Learning encounters with a toddler

‘Bristol is the first city in England to become part of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities’

‘A Learning City is defined as a place which uses its resources to promote inclusive, lifelong learning in education, families, communities and the workplace’

As a young family raising a toddler in this culturally opulent city, this accolade prompted a desire to discover and document the myriad of learning opportunities that Bristol boasts as a recognised UNESCO ‘Learning City’.

Over a period of three months, we have used photography to ethnographically document our family learning encounters as a research resource for the ‘Reinventing Learning Cities’ project.

As we embarked upon this exciting project as a family, we had resplendent plans to further connect with the city in which we live; a chance to explore learning opportunities in areas of the city less well known to us, to engage with the plethora of cultural projects, opportunities and visual stimuli that Bristol extends. As parents, we are desperate to capitalise on this tender age and developmental stage of our toddler, his unreserved enthusiasm for learning and his capacity to absorb and engage with information in such a starry – eyed and impartial way.

As we have progressed through our research journey, it has become overwhelmingly clear to us however that we have been enamoured and enraptured by the wealth of learning opportunities on our doorstep and in surrounding communities.


Our research and ethnographic documentation from a toddler’s learning perspective, parallel our initial aim to connect and discover new areas and opportunities across the city and instead proffer a love affair with our local and surrounding communities as an area to live and learn in as a young family.  Whilst this brings about some feelings of failure on our part to meet the research brief that we prescribed for ourselves, as we strive to be globally and culturally attuned parents, I can’t help but refer back to the UNESCO definition of a Learning City – ‘a place which uses its resources to promote inclusive, lifelong learning in education, families and communities’. I feel that that our research findings unreservedly champion the idea of community learning and celebrate the local opportunities accessible to us.

Rather than showcasing a cross – cutting breadth of learning encounters across the ‘Learning City’ of Bristol, our photographs instead capture the subject of community love and living in Bristol from our toddler’s perspective and illustrate learning outcomes from our everyday mundane activities, connecting with people and places in our local community and trips and visits all within walking distance from our family home. Furthermore, it was important to us that we only documented learning encounters that were free or that were part of general living costs such as food shopping for example, to ensure that what we recorded would be accessible for everyone.

It is our aspiration that this research project serves as only the foundation and mere beginning of our family learning journey in this vibrant Learning City. If I refer to the quote by Mother Theresa ‘Love Begins at Home’, in the context of our ambition for our son to have a lifelong love for learning, I certainly do hope that our infant learning narrative is testament to that.

Jessica Tomico – Community Researcher

Call for artists to deliver workshops

We are excited to announce that the call for artists to take part in Unlocking Creative Learning Cities collaborative project is NOW OPEN!

Dhek Bhal and University of Bristol are proud to announce a new collaborative project to inspire new art co-production and storytelling activities. The project is set to bring art to the Dhek Bhal community. To do so, we are looking for artists from any discipline who want to work with Dhek Bhal to create a collaborative artwork inspired by Dhek Bhal users’ stories.

What is Unlocking Creative Learning Cities?

Dhek Bhal, a community-based charity, has been working with the ageing South Asian population in Bristol experiencing social isolation and vulnerability. This project is building on their unique legacy of culturally responsive services to explore the use of participatory art methods, ethnography and storytelling in enhancing Dhek Bhal’s work in health and wellbeing, and share it with broader audiences across the city.

The artworks will be designed co-productively during two workshops with individuals who are Dhek Bhal service users. Produced during storytelling and critical making sessions, the workshops will explore how the city acts as a medium for learning as seen from the perspective of the ageing South Asian respondents. Each workshop will be designed in a culturally appropriate manner, including men-only and women-only sessions and sharing reflections and food together. As the sessions will be supported by community interpreters, they will provide a welcoming environment, encouraging the participants to recall stories, share with others and think creatively about their experiences.

Why should you apply to be an Unlocking Creative Learning Cities artist?

We expect participating artists to have an interest in developing connections with the local community. Participants will be primarily provided with opportunities to:

  • Develop a unique collaboration with Dhek Bhal and the University of Bristol researchers
  • Showcase the resulting work at an exhibition in Coexist, Bristol  in August 2017
  • A workshop honorarium of £300 per session. We will also provide a small budget for materials and post-production.

You will need to be available for one or two workshops:

  1. June 2017 10:00 – 16:00 Dhek Bhal women’s group
  2. July 2017 10:00 – 16:00 Dhek Bhal men’s group.

We look forward to hearing from you. Please email us a selection of art production options suitable for the group activity with a short description of your past experience and interest in this project.

Email: magda.buchczyk@bristol.ac.uk

Please feel free to contact us with any further queries.

The deadline for applications is 10 March 2017. The shortlisted artists will have an opportunity to meet the project team on 17. March 2017 to discuss ideas further.


Paper on addressing global challenges in Bristol during EURA Conference in Warsaw 2017

We are pleased to announce that our project will be presented during the European Urban Research Association Conference in Warsaw. The focus of the conference revolves around the concept of urban networks and multi-scalar spaces. It enables us to think about cities as political agents shaping their presence on the global political and economic arena. It also provides scope for treating inner urban politics and policies as signs of downscaling.

Our paper will be part of a wider global challenges theme. The theme addresses the implications arising from conceptualising cities as nodes in a global network; increasingly vulnerable to global challenges related to environmental changes, demographic dynamics, and infrastructure failures. Our paper demonstrates a case study of an interrelated networked-structure developed in Bristol as a way to address global issues of urban resilience on a local scale.

More details about the conference: http://py.wgsr.uw.edu.pl/eura2017/


Exploring the learning city through art and storytelling

We are pleased to announce that we have been awarded seed-corn funding by the Brigstow Institute for a collaborative project with Dhek Bhal.

For three decades, Dhek Bhal, a community-based charity, has been working with the ageing South Asian population in Bristol experiencing social isolation and vulnerability. This project is building on their unique legacy of culturally responsive services to collaboratively explore the use of participatory art methods, ethnography and storytelling in enhancing Dhek Bhal’s work in health and wellbeing, and share it with broader audiences across the city.

The project will involve a combination of storytelling workshops and art production. Produced in collaboration with local artists, the artworks will explore how the city acts as a medium for learning as seen from the perspective of the ageing South Asian respondents.

Watch this space for more details about the initiative and the exhibition dates!

Brigstow Institute: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/brigstow/

Dhek Bhal: http://www.dhekbhal.org.uk/


Looking at life through a learning lens

The first thing we were asked to do when recruited as volunteer community researchers was to complete a learning timeline. If you don’t know what that is, it looked like this:


At first, I thought this would be easy and wouldn’t take too long. Then I got started. I pored over the timeline for some time – much longer, I’m sure, than was intended!

I found myself thinking back over my life in an entirely new way – as a life of learning. Taking the broad definition of learning suggested by the note at the top of the timeline, I got lost in thought about the volume of learning, both formal and informal, that takes place over the course of an average life.

The timeline also made me wonder about the learning experiences that were most important to me. Sometimes I had experiences that were sad or painful from which I learned deep and enduring life lessons.  At other times, I pursued learning deliberately and determinedly to improve myself or move my life along.

A couple of hours later, I sat with a heavily annotated page in front of me. I had resorted to grouping my learning into lists and columns that looked in danger of falling off the page. I suppose I had failed in the task of brevity. But I am not sorry. For the first time, I had viewed my life through a learning lens, and it was far richer than I had expected.

It is surprising that this simple exercise could reveal so much or be so uplifting. It awakened in me a sense of myself as a dynamic, growth-oriented creature, constantly learning, daily acquiring new knowledge and skills. Much learning, it seems, happens simply as a consequence of being alive; it feels like an inextricable part of being, a sort of life-force – one that we all share and can tap into.

I am looking forward to conducting the research I have planned as part of this project and I hope that I can share this sense of wonder at our universal ability to learn with others.

Helen Bolton, Community Researcher

Paper at CASCA/IUAES 2017 Conference in Ottawa

We are pleased to announce that the “Reinventing Learning Cities” project will be presented during the CASCA/IUAES 2017 Conference in Canada. The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) and Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) Conference will be hosted at the University of Ottawa, on the unceded, traditional territory of the Algonquins of the Ottawa River Watershed. 

This year’s focal point is “Movement” of diverse knowledges, practices and problematizations. The notion of movement resonates in studies of political, ecological, religious and economic life as an analytical space exploring the processes of life forms, things and ideas through relationships in space and time. Our paper will be presented within the “Everyday Neoliberalism” panel exploring how neoliberalism’s economic and cultural dimensions intersect in various domains of everyday life. The paper, Unlearning the city: critical ethnography of the learning strategies and tactics in Bristol, UK, will present an ethnographic study of Bristol through mundane learning practices, focusing on learning as a site of intersection with economic practices as well as potential contestations.

Visionary learning cities and their discontents

In 2017, Bristol was awarded the UNESCO Learning City title. Within this initiative, Bristol has set up key challenge groups focused on learning for and in work, learning in education and learning for everyone, concerned with lifelong and community-based learning, as well as tackling marginalization and social isolation. The partnerships comprise educational leaders, cultural activists, businesses and representatives of local authorities, cultural organizations and social work. The idea of Bristol Learning City is to utilize these partnerships to promote and create learning opportunities for everyone across life and in the whole city. The Bristol Learning City campaign tagline is Love Learning and the program is currently promoted in educational events around the city and online.

In order to understand the current ideas of the learning city dominant in municipal initiatives as well as in much of the educational literature, we need to revisit the pedagogical tradition developed in the 1970s. One of the key proponents of the critical pedagogy of the time, Paolo Freire (1970) argued for the development of problem-posing education. In this perspective, learning involves an active relationship with the environment and the development of capacities for action. In 1971, Illich presented a vision for a deschooled society where the physical environment, objects, spaces, such as cities, could be made accessible for self-directed learning. For Illich, education needed to be reconnected with the resources available in other parts of life such as objects and spaces in the city. In 1973, Shaw discussed a need for new connections between learning and living. Shaw saw education as dismissive of what was happening in favor for preparing for something that was going to happen (Shaw 1973: 517).  In the context of the emerging ecological and social challenges, he argued, we needed to rethink education to find new ways of adapting to change. Therefore, all institutions using information, also ones that make up our cities, needed to develop capacities to learn.

The above ideas have resonated widely in international thinking about learning in the city. They inspired the influential UNESCO’s Faure Report of 1972. The report embraced the spirit and the cosmopolitan vision of the early 1970s, connecting the educational endeavor to other areas of social development (Elfert 2015). The subsequent Delors report (1996) presented a vision of a learning society (itself a translation of the ‘cité éducative’ concept used in the Faure report) that promoted learning throughout life. In a similar spirit to Shaw (1973), the Delors report saw education and learning as ways to address contemporary challenges through learning to know; learning to do; learning to live together; and learning to be. It redefined the role of education in the new millennium, driven by a Faure-like vision for a society ‘guided by the Utopian aim of steering the world towards greater sense of responsibility and greater solidarity’ (1996: 51).

In the 1990s, the groundwork of the two reports led to the development of the learning city idea that has gained prominence in the field of lifelong learning and international policy discourses (Elfert 2015, Hamilton and Jordan 2011, Han and Makino 2013, Kearns 2012, Longworth 1999, 2006, Osbourne 2013, 2014a, 2014b, Scott 2015, Watson and Wu 2015). The key concepts around the learning city, developed in the 1990s, focused on the ways in which cities  mobilize resources “to develop and enrich all its human potential for the fostering of personal growth, the maintenance of social cohesion, and the creation of prosperity” (Longworth 1999: 109). According to the official UNESCO definition,

Learning City is a city which effectively mobilizes its resources in every sector to promote inclusive learning from basic to higher education; revitalize learning in families and communities; facilitate learning for and in the workplace; extend the use of modern learning technologies; enhance quality and excellence in learning; and foster a culture of learning throughout life. In so doing it will create and reinforce individual empowerment and social cohesion, economic and cultural prosperity, and sustainable development.

The learning city discourse developed through educational and international development scholarship as well as grey literature (produced by policy makers and international organizations such as UNESCO, EU and OECD), emphasizes investment in lifelong learning, inclusive education across all levels, creating effective environments for individual, organizational, community-based and administrative learning as well as innovation (Juceviciene 2010: 69).

The notion of lifelong learning, upon which the learning city is built, has recently been problematized in terms of their connections to economistic paradigms and the underlining relations with power and knowledge (Fejes and Nicoll 2008). Biesta (2013) argued that the rise of lifelong learning obscures other domains of learning, such as socialization and subjectification. It is a “language which exerts a powerful influence on what we can be and how we can be – one that tends to domesticate rather than to emancipate” (Biesta 2013b: 9). Lifelong learning needs to be probed critically as a non-neutral field and mode of educational practice as it is increasingly naturalized, obliterating its own governmentality.

Critics of the learning city pointed out that the rhetoric of its vision is an uncritical rendering of the ideological froth (Harvey, 2003) of neoliberal transformations of the knowledge economy (Plumb et al 2007). In addition, if we use the analytical lens provided by the literature on lifelong learning to understand the relationship between learning and the urban, what we only see is an official learning city, one that has been set up as an intentional intervention into the urban fabric. It does not provide us an insight into how are these resources patterned, materialized, brought together, channeled and embedded in the life of the city. Scott (2015) argued that the focus on lifelong learning has blurred the lines between education and learning and has overlooked “the practical aspects that relate to everyday practices and actions that people have done in alignment” (2015: 89) with the learning city. In their evocative essay, Carr and Lynch (1968) demonstrated that learning is instrumental to the entirety of urban life – it happens in everyday context, throughout our lives, at different points of our daily activities in the city, often when we are hanging around or have nothing to do. It is a by-product of living and experiencing the city and a key part of human development. Similarly, Ward conceptualized the city

in itself an environmental education, and can be used to provide one, whether we are thinking of learning through the city, learning about the city, learning to use the city, to control the city or to change the city (Colin Ward 1990:152).

Ward’s perspective offers us a notion of a learning ecosystem, dynamic, living organism in motion with people immersed in a range of experiences. It allows us to pay attention to places and things that sit beyond the intentionally designed learning city.

The discussion below will offer some of the possible directions through which the actually existing learning city could be investigated. Plumb et al 2007 argued that in order

 to advance our understanding of the learning city we must abandon individualistic, essentialized, and typologized notions of adult learning that lie at the crux of the learning city’s most common formulations. A more contextual, dynamic, and social view of adult learning puts us in a position to draw upon a vast wealth of rapidly developing theory in geography, sociology, and anthropology to formulate a far more critically attuned notion of the learning city (2007: 37).

Following Plumb’s et al. call, how do we overcome the limitation of the accounts on the learning city presented by the lifelong learning literature? How do we broaden the frame in the light of the current scholarship in social sciences? This ongoing project attempts to take up Plumb’s et al. challenge through in-depth ethnography and the possible epistemological avenues afforded by this approach.