Why ‘anarchic’?

Why have I called this blog the ‘anarchic educator’? What’s all this reference to anarchy, isn’t that a nasty thing, practiced by punks and subversives who just want to throw down the system but have no idea what to put in its place? Let me address this question here, in what will be the first in a series of posts on this issue.

The word anarchy comes from the same Greek roots as ‘monarchy’ (one ruler) or ‘oligarchy’ (a few rulers). The ‘an-’ prefix is merely a negation, as it is in the word ‘amoral’ (without morals) and so represents the idea of not having any rulers. This is all it means.

There is a strong tendency, however, in modern political discourse, to then segue smoothly from here into a statement or position that if rulers are absent, what will result is a state of chaos. In fact so strong is this tendency and so smooth is the segue that the term ‘anarchy’ has come to signify chaos and disorder, without any acknowledgement of the real meaning of the term. But this is an imposition of meaning; imposed by the state/corporate hierarchies which control most of the planet’s physical and economic resources and have an interest in denigrating any attempt at autonomous political action. Yet it is false. There are plenty of examples of structured, orderly activities, groups and societies that exist, now and in the past, without ‘rulers’ in the formal sense.Peter Kropotkin

I once wrote up my feelings about anarchism in an essay published under a pseudonym and available here: “The Trouble with Anarchism”. I do take back some things said in §5 about property vs. possessions, or at least, admit that the view propounded in that section is naive: but I stand by the rest. The important sections for this discussion are §3 and §4, on page 2, where I wrote about how collaboration and consensus can come about when there are no ‘leaders’ to orchestrate it. The answer – as the great anarchist writer, Kropotkin [pictured], recognised in his book Mutual Aid – is self-organisation.

Now this is not a rare phenomenon. It happens all the time, and Kropotkin identified many examples, from animals through to pre-literate and then ‘civilised’ human society. Social structures can emerge without there having to have been ‘direction’ from some kind of ‘leader’. Within these structures, activity takes place, which can be on quite a large scale (e.g. raising a barn). One can organise without becoming ‘an organisation’ (here see the excellent book by Merrick (1996) about the Newbury by-pass protests) – and decisions can and do get taken within the collective. And the collective can in turn learn about the problems it faces, and the impact of its own activity, including its decision-making.

None of this is particularly radical. As a model of education it is, in fact, quite well described by Etienne Wenger with his original idea of communities of practice. In the first part of his 1998 book, which is probably the best simple statement on what a community of practice (CoP) actually is, Wenger describes how newly-employed claims processors in an insurance company came out of their first few weeks of initial staff training having learnt ‘how to do their jobs’ from the point of view of the company, guided by all the systems analysts, business process analysts, instructional designers and other such operatives who form part of the technostructure – that wing of the organisation which Henry Mintzberg (1989) defines as having a mandate to “plan and control the work of others”. But when they get on to the shop floor, they find that the technostructure’s idea of how this work proceeds is not matched by the reality. On the shop floor there exist a whole range of short cuts, unofficial procedures that have been learned by the claims processors collectively, in the face of the shared learning need that is ‘I want to learn about how to get my work done as effectively and in as stress-free a way as I can’. So the new processor joins this CoP and for the next few weeks unlearns a certain amount of what the technostructure thought was the way the job was done, and relearns the procedures and short-cuts which have slipped under the radar of the technostructure. They do this not because they are being directed to do so by a ‘leader’ (or a ‘teacher’); the learning, and the spaces, skills and structures which shape that learning, are emergent.

Peoples' Front of JudeaMany might say at this point that it is impossible for a whole organisation to structure itself in this way. Would it move in any direction at all? Possibly not. Mintzberg (1989) recognises this when he describes the ultimate ‘political organisation’ as one which spends all its time discussing and fighting over the details but never getting anything done – rather like the Peoples’ Front of Judea (pictured) in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (‘Right! This calls for immediate discussion!’). But one of the things the collective can learn about as it works is the impact of the decisions it takes. This includes how to reconcile individual motivations and desires with those of the group.

This is the crucial tension for self-organisation. As Black (or rather, I) wrote in the essay linked above, there is a ‘school of pseudo-anarchism’ which would subsume all such considerations under that of the individual and reduce human social contact to a mere transaction, offering aid to someone only if they can pay for it (the libertarian position) and never recognising that sometimes one’s views must be modified in the face of the collective interest. Yet this is also part of the essential learning processes of society:

“The true anarchist recognises an absolute need to deal with others, because all authority is fallible: and this therefore includes oneself. Just as one should never listen to only one “expert”, nor read only one perspective on any subject, so one should never fully trust one’s own judgment. Of course, this does not mean that one should take advice from others about which way to travel to work in the morning, but what it does require is the mutual and reciprocal recognition of all other people as autonomous beings. The trick anarchism needs to pull off — and it is the same trick as democracy must master — is to preserve the autonomy of the individual within the collaborative efforts of the group. Group decisions are based on individual preferences, but they must transcend them. Reaching a consensus does not mean talking until one gets one’s own way; a consensus is innately and irrevocably a group creation (Follett, 1920) which can only arise through a process of deliberation in which (ideally) all those affected by the decision under discussion have an equal chance to participate.”

Thus, participation in decision making is a learning process – and a creative process of co-construction of spaces in which learning can subsequently continue in the same way. To solve a decision-making problem – a learning problem – within a self-organising collective by creating a hierarchical structure which will damage one’s ability to take collective decisions in the future, can be defined as a poor decision (see Blaug 2007). The main learning problem faced by the self-organising collective (or CoP) is therefore how to recognise the trade-offs which exist between the desire to maintain the autonomy of individuals and the group as a whole, and how to take decisions that move the collective forward.

Anarchic education is therefore essentially about how we:

  • create and sustain the spaces in which such learning can occur;
  • develop in people the skills and awareness they need to make best use of such spaces;
  • react to change by learning about the impact of such change on these spaces and the people within them.

There are plenty of real-life examples to illustrate these processes, for good and bad, but they can be discussed in subsequent blog posts.


Black, J. (2004): “The Trouble with Anarchism”, Tangentium May 2004, online at http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/drew.whitworth/tangentium/may04/supp1.html [last accessed Dec 31 2012]

Blaug, R. (2007): “Cognition in a Hierarchy”, Contemporary Political Theory 6(1): 24–44.

Follett, M. P. (1920): The New State: Group Organization, the solution of popular government, New York, Longman Green.

Mintzberg, H. (1989): Mintzberg on Management, London, Collier Macmillan.

Wenger, E. (1998): Communities of Practice, London, Routledge.

The MOOC: power to the few, or to the many?

It’s about time I started a blog about academic stuff… and with a sabbatical coming up in Australia next semester, and a book to write (and tell people about), now’s the time…

This move was probably waiting to find the right issue to start with, but the provocation was making the following post to the ALT-Members mailing list (Association of Learning Technologists), today, on the subject of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses):

I think that although the structures used to deliver education are changing – and the MOOC is just an extension of things that were already happening with distance learning, so this change has been underway for some time – I believe that we still need good teachers, in the sense of people with drive, vision, subject matter expertise and an affinity for, and knowledge of, their students. This is what really makes any course, isn’t it? How many of us think back to the best courses we have undertaken and go, hmmmm, really liked that VLE, or really enjoyed that assignment? No, most of the time it will have been because of the teacher.

In the very good recent article by the team at Edinburgh who are involved in one of the new MOOCs, they pointed out that the role of the teacher shifted into a more distant role, but was still very present, just as people buy books on cooking and may feel, even in a small way, that they are being ‘taught’ by Jamie Oliver (or whomever). Now, such charismatic effects are not invested in institutions. They are invested in individuals. The first key point then is that I believe the success of a MOOC remains invested in individuals, or at least, good close teams (of genuine colleagues, rather than some kind of hierarchical structure).

It is clear that an institution with money, and good management will be able – like a successful football club – to marshal a very good team of individuals and get them working together within some kind of common infrastructure. They don’t even need to be located in the same country any more. That may lead to some institutions becoming the Manchester United/Barcelona/etc. of education. To some extent, this has always been the case, but MOOCs will exacerbate it at first.

Students in a face-to-face class

How much do we need face-to-face teaching? Can the MOOC bring down the notion of a campus?

However, I believe that within them, the power remains with the teacher. If a teacher is what makes a MOOC really work – invests that infrastructure with the spark which will keep students interested and motivate them to complete the course and – perhaps at some point – be willing to pay for it; then institutions will need to work hard to keep the teacher with them and, in due course, reap the benefits of the MOOC. Because, just like the new model of online publication is seeing a shift in power away from the middle-man (publishers) and toward a more direct connection between author and reader, producer and consumer (and indeed a fuzzying, even eradication, of the boundaries between the two) – so it is in education. I believe that what is being weakened by the MOOC is the middle-man, the institution, the impersonal system that is regulating access to education and deciding who can come in and how much they will pay – and how the academics under their charge will be managed. And paid. Because the second that we develop the possibility of the student paying the teaching team directly for their work and (as noted in the Clay Shirky post) we can decouple the idea of ‘learning’ from the idea of ‘getting a degree’; then we have a business model that may not require institutions at all. (Market-savvy teachers in MOOCs should surely already be thinking of ‘spin-offs’ – all you need is everyone in a 50,000-strong MOOC to be willing to spend £10 on your accompanying e-book and, well, I’d be quite happy with that as a return. Particularly if I’d self-published the book.)

As a teacher, I do not feel threatened by the MOOC, and when I’ve got time, I’m going to look into setting one up of my own. I have something to say, I think; as with many academics, there aren’t an infinite number of people publishing in my specialist field; I am confident that I have an original slant on things, could bring in other leading colleagues from round the world as guests or partners in various ways; know about distance learning (though I’d obviously have more to learn – at the start, and as the course evolves); etc. Put it this way, I could give it a good go. And I don’t – wouldn’t – need an institution to do it – except, most likely, to advertise it, and that could be done by a different agency. Yes, these are idealistic views, but they are still possible futures.

That is the really exciting thing in the end. Publishers are trying to find ways to hang on, and yes, some publishing institutions are very strong at the moment, but in the end the author _can_ reach the reader directly and we are starting to see the consequences of this. Same with music. And the same with education.