Education, technology, futures

Is this the future we want?

Universities are preparing for the (virtual) return of hundreds of thousands of students, getting ready to teach them using a blended learning approach that will combine mainly remote teaching with some face-to-face small group interactions. This is thus a good time to take a moment and reflect on the changing assumptions about teaching and technology brought on by the COVID pandemic, which are closely connected to different visions of educational futures. This is a sligthly more academic and less colorful post, but I hope you find it a useful and enjoyable read nevertheless.

I wrote part of my book in the spring of this year and during April and May was getting quite anxious about my entire project. I love face-to-face (f2f) teaching, encountering students in the classroom, feeling their energy, moving them around the room and given them materials to work with – what I like about teaching are many things difficult to replicate in an online environment. All the learning activities described in my book are therefore meant to be f2f activities, although on reflection I realized that some of them could be undertaken remotely/virtually. Still, was I writing a book that was becoming obsolote as I was putting the words unto paper (well, the computer screen)? That initial panic has passed, although I have realized that a short paragraph in the book’s introduction about digital classroom technologies won’t quite suffice anymore. But I don’t think anymore that f2f teaching will disappear, although I realize that for many educators and students, resuming f2f teaching and learning in the autumn is not an option for health and other reasons and that remote teaching will enable their pedagogical practices.

As universities were forced to move to remote teaching because of lockdowns, in the process in a fell swoop (and often very conveniently) overcoming different actors’ individual and institutional resistances to online teaching, it probably seemed a bit of a dream come true to the technology evangelists. But now, with these restrictions easing, we can and should take the time to have a closer look at some of the assumptions of virtual teaching. Here the work of Keri Facer can be a great guide, and indeed this post in inspired by her article on ‘governing education through the future‘ I recently read.

Facer argues that introduction of digital technologies in schools, and I would argue the same holds true for universities, has too often merely resulted in ‘digital accounting systems that have come to both responsiblise and punish learners, enabling surveillance and an ever more narrow definition of education as ‘techno-cratic preparation for employment.‘ No matter how visionary the narratives of the empowering and enabling potential of technologies in the classroom are, because they are embedded in social, political and economic contexts, if these are ‘competitive, individualised, exploitative – the technologies will be harnessed to those agendas. In and of themselves technologies will neither liberate nor transform education.’ Like in the international development area where I work, technologies are not panaceas.

Facer also argues that ideas about educational technologies are intimately wrapped up with ideas about educational futures. She distinguishes three main ideas:

  • Firstly, ‘the future as a landscape for rational choice making’ with education contributing to making the future known, identifying preferable actions and assessing the impact of decisions. If COVID has taught us anything, it is the fallacy of such instrumentalist assumptions.
  • Secondly, a colonial orientation aims to persuade students of particular visions of the future, be they progressive or conservative, and to shape their attitudes and behaviour towards these. While this is an enticing proposition for many educators, myself included, it needs to acknowledge its own ethical agendas, potential conflicts of interest and possible temptation for adults to abdicate their responsibilities towards present challenges.
  • Thirdly, education can be seen to serve as a bulwark against an unknown and potentially dystopian future and becomes the silver bullet that will solve all problems. Here, Facer cites HG Wells‘ ‘civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe’.

These ideas not only overestimate the power of education and neglect the importance of other factors, but they also disconnect education from its wider moorings and ‘fetishize educational success as a means of achieving personal and social goods.’ By contrast, when futures are seen as sites of possibility to be explored by students rather than being predetermined by adults and educators, educational spaces can become places of experimentation for potential alternative futures, which is also the main argument of my book.

Facer proposes five orientations towards such alternative educational futures:

  • Modelling can encourage students to create models of potential futures, be they artistic, mathematical or scientific.
  • Stewardship fosters practices of care and restoration of diversity through the humanities and ecological sciences.
  • Reflexivity, as taught by the social sciences but also statistics, enables students to critically interrogate narratives of the future.
  • Disciplinarity teaches students the different ways in which disciplines make sense of new information, also with an eye to encouraging transdisciplinarity.
  • Experimentation allows students to imagine and create different futures, using art and design, engineering or computing and the social sciences.

All of these orientations are relevant for the critical-creative pedagogy I am proposing. The futures they help create are unknown and stand in complex and non-linear relationships with the past and present. The five orientations have the potential to become powerful tools for pedagogical practices that use imagination and creativity to help students better understand and work towards alternative futures. To realize this potential, universities must become accountable to the publics whose futures are being shaped by academic work  and must think more clearly about what kind of students they want to educate.

This also involves shifting the current neoliberal HE paradigm. Having recently written about complexity and systems thinking to help students better understand and address ecological challenges, I learned about leverage points where small changes can lead to systems-level transformations. Could more informed thinking about and implementation of technologies in the classroom, connected to engaged and emancipatory educational futures, be such a leverage point?

Repairing Ecologies

Who knew that the first-ever Earth Day in 1970 was originally planned as a college teach-in in the US? This is just one of the things I learned while writing the most recent chapter of my book, on critical-creative ways of teaching students about ecological challenges. This not really being my area of research, I learned a lot in the process of writing it, about eco-centrism, systems theory, Buen Vivir, deep ecology … Here is an attempt to summarize some of the chapter’s main points, illustrated by some photos from my recent holidays in Devon where I appreciated the marvels of nature as never before.

As in each chapter, I start with a critical take on mainstream discourses and interventions, in this case on sustainable development, with its famous but wanting Brundtland report definition of ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Whose needs? Defined by whom? Whose development? Being neither sustainable nor developmental, sustainable development prioritizes economic growth over environmental sustainability. The green economy, ecological economics, natural resources, environmental management, carbon trading, biodiversity derivatives – to varying degrees they all show the instrumentalization of nature in the service of economic development and human needs. The alternative to this pervasive anthropocentrism is ecocentrism, as concept influenced by Aldo Leopold and his land ethic (‘a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community’), Arne Naessdeep ecology (‘the more diversity the better’) and Fritjof Capra‘s systems view of life. Eco-centrism recognizes the integrity of the whole of the environment and that nature and other-than-human species have intrinsic values, independent from their utility for human needs.

I don’t know how I feel about these tree tags. Are trees not of value in their own right?

Applied to education, sustainable development becomes Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), a global program spearheaded by the UN, which declared an ESD Decade from 2005 to 2014. ESD has resulted in declarations, summits, policy initiatives and a large field of scholarship, and many universities, Sussex included, have developed ESD-focused teaching and research programs, adjusted campus operations and developed relevant community programs. However, ESD replicates the market-driven nature of sustainable development and the larger neoliberal HE regime, while also marginalizing non-scientific knowledges from the Global South, neglecting local specificities and undermining non-Western ways of relating to other-than-human species. So, what are some alternatives?

The field of ecopedagogy extends critical pedagogy to environmental concerns and focuses on developing students’ critical eco-literacy that takes into account how unsustainable practices have been shaped by colonialism, capitalism and other structures of power. Creative approaches include incorporating the arts, emotions and place-based teaching. Decolonial pedagogies focus on ‘radical well-being notions’ such as the South African notion of Ubuntu, the Indian idea of Swaraj and the South American concept of Buen Vivir. Based on my Bolivia research for parts of the book, I trace the complex and contested ways in which Buen Vivir has transformed from an Andean indigenous cosmology centering on the inseparability of all elements of life and living in harmony with nature, humans and the spiritual world, to becoming part of global environmental and development discourses.

A small group of Devon oaks, of which they are not many left

I also write about the need for students to develop a basic understanding of complexity and systems thinking, a field I learned about from reading Donella Meadows‘ excellent primer, among others. To be able to learn with uncertainty rather than being paralyzed by it (as we all are being forced to do by COVID), to understand the unpredictability and non-linearity of change, to appreciate the long-term cycles of ecosystem sustainability and to learn about the power of leverage points, where small changes can lead to system-level shifts are all important insights students can gain from systems thinking. What surprised me most are the similarities between some of the core ideas of Buen Vivir and systems thinking, especially about the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of all aspects of life and the notion that all living beings are expressions of earth’s creative forces. Ideas relating to emergence (think snowflakes), self-organization (think flocks of birds) and non-linearity (think tipping points) can be found among both indigenous relational cosmologies and systems and complexity sciences.

A critical-creative pedagogy can help students better understand foundational ecological ideas, critically examine the limitations of anthropocentric sustainable development discourses and think about the importance of relating to the environment in more eco-centric ways. It also enables students to creatively explore and experience these insights, for example through designing and playing serious games and through mapping campus infrastructures during walking seminars, two teaching activities I describe in detail in the chapter and will blog about soon.

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A mythical guardian in the Devon forest. How can environmental art be used creatively in teaching?

Double trouble in a good way

What Does it Mean to Double Major in College and Should You?

This post is written by Cristina, one of the students I interviewed this year for my book. Having just finished writing my economics chapter, I was particularly interested to learn about Cristina’s experiences of doing a double degree in Economics and International Development. In this post, Cristina talks about her having grown up in post-crisis Spain as a motivation to study Economics but realizing that it was International Development that gave her the necessary critical perspective on it.

Hello, my name is Cristina, and I am a very recent Economics and International Development graduate from Sussex. This combination of subjects was an option whose implications I did not fully understand, until the very first day I arrived at Sussex from Spain and started the course.

Why study economics?

I knew the reason I wanted to study economics: my whole life had always revolved around it. It presented itself in most of my life experiences, many times with or without explanation, while also happening to most of my generation. The economic financial crisis of 2007 hit Spain very forcefully when we were mere kids, but still mature enough to understand what was happening around.

There was not a friend I knew that any of their family members weren’t unemployed. I recall most of my friends, from the age of 9, were already familiar with terms such as stock market, bank bailouts, and risk premium.

Therefore, while choosing what to study as an undergraduate degree, I immediately decided I wanted to study Economics, as I felt the need to understand the reasons for most of the events I experienced growing up. I also realised that I needed to study something complementary to truly understand the effects economic activity have had worldwide, choosing, therefore, to undertake International Development as a joint honours degree. The need to study both subjects and the clear difference between the two degrees (Economics and ID) started to be significantly noticeable once I started the course.

On one hand, studying Economics was an absolute enjoyment from the start. It was fascinating. Even though it sounds corny, it felt like studying a living and working piece of philosophy. Everything said in class, even though it was obscured with difficult and complicated symbology and terms, once uncovered its meaning, just made sense. Every term, formula or concept formed part of this big system that worked perfectly. No matter what question or part you didn’t fully understand, it was perfectly explainable by economic theory. It was intriguing, interesting, and above all, very satisfying. The greatest example for me of this was being able to understand one day the Taylor’s Rule, represented by the following formula:

 it = r* + π* + β(πt – π*) + γ(yt – yN)

Even though at first it seemed confusing and intimidating, once you understood what each value and concept meant, the formula was easy to read and interpret, and therefore easy to understand its use. The formula simply translates to the notion that nominal interest rate (it) equals the real interest rate (the interest rate of goods and services), inflation, and the difference there is between current inflation and economic activity to the target inflation and full employment level. This makes the interest rate, the most needed, sought and used tool in economic policy to be easily manipulated to the needs of the economy. Once this concept is imparted in class, macroeconomics works as this effective subject which you can tweak and change to make it work inch-perfect.

Why study international development?

Development, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. The course from the start was made of  very different, very complex modules that were difficult to see as interconnected. While one module would focus on British colonialism, the next ones worked on issues such as the Washington Consensus, Palestine, intersectionality, the SDGs, or randomised controlled trials.

Furthermore, each issue uncovered deeply rooted and incredibly painful-to-study societal problems. With each class, you would explore elements that would shake to the core beliefs and concepts that you had never questioned. Understanding the economic, social and political reasons for most of our society’s main problems was a hard and difficult process to undertake.

However, at the end of this learning process, you were able to interpret issues in a deeper, more multifaceted way. Poverty could no longer be interpreted as a sad isolated incident, but the consequence of a confluence of factors, much of which stemmed from race, class, gender, religion, or nationality. Soon enough you were able to see the connection between all the different development modules and the global interconnection of injustice and structural violent systems.

What happens when you combine both subjects?

Double Brainstorm With Clouds And Lightning Stock Illustration ...

This began to impact my Economics learning. Suddenly, the perfect functioning of the economy wasn’t real anymore. How can something that is proclaimed to be the exact and perfect solution to our problems sustain a world with such imperfections? How can these two realities co-exist? I then realised the Economics we were being taught was neither real, neither perfect, neither moral. Taking it back to the Taylor’s Rule, the cornerstone of economic policy, it wasn’t anymore this understand-able element. What does a natural rate of unemployment mean? Why is Economic theory based on a natural rate of unemployment (apart from the one needed to account for people trying to change jobs)? Does it mean that some people need to be unemployed so the economy sustains itself? This can further be associated with the neoliberal Walrasian Equilibrium notion where the market is in itself efficient and self-sufficient. When studying Macroeconomics 2 you learn the natural rate of unemployment is the rate at which the real wage in wage setting equals the real wage implied by price setting. This directly translates to the notion that if the market is to be sustained by supply and demand rules, people are going to be left out of having a job, a salary, and the means necessary to uphold a decent life. It further continues with the principle ‘The lower the unemployment rate is, the higher are the wages’. This, if analysed just translates to the notion ‘that the larger the unemployed pool is, the more desperate they are, and hence, the lower we can pay them.’

These premises were taught in class as notions that cannot be discussed or put to question, as they are the basis to our economic science, and taught as fixed theories as if it were Physics or Chemistry. Neoliberal economics are elements that need to be challenged, as most of these principles, based on perfect ideals, can, and do cause irreparable harm if put into practice.

I have only started to question these beliefs due to my International Development modules and the knowledge they imparted. Being able to study the effects of economic policy made me able to question economic policy, and the effects it caused in not only developing, but also developed countries, all over the World. The necessity to impart different academic aspects into University is crucial if wanting to acquire students with a critical and thorough vision of what they have studied.

Researching teaching

Word cloud summary of keywords in flipped classroom research ...

Last Wednesday was results day at Sussex, when third year undergraduate finalists get their marks and degree outcomes. Usually it is a day fill with anticipation, joy and relief (and sometimes disappointment), food and conversations – a day of conviviality to celebrate student achievements. This year there was of course none of that, at least not on campus, although I know that some of our students had socially-distant celebrations on Brighton beach. This time of the year is also an important one for my project, as between the end of term and results day I conduct student journey interviews with finalists. These interviews are an important part of the research for this book, which I want to write about today.

Creative Universities is a creative, performative project that bring together various theories, disciplines and activities to make the possibilities of social science teaching contributing to students imagining alternative futures more present, credible and viable in the HE classroom. As I wrote when I set up the blog, I got the inspiration for this book from my own 15 years of teaching experiences in the field of Global Development and Anthropology in Berkeley, Auckland and now Sussex. Over the last three years, I have conducted systematic research, consisting of interviews with staff and students, in-class observations and action-research inspired experimentation in my own classroom. All of these methods inform the teaching activities that I describe in my chapters.

Classroom observations

One such activity was the Designing Back from the Future exercise in my urban futures module. Other examples from this module include students writing an urban manifesto for how to make Brighton a more livable city and mapping campus infrastructures in a form of outdoor learning about ecological issues. Being able to use my own classroom as an experimental space has been incredibly insightful as I can observe students’ engagement in and reactions to the activities, often followed up by a short survey and longer interviews with a few students, together with my own thoughts and feelings. (In-class research raises a number of ethical issue: the ethics approval for my research covered things such as informed consent and confidentiality, while none of my activities I included in the book were assessed).

Science and Culture: Can climate change games boost public ...
The board game Keep Cool involves players deciding whether to build carbon-emitting or carbon-neutral factories. Credit: Keep Cool GBR

I also conducted observations in some of my colleagues’ classrooms. The most memorable was a term of observing students designing and playing serious games to learn experientially and creatively about climate change related risk and uncertainty. There are dozens of climate change related games, many of them online, and they are increasingly used to teach students of all ages about the climate crisis. What was remarkable about the Sussex class was that students designed their own games and then played them with each other. I will write more about this soon, but as a novice to the use of games as an educational method, it was an eye-opening experience to observe students embracing an activity that was new for many of them and creating an amazing variety of games. I also sat in on a module where students learn practical and hands-on skills about development projects. I had planned to do more observations this spring, which unfortunately did not happen. Alongside these observations I conducted interviews with colleagues where they shared their activities with me. Throughout these interviews I have been inspired by the pedagogical passion of my fellow educators, who are embodying the academic subjectivities I wrote here. Conversations with them have also strengthened my confidence that a critical-creative pedagogy can help students imagine and create alternative ways of addressing current challenges, something we call teaching critical hope. And that brings me back to the students, whose voices, stories and experiences are central to my research.

Student journeys

In the journey interviews with students at the end of their degree, I ask them about their overall experiences studying International Development and related social sciences at Sussex. I ask how their views of global development and bringing about change more generally might have changed from when they started uni, often as enthusiastic but by their own admissions sometimes naive and idealistic young people wanting to change the world. They talk about how they have become more knowledgeable, critical and aware, but sometimes also a bit less hopeful, more cynical and disillusioned (hence the need for my book). They talk about particular modules they liked and found transformative. I also ask them to describe their studies in three words, which brings many surprising answers (I am working on the word cloud right now). Questions about how creative their teaching has been and how it could be made more so are particularly instructive, showing students’ desire to bring their own ideas, experiences and skills into the classroom and to apply their learning to practical situations. I thank all the students who have participated in my research over the years.

Especially this year, with all the upheaval caused by strikes and COVID, I have been amazed by the positive attitude of the students I talked to and their ability to still enjoy their learning amidst disruption, uncertainty and worry. I am therefore especially excited that a few of them, such as Ruthie Walters, have agreed to write guest posts, starting to fulfill a vision I had from the beginning for this blog to be a meeting place for like-minded educational travelers to exchange ideas. The first post by Ruthie focuses on the intersection of academic and activism, and the second, by Cristina Cano, explores the productive tensions of double degrees. In the third post, Lydia Bennett-Li is reflecting on how a year-long placement in India shaped her post-university journey in unexpected ways. I hope that you will enjoy these posts by the students as much as I do.

Thank you Ruthie, Cris, Lydia and Kendra and congratulations on everybody’s achievements.

Congratulations to Lantern Competition Winners! – Cultural ...

Reclaiming economies

image shows a card for the currency lab game
An example of a game used for reclaiming the economy (developed by a group of researchers in the Netherlands)

Today’s economics students will be among the influential citizens and policy makers shaping human society in 2050. But the economic mindset that they are being taught is rooted in the textbooks of 1950, which, in turn are grounded in the theories of 1850. Given the challenges of the 21st century this is shaping up to be a disaster.

Kate Raworth

This post is the first part of a summary of the economics chapter of my book, which I recently finished. Even though the chapter does not focus on teaching economics students per se, but rather explores how economics-focused teaching in the social sciences can help students to better imagine and creative alternative futures, it was in part inspired by the above observation. The chapter therefore spends little time presenting the neoclassical status quo, while most of it explores a number of compelling heterodox alternatives, such as including marginalized perspectives in keeping with decolonizing pedagogy initiatives, emphasizing the teaching of inequality and exploring plural and diverse economies inside and outside the classroom. The chapter’s two teaching activities are the creation of student individual diverse economy portfolios and a group activity to design a plan for establishing a recycling cooperative. You can read this post together with a guest post by Cristina Cano, a student who recently finished a joint Economics/International Development degree at Sussex to get a student perspective on the matter.

Development Economics

The chapter begins with a brief summary of neoclassical economic thought that is still dominant in many university classrooms, noting in particular the dominance of white men teaching at elite universities whose texts as regarded as authoritative in the discipline. By comparison, the field of development economics, which is particularly relevant for challenges in the Global South, is more diverse and presents a good opportunity for students to learn how economic (and other) scholarship arises from personal biographies and institutional locations, shows a dynamic field shaped by diverse voices, many of which are still located at elite UK or US universities but maintain strong ties to Latin America, the Caribbean and India. The field’s founding figure provides a good example of this.

Arthur Lewis, who, born in the then British colony of St Lucia, was the first-ever black student to be admitted to the London School of Economics in 1933, where he met many anti-colonial advocates who shaped his economic thinking, together with his studies of the British empire and 19th century England. He became Britain’s first Black professor when he was appointed at the University of Manchester, where he developed his well-known dual economy model, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979. Like so  many academic economists, Lewis was also a policy advisor, first for the British colonial office and then to several newly independent governments in Africa and the Caribbean, where he served as Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, before taking up a professorship at Princeton. Teaching students about the live and work of this complex founding figure shows how in economics, theory/academia and practice/policy as well as empire and post-colony are entangled in complex ways that defy easy categorization and  ideological pigeon-holing. Other influential development economists include Walt Rostow and his 5 stages of economic growth, Raúl Prebisch and his work with the Latin American dependency school, Amartya Sen and his capabilities approach which informed the UN’s Human Development Index, Diane Elson and Naila Kabeer‘s groundbreaking with in gender and feminist economics, Ha Joon Chang‘s arguments about kicking away the ladder and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee‘s work on Poor Economics. Through this diversity of perspectives and academic biographies, students can understand the importance of a more pluralistic approach to economics-focused teaching.

Pluralist Teachings

According to Frank Stilwell, an early advocate of pluralist economics teaching, ‘a pluralist pedagogy, i.e. a teaching practice that explores a plurality of different ways of understanding how the economy works . . . is the principal antidote to the reproduction of a narrow orthodoxy in the discipline.’ Pluralist teaching includes, alongside neoclassical economics, institutional, environmental, Marxian and feminist economics, among others. Rather than a pick-and-mix approach, it asks students to consider how these different theories have developed and interact with one another. Pluralist teaching converges around a set of principles that include

  • recognizing the role that history, ethics and power play in economic discourse, policy and practice
  • understanding the complexity of economic systems and acknowledging that situated knowledge, value judgements and political ideologies shape economic decision making,
  • embracing more active and student-centered teaching that relates economic theories to students’ own experiences and to real-world examples

Pluralist teaching is therefore an important improvement of orthodox economics-focused teaching and has energized the teachings of students as for example in the global Rethinking Economics student network. A teaching example described in the chapter is the application of Kate Raworth’s 21st century economics principles to students’ understanding of the COVID crisis.

For decolonial scholars, however, the mere addition of different approaches, while keeping neoliberal economics firmly in place, does not go far enough. Their demands are for a more pluriversal economics that acknowledges that the discipline’s claims to universality mask its Euro-centric origins and continue to exclude work from women and scholars from the Global South. To show how such marginalized knowledges can become part of the curriculum, in my chapter I include a teaching example from Jonathan Langdon, who teaches in Canada, that is of particular relevance in the current historic moment in the fight against racial discrimination and injustice.

Decolonial economics teachings

Langdon asks his students to read excerpts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations alongside the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, published 12 years after Smith’s book,  in which Equiano describes his experiences of enslavement, the middle passage, slave labor on plantations and ships and eventual freedom. For Langdon, such a reading does not only reveal the gulf between Smith’s rational, self-centered mentality and the human experiences of slavery, but also how Equiano himself used Smith’s writings to advocate for the efficiency of wage over slave labour. This shows how (former) slaves were able to appropriate Western arguments for the abolitionist cause, something that is also taught in Sussex’ Colonialism and After course. For Langdon’s students, discussing how both texts were used by proponents and opponents of the slave trade prompts them to ask why they have certainly heard of Smith before but not of Equiano. Langdon argues that ‘it is only by bringing in the voice of those impacted by [the slave] system that the immorality of the economic arrangements stands out in sharp relief.’ Situating both books at the historical emergence of capitalism also provides a fuller historical context and ‘destabilizes the foundational authority of economics to vision of progress.’ It allows for an ontological reframing of capitalism from a structural given to a system produced by particular discourses and practices and that therefore can be changed.

Another teaching example in the chapter comes from my Sussex colleague Paul Gilbert, who has developed a third year specialist module on Wealth, Inequality and Development, which interrogates the drivers and consequences of inequality and uneven wealth accumulation. The module is constructed around a post-colonial perspective and presents the long history of politics and practices of inequality, from questions of colonial drain and reparations to the colonial origins of contemporary corporate dispute resolution mechanisms to the current work of the Southern Centre for Inequality at Wits University in South Africa, to complement the better-known Thomas Piketty debates around inquality. Where neoclassical assumptions hold that inequality is an inescapable aspect of growth and will eventually be ameliorated by it, heterodox economists advocate for a pro-active redesign of the economy to distribute wealth and resources more equally. In his teaching, Paul focuses on issues such as taxation, land inequality and international law. He also introduces students to the work of advocacy, campaigning and research groups such as the Tax Justice Network, IIED and Debt Resistance UK and follows a problem-focused pedagogy where theoretical discussions are linked to specific challenges. As an example of combining critical reading of academic, policy and activism texts with creative activities, Paul introduces students to interesting data sets such as the Panama Papers to get them thinking about how different actors use and manipulate figures and data. Students then learn some of the practical skills used by NGOs and investigative journalists to read corporate accounts to detect tax avoidance and evasion and try to apply these to reading corporate tax sheets themselves. In this way, students develop a hands-on understanding of corporate tax avoidance and how to find it and think through the implications of both. Subverting the economics 101 skill of reading financial statements, here students learn to read them ‘for difference’ to destabilize mainstream ideas and uncover what is unseen, but also what can be possible when the invisible is brought to light. A brilliant example of critical-creative teaching!

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This is a great blog to which Paul contributes

Diverse economy portfolios

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What would students’ economic portfolios look like?
Image from

My last post explored how the COVID crisis might be used in pluralist economic teaching. In this post, I want to get a bit more practical and present another teaching activity: students creating personal diverse economy portfolios. The activity builds on Gibson-Graham’s groundbreaking work on diverse economies and the ontological changes this entails. Through their portfolios, students research and analyze their own economic activities, in order to recognize their diversity and social character and to ultimately realize themselves as interdependent and ethical economic subjects. The activity aims to shift students’ attention from, in GG’s words, ‘the paralyzing question of what is to be done’ to the more productive one of ‘what is already being done,’ with a focus on what students themselves are already doing. It is divided into 4 steps: 1) diary, 2) inventory, 3) questions and 4) iceberg, and could be conducted in an economics-focused social science class as an independent project over the course of a term or as a two-week more intensive exercise.

  1. Economic diaries

The activity begins with students keeping an economic diary over the course of a week to become more aware of their economic lives. In the diary they record all of their economic transactions and exchanges, where they took place, whom they involved, whether money was exchanged etc. Students then start to classify these activities into capitalist, alternative and non-capitalist, by drawing on relevant theoretical readings and class discussions.

2. Economic Inventories

The next step involves translating the diary into an inventory, using a template adapted from the Diverse Economies Framework that consists of three sub-inventories: transactional exchanges, economic organizations and labor practices.

image shows a diverse economy table to categorize economic activities
The inventory template from the Diverse Economies Framework
  • Transactional exchanges are likely to comprise capitalist market transactions, but also alternative ones such as students swapping things with each other or buying a vegetable box from a local farmer, as well as non-market transactions such as sharing household labor, free-cycling, gifting or community gardening.
  • Economic organizations register the diverse economic institutions students deal with, beginning with capitalist firms such as supermarkets or department stores, but quickly expanding to alternative capitalist enterprises such as op-shops, fair trade stores, non-profits, cooperative and community enterprises, food waste apps and shared ownership schemes. Non-capitalist organizations could encompass communal and household groups or independent businesses that might be supported by friends, children or other family members giving their labor for free.
  • Labor practices begin with standard wage work that many students have to engage in to make ends meet. Then there are alternatively paid labor activities such as under-the-table tutoring or baby sitting, self-employed gig work or maybe swapping childcare with other student parents or final thesis drafts with fellow students. Unpaid labor includes housework, household or family physical and emotional care, and maybe volunteer work or self-provisioning through gardening. 

3) Social and ethical questions

The next part of the activity involves students reflecting on two overarching questions: on what basis am I making economic decisions and what kind of social relationships am I entering or creating through my economic activities? The first question is likely to show multiple reasonings, including affordability, convenience and ethical concerns such as fair trade, animal treatment or food miles. Recognizing the plurality of their choices and calculations shows students the limited application of neoclassical theories of self-interested, utility-maximizing individuals and reveals (most) students as ethical consumers who complement their financial calculations with non-financial questions about how their economic activities might be impacting other human beings, animals or the wider environment. Establishing this awareness includes folding the economic into the ethical and and can potentially move students towards an ‘economy of generosity’.

image shows the HISBE supermarket in Brighton
Many Sussex students shop at the alternative HISBE supermarket in Brighton

The second question about social relationships goes to the heart of resocializing economic relations, as it makes students aware of the diversity of relationships on which their economic activities are based. These can range from a standard consumer relationship to parent/child or other kin connections, friend, neighbor, flat mate or mentor. Realizing how socially interconnected and interdependent economic activities are also undermines orthodox notions of autonomous, self-centered individuals and shows the economy as embedded within social systems.

4) Drawing the Iceberg

The last step of the activity involves students creating a visual representation of their diverse economy portfolios in the form of an iceberg or other creative, potentially multimedia, formats. The iceberg is a pedagogical tool developed by Gibson-Graham and colleagues to show that what is usually regarded as ‘the economy’ is but the tip of a huge amount of economic activities that are often invisible, sidelined or ignored. But they constitute the majority of people’s, and students,’ economic lives. The intention of this final part of the activity is therefore to make personal diverse economies visible and to move students from the linearity of writing to experimenting with more creative forms of imagining and expressing themselves as diverse economic subjects.

The aim of the personal diverse economy portfolio activity is for students to learn that capitalism is not as all-encompassing as is usually assumed, or, to use Gibson-Graham’s words, to decenter capitalocentric discourses that naturalize capitalism and assign positive value to capitalist economic activities, while devaluing all others. The activity brings together theoretical texts focusing on diverse, social and solidarity economies with experiential learning based on students’ already existing economic activities. It goes further by inviting students to imagine themselves as more diverse economic subjects and to create future alternative economic actions. Here, the new forms of sociality and mutuality that have emerged under COVID, such as shopping at the local corner store, buying food for those who are self-isolating or sharing with others in need, might provide important openings.

image shows Gibson-Graham's economic iceberg
The iceberg, image from Take Back the Economy

Queuing in the time of COVID-19

The queue at our local supermarket brings back memories of East Germany (minus the mobile phones)

The panic buying at the beginning of the COVID pandemic has long since given way to much more orderly and calm queuing to get into supermarkets, at an appropriate social distance. For me, having grown up in East Germany where there often was scarcity of all kinds of stuff and waiting in line was common practice, especially for special things such as bananas or oranges that were actually orange rather than green (the latter were the so-called Kuba Orangen named after their place of origin), this brings back memories. It also ties in well with the writing I have done over the last month on the economics chapter of my book, in which I explore how to teach social science students about economic alternatives (a summary will come shortly.) In the chapter, I use economic responses to the COVID crisis to show the shortcomings of neoclassical economic theories, and how this might inform critical-creative teaching. In this post, which is the second in my COVID reflections, following the first one on care, I will share some of my theoretical insights, drawing on recent think pieces and publications by various economists and social scientists.

The embedded economy

According to Sanjay Reddy, ‘the pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics,’ foremost among them the interdependencies between economics and all other areas of life, the relationship between individual and collective rationality and the importance of public deliberations about the differential impact of the virus on different groups and the trade-offs this calls for. Economic responses to the pandemic have also highlighted the usually more hidden value judgements made by economic policy makers, for example in prioritizing public over economic health concerns. All of this connects to calls to ‘see the big picture’ of economics, which means changing the perspective from a self-contained, efficient market as the mainstay of the economy to embedding the economy in society and nature. For Kate Raworth, for whom seeing the big picture is part of reinventing economics for the 21st century, such a move calls for ‘the creation of new narratives – about the power of the market, the partnership of the state, the core role of the household, and the creativity of the commons.’ The COVID pandemic has indeed resulted in calls for new social contracts between governments, citizens and corporations.

Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the ...
A representation of the embedded economy. Source: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

Let’s start with governments, many of whom have taken measures in response to the pandemic that have the potential to address existing economic inequities, if they can transition from emergency stop-gap interventions to more far-reaching structural reforms. This would follow historical precedent, modern welfare state emerged from the Great Depression and WWII. Today, governments in many countries are providing unprecedented support for workers, such as income guarantees, self-employed worker and small business support schemes. It is important to point out that many gaps remain in their coverage and their effects, just as the effects of the virus itself, are highly uneven. Nevertheless, some of these government schemes approximate, and in some places such as Spain are being developed as spring boards to, universal basic income (UBI) schemes which guarantee all citizens of a country a base amount of money to cover basic needs. Calls for UBI, such as the one made by over 500 political figures and academics, recognize and reaffirm the responsibility of governments to guarantee the basic material well-being of residents, displacing the primacy of market-based interventions.

The lines between corporations and governments have also become more blurred, as seen in the requisitioning of private resources for public (health) interest to ensure sufficient hospital spaces, make protective equipment and develop a vaccine. This can lead to the transformation of businesses into more humane institutions and to a decentering of market logics from the many areas of human existence they have infiltrated. To sustain these initiatives and help them transition to a ‘new normal,’ citizens will need to mobilize and press their demands in the face of calls to resume business as usual. This raises the question of the commons.

Revaluing the commons and households

A second element of the big economy picture is revaluing the commons, seen in calls to adequately support public health systems often ravaged by years of austerity and cutbacks. Once again, history can be a guide, since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic helped create national health services in many European countries. An important part is recognizing who contributes to the common good as essential workers and re-valuing their key contributions to society, including financially. Others argue for a reclaiming of the knowledge commons to ensure that reliable information can lead to an informed debate that takes local values, priorities and needs into account. Against dominant claims to ‘the’ science driving government decisions, it is clear that difficult ethical decisions need to be made by policy makers and that an informed public needs to be involved in these deliberations. For starters, government committees such as the UK’s SAGE committee should include not only behavioral economists, disease experts and modellers, epidemiologists and medics, but also social scientists and humanities scholars such as philosophers, historians of science, theologians and jurists, as is happening in Germany.

Embedding the economy also means recognizing the core role of households, something that has been demanded by feminist economists and their ground-breaking studies of the care economy for many years.  Following the lockdown policies implemented by most countries to stop the virus spreading, households have been reconfirmed as the centres of family lives, as studying and working from home complement daily interactions and family members have to find new ways of co-existing in often confined spaces. A new ethics is emerging where care, albeit a version that is delinked from problematic gendered notions, becomes the basis for connections.

Our assortment of face masks

Interdependent economic subjects

This relates to another 21st century economics principles of ‘nurturing human nature’ by recognizing that individuals are not the calculating, maximizing and self-interested individuals posited by neoclassical economics. Instead, the collective crisis of COVID is showing that humans are interdependent, reciprocating and ethical beings, and is highlighting alternative ways of co-existence based on mutuality and conviviality. The ‘thick, tangled skein of sociality’ is revealed in the shielding of vulnerable family members, the wearing of face masks mainly to protect others and the keeping of spatial distancing. Citizens’ overall compliance with lock down measures that diminish individual freedoms in the name of the social good shows the inadequacy of individual rational choice theories and requires a more expansive view that recognizes that individuals take others into account when making decisions and can align their own choices with collective requirements. The self-organizing neighborhood groups that have sprung up in many cities operate on principles of mutual aid to help those who need to self-isolate or are struggling in other ways. These initiatives show that economic systems are at their heart social systems embedded within interpersonal relations.

Thus, the COVID pandemic is clearly showing that the economy is an integral part of social, political and environmental systems. Some of the current responses to the pandemic can be used to teach students the shortcomings of orthodox economics and the relevance of pluralist ideas within and without the university. It can also encourage them to use their learning to imagine and work towards the alternative futures that can be glimpsed among the bleakness of life under COVID.

Designing Back from the Future

Prototyping Brighton 2050

As I mentioned in my previous post, which is a summary of my book’s design chapter, scenarios – stories about possible futures – are an important tool in the design tool box. Scenarios have an interesting history, having been developed by Herman Kahn for the US RAND Corporation in the 1950s to support US military nuclear war planning. They have also been used by large corporations, foremost among them Shell, to explore possible energy scenarios. More radically, in 1995, the Global Scenario Group started developing multiple planetary scenarios, ranging from Conventional Worlds in which companies or governments continue the status quo, to Barbarization marked by breakdown or retreat to Great Transitions that present visionary alternatives focused on natural preservation, material sufficiency and social justice. Scenarios have also been used in teaching, and in the design chapter I write about an activity called Designing back from the Future, inspired by Anne-Marie Willis and conducted with students at Sussex’s School of Global Studies to imagine and prototype their preferable futures. For Willis, scenarios are the projection of likely futures, opening them up for reflection, including on actions that need to be taken to achieve the visions. The Sussex activity comprised two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) design workshops ran by design Research Associate Paul Braund and student coordinators and a Big Build exercise I carried out as part of a third year undergraduate course on Urban Futures. In both activities, students explored what Brighton, where most Sussex students live, might look like in 2050.

Students at one of the SDG workshop

For both activities, the space was set up as an invitation for students to play, experiment, build and have fun. Tables for small groups were covered with thinking materials (sticky notes, marker pens, stickers, large sheets of paper, photos, quotes etc), building materials (crafty stuff, play-doh, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, pins, string, LEGO and wooden blocks etc) and of course snacks. In general, multi-use materials are preferable to single-use objects to provide students with base materials that can be manipulated to externalize ideas. To introduce an element of ambiguity, each table also had a random object, including a knight, a small plush animal and a Lego object, which needed to be incorporated into the prototype. Student were excited as they settled into the space and many of them quickly began to explore the materials with their hands, opening cans of Play Doh and often commenting how its distinct smell brought back childhood memories, or grabbing sticks of pipe cleaners and bending them into whimsical shapes. Such making ‘prompts physical, intellectual and emotional responses’ through a form of hand knowledge, where students’ hands become translators between words and materials. According to Tim Ingold, a leading design anthropologist, making involves deep situatedness, active participation and real-time connection, a coming together of mind, body and material that Ingold calls ‘animacy.’ While social science students might not experience this as intensely as art and design students, making can nevertheless open up cracks in which thinking can happen and learning can stick better. Alongside these materials there were questions, prompts and instruction sheets on the tables, as from experiences we knew that informal learning needs clear structures and guidelines to be successful.

Thinking and building materials invite students’ creativity

The overall question was ‘What do you want the world to look like in 2050?’ For the SDG workshop, which ran over 5 hours, the format was more open-ended and the first task was for groups to develop a concrete vision and action plan for their preferred future, which led to some intense negotiations as diverse group members agreed on a collective vision. Several starting questions were posed to help the students: What things will have been achieved? What new institutions, laws, norms and behaviors will have been created? Who would participate in the change project and who would be affected and how? To compensate for the lack of a research phase that usually accompanies scenario exercises to keep them from becoming fantasies (although students did look up some information on their laptops), students were encouraged to localize their scenarios in a place that was familiar to at least one participant in the group. The group working on SDG 11 on cities selected Brighton, which allowed all members to draw on their own experiences of living in or near Brighton. For the in-class Big Build, which was only 2 hours long, I had pre-developed the following scenario in the interest of time: ‘Brighton in 2050 is a self-sustaining, hospitable and generous city. Its environmental footprint is minimal, it is welcoming of diversity and provides all of its residents with a decent quality of life.’  Tables had been set up around three specific topics that corresponded to themes studied throughout the term:  sustainable infrastructures, deep governance and radical conviviality. Each group had their own brief, further specifying their vision through guiding what-if questions and providing examples as starting points for their scenario journey.

Once students had further developed their visions, they were prompted to think about concrete ways through which to realize it, beginning with a brainstorming session. In parallel students started building prototypes of their scenarios with the materials at hand. Their emerging visions included tried and tested ideas, such as taking Brighton’s well-known status as a sanctuary city as a point of departure to create spaces where refugees could obtain homes, food and skills and be integrated with fellow urban residents through living with them and working in cafes and shops. Environmental visions included solar panels, bike stands, community gardens and a public assembly place. More far-reaching proposals were to build a mega-greenhouse and a free tram line. Most radically, one group proposed to repurpose Brighton’s famous Royal Pavilion as a communal food hall. None of these ideas were blue-sky or totally new, but that was not the point of the activities. What was remarkable was how the students brought together different domains in their scenario creations: their own experiences as Brighton residents, theoretical knowledge gained in class discussions, inspirations from other initiatives they knew about as well as practical making. Collectively, they built plausible scenarios that were materializing alternative urban futures that were desirable to them, while considering the rights and needs of diverse groups.

Prototyping an urban alternative future (notice the knight 🙂

Although because of time restrictions the groups did not reach the final stage of the exercise, which would have involved thinking through the specific actors, institutions and measures involved in realizing their alternative futures, they clearly enjoyed the creativity of the workshops and learned from it. This was evident in their comments that were collected in questionnaires and some follow-up interviews. Students wrote about encountering ‘a new way to think (not just words),’ which speaks to ideas of whole-person learning and hand knowledge I am developing in the book. Comments such as ‘how to involve different backgrounds into development’ and ‘a more open way of thinking outside the modules’ showed how spaces for possible actions and connections were opened up. One student wrote that they realized ‘that there are 100 ways to work‘ and another commented that ‘the workshop highlighted the complexities of designing and implementing solutions and the contradictions and huge interlinked challenges,’ which shows that ideas about change itself had broadened. Many students also expressed how they enjoyed engaging with fellow students in a more practical, hands-on and fun way. And for some, the workshops had ‘reestablished hope and encouragement for the future [through] more hands-on learning, not just [learning about] theory not working.’ This comment speaks to the potential of creative learning that incorporates an open-ended, experimental approach based on asking questions, developing possible responses through collaborative learning and then prototyping visions for alternative futures.

Designing Futures

How can we invite students’ creativity into university spaces?

Having just finished a draft of my design chapter, I thought it might be interestig to provide a brief summary here. The chapter argues that design’s future orientation and open-ended methods, together with its use of creative spaces and materials (inspired in part by a visit to the Stanford during which many of the images in this post were taken), are well-placed to inform a critical-creative pedagogy. They can help students to become more confident with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy in their learning, as I show through a detailed presentation of two learning activities that involve the building of future scenarios. The chapter draws mainly in the work of Tony Fry, Arturo Escobar, David Staley as well as Tim Ingold and other design anthropologists. In this post I outline the main arguments of the chapter while in the next one I present one of the learning activities.

In his groundbreaking book Designs for the Pluriverse, Escobar seeks to reclaim design, whose commercial version are often seen to contribute to unsustainable life styles and consumption habits, for the making of alternative worlds. Transition design in particular can help ‘embrace the vital normative questions of the day . . .  from out-of-box perspectives.’ In my chapter, I work with this concept of socially-conscious design, which has developed within the larger discipline since the 1960s and recognizes itself as a fundamentally ethical and political activity. I also conceive of a design as an innate human capability that incorporates both intellectual and material activities and results from our abilities to prefigure and imagine what we want to create. As Karl Marx famously wrote ‘a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Design has also been codified and become a professional field of study and practice. Last but not least, design has been called the art of the possible because of its inherently optimistic orientation, and, like the generative theory I use in my book, ‘transcends the limits of deconstructive and discursive analysis by venturing into the positive project of how the world can be – and be understood – otherwise,’ according to Escobar.

A van stuffed with cushions and drawing materials in the entrance area of the Stanford dschool invites playfulness

So what can design bring to challenge-focused teaching in the social sciences? In the chapter, I show that its open-ended approach and iterative process of continuous testing and adjustment, the practice of prototyping to test assumptions and responses, the posing of what-if questions to disrupt taken-for-granted understandings and understanding the concept of wicked problems (which I already explored in relation to COVID) can make students more comfortable with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy.

  • Experimentation involves students being playful, taking risks and exploring boundaries, which can lead to unexpected outcomes and surprises. Experiments can fail, and reframing failure as learning opportunities involves iteration as a continuous process of reworking. Emphasizing the open-ended and emergent qualities of things can help students keep an open mind and explore different avenues before settling on a specific course of action. This goes together with the ability to use questions in an exploratory way, by wondering whether they are even asking the right question rather than knowing the answer before the question is even posed.
What if teaching embraced rapid experiments?
  • Ambiguity means being open to more than one possible meaning or interpretation. Judith Harding and Lynne Hale show how the ability be comfortable with ambiguity is one of the key markers of creative problem solving processes, when a problem is clarified and different responses are considered. Design methods can help students to embrace ambiguity by enabling them to look at various angles of a problem or situation, suspend judgement and not rush to a solution. Harding and Hale give the example of providing students with purposely puzzling instructions for a learning activity and then resisting demands for clarification, instead explaining that students’ experiences of discomfort or frustration are part of the learning experience.
What if students were encouraged to dwell in ambiguity?
  • Empathy, broadly defined as the ability to imagine other people’s feelings or to emotionally identify with another person – to put ourselves in their shoes – involves cognitive processes of understanding and affective processes of emotional and embodied labor. Steve New and Lucy Kimbell argue for ‘designerly’ rather than managerial empathy that involves taking a ‘creative leap into the experience of another’ through techniques such as visualization, the construction of personas, role-play and co-immersions. In teaching, engaging empathy needs to complemented with research to avoid empathy’s negative potentials. For example, asking students to put themselves into other people’s shoes without understanding their situations can lead to students projecting their own emotions or experiences unto others and to patronizing assumptions or misrecognition. On the other hand, empathy can connect to pedagogies of unlearning and decentering privilege by providing situations where students encounter, learn about and interact with difference. Empathy also connects to Bruno Latour’s writing about design’s humility, which I have written about in the context of COVID.

Another element that design brings to creative teaching is its future orientation. To better understand universities’ overall relationship with the future, Keri Facer’s work on modes of stewardship, modelling, experimentation and critique has been particularly instructive. In his book Design Futuring, Tony Fry argues that ‘design futures or defutures – it rides the line between bringing things into being that sustain the conditions upon which viable futures depend and taking the possibility of such futures away.’ To support the field’s futuring capacity, he proposes the practice of ‘prefigurative criticism,’ whereby emerging products or processes are associated with negative values, for example through placing them into undesirable contexts, which would decrease demand for them. Students could explore such a recoding of the value of things through creative alterations of brands, adverts or billboards, following the path-breaking work of organizations like Adbusters. They could also examine their own consumer habits and the values underlying them and then experiment with recoding.

I want to conclude this post with reference to the ‘Future University’ proposed by David Staley as part of his utopian universities design speculations. Such a university would focus on both pure futuring, through a liberal-arts type education where students explore the future ‘as a possibility space,’ and applied futuring, through more vocationally-oriented teaching where students are ‘making the future happen.’ Teaching would encompass systems thinking, dystopian and utopian science fiction reading and writing, and the incubation of new social forms within universities that become a kind of living laboratory. It would also include the creation of design fictions through the making of prototypes that materialize students’ visions of the future. This future university is a great example of critical-creative learning that fosters students’ curiosity, introspection, imagination, situational awareness and humility. Elements of it already exist in many innovative university programs that have recognized the need to become incubators to foster collaborative learning and interdisciplinary problem solving to help students better address contemporary wicked problems.

What if this was the motto?