Developing Self-Organised Learning Within Institutions

Interview, 30 May 2020

Community Garden is an experiment in self-organised learning and community building. Initiated as a Design Communication thesis research, it explores a framework that supports knowledge building agency in students and creative individuals in the institution. Each session, the organiser and participants enter the physical environment to navigate creative, technological and industrial knowledge through readings and activities based on a topic. So far, they have discussed creative education and digital emoticons.

The pilot session introduced Critical Making, a term published by Matt Ratto in 2009 to reflect on humanities insights and engineering practice. Creators in mediums such as design and contemporary media art have used this concept to articulate interrogative and generative processes.

“A fair distribution of power in the self-organisation of local communities cannot be taken for granted. Those with knowledge and organisation will be able to better understand the structures and processes of power involved in decision-making, sometimes for their own benefits.” 1

What was your process of conceptualising Community Garden? Was there a main conceptual framework in place for these sessions?

Community Garden was part of my research for a final year thesis. A lot of things are based on various observations within and outside of classes. I would say that most of this stuff comes from design communication, although it extends across different disciplines. It was created to encourage more cross-disciplinary collaborations.

I was interested in the ways that LASALLE College of the Arts organises its curriculum in comparison to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), referencing Critical Making as my entry point. At RISD, organic growth within the community is supported by the framework that allows students and lecturers to initiate certain classes. For environment-based learning, there is an ecosystem where individual networks of growth are occurring at any point in time rather than complete top-down learning.  That's what I wanted to test out with Community Garden – how we can create a platform that encourages such growth. It’s primarily intended for students… I mean, when a lecturer joins, it tends to become hierarchical though I’d say that having that variable would allow me to observe how these dynamics may change.

There is also a need to ensure that it doesn't stop at organising something and getting everyone together for a casual chat, but rather to encourage learning in a flexible environment. I traced out a framework as part of the research and initiated a sequence of approaching the sessions, involving a selected reading or opinion piece to start discussions and create an entry point to each topic – rather than it being regimental, it should be adaptable. Questions and discussions can be facilitated but these often happen organically.

Throughout the process, I realised that having participants materially engage in activities and discussions might work better as compared to strictly discussing a piece.  So making can happen not just in fabrication but also generating keywords and questions. The sessions usually end off with reflections – a round up discussion or sharing of thoughts.

How do you encourage engagement within participants?

A lot of people refer to engagement as speaking out and sharing your ideas. At Community Garden, we want to ensure that everyone is engaged even if they choose not to share or present. I think that’s something I didn’t manage well in the first session because some people may not be comfortable with sharing, but through making (during the activity), they were already engaging. Verbal sharing may be unnecessary or can be avoided if they are uncomfortable.

So that was something that we tried out in the second session, where most activities were carried out through laptops to encourage active thinking and participation even if verbal discussions may be more passive. That’s also a way of easing new participants into the environment.

What materials do you consider in your exploration?

I’m personally interested in research. I’m interested in behaviours and social change. Looking at how society changes over time and how it’s inter-related with design. In design, we are looking at how things change behaviours and how it helps people. I suppose that’s what drew me to design as well. I wanted to do psychology initially, but you have to go through a certain pathway and I didn’t start off that way and couldn’t find a proper entry point. It’s nice that design reminded me of what I’ve been intrigued by, from the theories (Guy Debord, Foucault) we were introduced to that offered access into other texts. This happened in the second year, when I entered the course.

I recognise that over time an investment in research can create the notion that all designers or practitioners should know or practice some theory, but I would say that it shouldn’t be the case. It’s good to have but not something that should necessarily inform the discipline. Understanding the essence of things would be more important to me as compared to hard theory.

Where does one draw the line? Research does help to formulate and expand articulation. I guess certain people use it to understand subjects, and later translate that into writing or works that become less academic, if there is the intention to communicate it to wider groups of people.

I’ll explain this with an example. So awhile back, I was chatting with a friend about a visually-oriented work that I really enjoyed. I think, to an extent, there may be some form of research informing the decision but it wasn’t so apparent in that work. She did a good job with the visuals and concept, which was why I appreciated it. It kind of set off a thinking point – should all design be complex? It’s an interesting question because different forms of design exist and I think there’s a space for each of these works. Should I define good design based on my personal preference of theory and research?

Speaking of research and theory, what was your process of adapting the materials and the nature of design communications into your framework for Community Garden?

My first response is that it is a subconscious effort, but if I were to dissect it a little further, I would think that I approached Community Garden as I would any design work. The process is the same – I am just working with different materials and objects on different levels (designing the identity, format and each session). 

When creating Community Garden, I thought of having people coming from different backgrounds and disciplines, since one thing that we can do within a self-organised environment is to bring together a diverse group of people. One of the main ways for us to generate new ideas is when people start to notice differing perspectives beyond their discipline. The point was to generate more interest in unorthodox ways of learning. Since Community Garden was essentially an extension of the research rather than an outcome of it, the conceptualisation of the framework and future sessions depends a lot on the people who enter.

The learning structure (in primary schools) involving a teacher and 30 children in a 36 square metres space with classes lasting about an hour has been referred to as a static model inherited from an oral tradition of 5, 000 years ago2. It is described as a hierarchical, predictable and controllable world. What’s the significance of breaking away from this structure today? Does it necessarily enrich the learning process?

I would say that it’s important, especially within the creative fields.  From the perspective of design, the discipline is always evolving with the world. Even outside of that realm, it’s essential to get different slices of worldviews – something that I find doesn’t happen as much within a traditional classroom. It’s good to have something different, I would say, but it can’t always be afforded because of structural or resource limitations.

Given that design is now omnipresent and we are now interfacing with the world through designed objects and services, I think that we would benefit from more opportunities of learning outside of the studio setting. There is also a lot to learn from the physical environment, which we might not realise immediately – from how we repurpose objects, or how we employ makeshift techniques to get around a problem. All of these count as design interventions and are part of the design process.

So it was a preset concept. Would you say that this framework lacked consideration for suitability between disciplines? What do you feel needs to be considered to optimise learning and collaboration in an interdisciplinary setting?

I think a lot can be learned from trading technicalities, like sharing different skills. We can’t merely put two different disciplines together without understanding each other’s mode of working. In an interdisciplinary process, we adopt the other person’s way of working and try to merge it into ours.

You prefaced Session #0 Creative Education as Utopian Navigations as an experiment, involving thoughts on how future sessions may be facilitated and getting participants to workshop their learning experience and methods.

Would you say that there are various subcategories and approaches to self-organised learning that may be interesting to explore?

I think there are different ways of approaching self-organised learning but I haven’t come across any categorisations or personally categorised them. They all have subtle differences and categorising them might remove their nuances. In my opinion, categories work well in terms of helping you to understand something better or discover similar things but it might also serve as a form of limitation over time. Perhaps it’s good that some things are not categorised yet – that leaves space for much organic growth and understanding.

Within such democratic approaches, how may participants navigate the complexities of social processes and interactions as the Garden grows? What are some ways of developing the quality of interactions and co-creation of desirable values?

What’s tied to community building and self-organising is the development of kinship, where it’s more about the people than the subject of learning. I think the process of Community Garden so far has shown that the continuity helps people to open up and express themselves more comfortably when they return for future sessions. I’m still thinking of a way to push that dynamic.

How would one develop that kinship and remain open for others to join at the same time? I’m looking at your framework which speaks of humility and agency. How do they come into play?

A Seedling would have adopted a form of agency upon joining the collaborative process of designing future sessions. That’s also when you start to know one another on a deeper level. What are their interests and thoughts on certain things? I think that goes into building the kinship in comparison to passively joining a season, which is fine as well, but with that diagram I was dissecting the process when someone decides to take that step to become what we call a Gardener.

Even so, as a Gardener, humility is involved when learning from other participants. This is how I identified a need to stop a hierarchy from forming. I suppose, even in self-organised environments, there are forms of hierarchy especially in spaces where kinship between a group of people is very strong. How do you stop other participants from becoming detached? So when developing kinship or being part of a community-based learning, there should still be some form of humility even when you have been involved for an extended period of time.

That’s the issue that collectives and groups face – breaking down the hierarchy between participants and organisers. I guess a certain form of emotion and labour comes through when we involve people coming from various backgrounds. We are looking at participation anxieties too.

How do we involve people who are interested but might perhaps be more apprehensive to enter? How do we afford the agency to people who are less inclined to take it on spontaneously?

I think online participation could be one way to ease them into the process and help them understand how things work within the Garden, or what they can expect in the sessions. I’m looking at developing the online space further to share what happens within each session beyond the Google Drive folder. A sense of mutual respect needs to be voiced, so we know that there’s no racism or sexism involved. I would hope for participants to be cognisant of the values that the Garden should stand for.

It’s tricky when you try to work in the middle. I try to encourage the agency and humility at different touchpoints, such as when someone signs up for a session. The first email that a participant receives reminds them that we are not giving a lesson or teaching something but we are trying to get together to think deeper about how we work or interface with the world.

I mean, two sessions isn’t a good judge of the efficacy of this approach. So far, it seems to be working out because everyone has a baseline understanding that we are not a workshop. We are trying to forge a collective learning. I haven’t come across someone who has a total opposite set of values, so maybe that’s something I can address after organising more sessions.

The physical space has also become somewhat of a liability for you, am I right? Such as when you had to cancel the sessions because of the pandemic measures. Is there greater considerability towards utilising the digital space now?

I think that the pandemic measures do open up an interesting space to explore the digital aspect of Community Garden. So far, all of the Garden sessions took place physically. Previously, we talked about developing kinship as an important factor in any community-based project. For example, as compared to the level of interactions that occur within a session, there is considerably lesser communication taking place within our shared WhatsApp group.

Perhaps being in a shared physical space encourages social activeness, or perhaps messaging apps just isn't the right platform for this. My assumption towards more intimate forms of digital communications, like in a shared WhatsApp group, is that I only see it being more active over time as closer bonds are formed within the community.

When considering other digital platforms that Community Garden exists on currently, namely the website and social media page, I would have to take a greater initiative to develop or build a conducive digital space, so to say, since the project is still in its infancy. I do think that there is a lot of opportunity for it to be more collectively run, and for it to be more interactive for others.

Going back to the idea of critical making, what would you say could be particularly invasive to learning – from the perspective of structured and self-organised environments?

I would say that instances of critical making already exist within the curriculum, at least for what I went through in the Design Communication programme. Then again, it depends on how critical making is being defined. I chose to keep it more flexible and open as opposed to Matt Ratto, who coined the term, because people across disciplines tend to interpret certain keywords differently.

That being said, critical making, in a stricter sense, will be tricky to implement within the traditional modes of learning given that there is an emphasis on being process-driven, which might not fit in well when you have to fulfil a strict learning outcome or follow through a fixed curriculum. Within self-organised environments, there are a lot more ways of exploring the idea of learning through critical making where the emphasis is shifted away from delivering an outcome at the end of the learning. I think that with Community Garden, we are opening up a space whereby the learning is comparatively more reflective in nature.

We’ve spoken a lot about learning, but what about teaching? Were there moments in receiving the act of teaching that became crucial for you in thinking about facilitating Community Garden, or sharing knowledge?

From the start, I didn’t want to position Community Garden outside of the institution or in opposition to institutional learning because I see them as supplementary and existing alongside each other. Within the traditional structure, there are still a lot of key learning points; tried and tested methods that work. We shouldn’t dismiss that for the sake of self-organised learning. There are certain things that I have adapted from what I observed in lectures and studio classes, in order to create a more productive session -- such as knowing how to outline a reasonable objective for each session or how to instruct an activity well.

However, with a self-organised environment, we allow space for the session to take another direction. If we have to cancel one activity and leave more room for discussions because the participants happen to be very engaged in them, we’ll do it. Even if the session evolves beyond what was planned, we are learning and at the end of it, it’s still a form of critical making

Critical thought and processes share close ties with socially and politically-engaged practices, which have become hypervisible today. Do you think there’s room for design and learning to be politically or culturally ambiguous?

In today’s context, there’s no way that the practice can exist completely without. I would say that it is the extent of it rather a question of whether it’s there. Perhaps designers from a more technically-trained era might focus less on politics or cultural studies. Then again, cultural context is about noticing how behaviours progress, how society works and how these aspects inform your design practice. It’s there even when one doesn’t notice it or consciously involve politics and culture into their practice. I don’t think it is possible to have zero influences from those realms in design.

Speaking of social behaviours and experiences, are there related conversations that you hope to address or navigate through future sessions?

That’s an interesting question. I am thinking ahead and planning back ups. One of the things that we are setting off currently is makeshift design tools. For example, observing how Google Maps and social media pages can exist as design tools.

Another suggestion was to look at the Internet as a space for curation – which involves thinking about our roles as creators, curators and viewers. Which ones are we? How do you navigate an Internet space where many things are based on recycling? I thought that could inform one of the upcoming sessions and it would be quite timely especially when we have just gone through a phase of working digitally and adopting home-based learning. That also aligns with urgency and relevancy – the aspects within the framework for Community Garden.

A shared experience is something we can tap on in learning, and is also why I’m always generating different ideas upon discovering something new. I think that really explains the ideation process of the sessions – how materials inform a list of ideas that I bring to the table with other participants. I suppose, the process of sharing these tiny ideas generates a fuller picture in forming each session.

Supporting self-organised community research through informal learning, by Rececca Herron and Zoraida Mendiwelso-Bendek

2 Learning at the Edge of Chaos: Self-Organising Systems in Education, by Mitra S, Kulkarni S & Stanfield J

Jiayu Ng is a multi-disciplinary designer whose works spans across various mediums. Seeing design as a space for learning, untangling and self-reflection, her works are informed by an interest in navigating social shifts and cultural networks.

© 2020 sand magazine and the author