would see all education as vocational. But we do need to be careful about creating a sense of entitlement, an expectation that work is the space in which everyone will continue their creative journey. For the majority this is not the case, but this doesn’t have to mean they must all surrender their dreams and grow no further. Enrol Yourself is designed to integrate alongside working life. We aim to help people to carve space in their lives for personal development and creative expression, regardless of how they make their living.

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