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

Reinventing Learning Cities at the 13th PASCAL International Conference

The 13th PASCAL International Conference took place in June 3rd to June 5th 2016 in Glasgow. The conference focused on future directions for Learning Cities at a time of considerable challenge and opportunity for cities, with significant development in the role and contribution of Learning Cities. The conference served as a forum to share ideas and experiences on the development and role of Learning Cities in this challenging context, discussing new research directions and innovative forms of partnership.

As part of the conference we presented the “Reinventing Learning Cities” research project. Below a short abstract of Prof. Facer’s presentation entitled “From silos to skylines: Reconnecting learning cities with urban studies”:

The Learning Cities movement is one that seeks to locate learning and education at the heart of wider initiatives – from health and wellbeing to technological and environmental change. As this conference call observes, however, learning institutions and processes often seem to be marginalised or misunderstood by other city-wide programmes. This paper argues that this oversight might be understood as having epistemological foundations. Specifically, the paper argues that mainstream educational theory and practice has become fundamentally divorced from the learning theories that are emerging in fields such as urban studies (e.g. McFarlane, 2011/2013), infrastructure studies (Amin, 2015) and socio-material studies (e.g. Thrift, 2014). Indeed, this disjuncture is so profound that an urban geographer can argue that ‘it is crucial that we open the black-box that learning has become’ (McFarlane, 2011, 373); clearly demonstrating the extent to which research on education and learning has become increasingly invisible in the wider field of urban studies.

The paper outlines two approaches, one theoretical, one methodological, to attempt to reconnect the fields of education studies, urban studies, socio-material studies and cultural geography.

The first intervention is to frame the Learning City as necessarily a plural and overlapping set of practices that are simultaneously in operation, in which formal educational practices can be understood to function alongside 1) the practices of dwelling and improvising that constitute the process of learning to live in the city (from cultural geography); 2) the intentional political practices of learning to change the city (from urban studies and social movement theory) and 3) the emerging socio-technical practices of the city itself as a digital learning organism (from socio-material theory). Such an articulation of the Learning city creates opportunities for connection between researchers working in fields ranging from classroom practice to political studies to computer science.

The second intervention is methodological, it employs ‘inventive’ (Wakeford & Lury, 2014) devices from archaeology and participatory arts practice in order to 1) produce an ‘ontograph’ (Thrift, 2014) of the multiple learning practices that are taking place simultaneously in the city; and 2) frame cities and neighbourhoods as having distinctive ‘learning skylines’, which are as specific to each place as their physical architecture. Through walking the city and mapping the city, these methods make visible how the practices of learning (both formal and informal) are always already deeply enmeshed with the urban practices of adapting to environmental and technological change and with the creation of health and wellbeing. No silos exist between learning, health and technological change at streetlevel.

In this way, the paper demonstrates how productive collaborations might be built between researchers and social actors already working to adapt cities for contemporary change. It will evidence this with reference to the use of these techniques in Bristol and their implications for city actors at local government level.