RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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302 Alternative Spaces of Learning
Affiliation Social and Cultural Geography Research Group
Convenor(s) Menusha De Silva (Singapore Management University, Singapore)
Orlando Woods (Singapore Management University, Singapore)
Chair(s) Orlando Woods (Singapore Management University, Singapore)
Timetable Friday 30 August 2019, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Sherfield/SALC Building, Read Lecture Theatre
Session abstract Learning is a continuous, life-long process. It engages with diverse ways of knowing. In comparison, education is the formalisation of learning, and is rooted in hegemonic understandings of knowledge. Education is but one form of learning, to which many alternatives exist. For most individuals, formal education and informal practices of learning are integrated into one holistic framework of understanding. Yet, whilst the geographies of education have tended to focus on formal spaces of education (notably, state-funded schools and universities), they do not fully capture the range of learning spaces and experiences that are defined and shaped by our subject positions and journeys through life. In this session, we aim to broaden the geographies of education by exploring “alternative spaces of learning” within and beyond spaces of formal education.
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Troubling climate change education in alternative learning spaces
Peter Kraftl (University of Birmingham, UK)
Arooj Khan (University of Birmingham, UK)
A key feature of many alternative education spaces – especially in contexts like the UK and Australia – is their insistence that learning should happen in places that do not look or feel like ‘traditional’ schools. One response to this imperative has been to build ‘schools’ that are non-school-like; another has been to engage children and young people in outdoor or nature-based forms of education (such as Forest Schools). As a result, alternative learning spaces are key sites of innovation for alternative pedagogies, world-views and, quite simply, ways of doing childhood in times of social and environmental turmoil.

Yet there are many different kinds of alternative education spaces, which cater for many different kinds of young people. Put crudely, for children and young people who conform to certain societal norms, outdoor- and nature-based learning are viewed as occasional supplements – like vitamins – that can address their lack of connectedness with nature. But, as recent scholarship has shown, for other children and young people, who fall outside such norms, such spaces are intended not merely to be restorative but therapeutic, altering a young person at the levels of habit, disposition and bodily comportment.

This paper focuses upon an ongoing, collaborative action-learning-research project between the authors and St Paul’s Community Trust, in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. The Trust operates a secondary school for young people who have been excluded from mainstream schools for a variety of reasons – and thus falls outside the kinds of sites that have been the focus for much research on the geographies of alternative education thus far. We co-developed a range of creative and experimental methods – ranging from model-making with a local science museum, to making art/music via children’s embodied energies, to intergenerational energy walks – to explore the multiple geographies, histories, materialities and sociabilities of ‘energy’ in Birmingham. After exploring the above contexts in more detail, the paper reflects on the tensions, complexities and opportunities that emerged from our attempts to co-deliver these methods with groups of young people who were, apparently, frequently disengaged and disruptive. We read our experiences through literatures ranging from new materialisms to theories of intersectionality to scholarship on ‘hard-to-reach’ youth. Our core contribution is to highlight how both working against and, crucially, working with these forms of disengagement and disruption might prompt novel ways to trouble – and to stay with the trouble inherent within – climate change pedagogies.
Work-integrated learning and overwork as an ‘alternative’ to traditional liberal higher education
Daniel Cockayne (University of Waterloo, Canada)
Often extolled as an opportunity for alternative learning, experiential learning outside of the classroom is a key feature of higher education across North America. Often called internships, but also practicum, work-integrated learning, and cooperative education, paid and unpaid internships are touted as essential in modern and progressive degree programs, in which education is characterized in as a commodity and in terms of consumer, employability, satisfaction-based models. Yet, the politics and dynamics of mandatory student internships is rarely explored by geographers, in spite of a turn towards critical geographies of education in recent years. In this paper I present findings based on interviews with students involved in cooperative education programs at the University of Waterloo, with a particular focus on student narratives of overwork in this setting. Though I do not interpret these spaces as alternative in the sense of holding radical opportunities for the transformation of the status quo, or in the sense that bell hooks means when she talks about transgression and education as a space for freedom and self-actualization, cooperative education is often discussed in these terms – as an ‘alternative’ to supposedly more traditional and liberal forms of higher education - by its exponents. Thus, there is a need to critically examine this kind of learning – as well as who is laying claims to the moniker ‘alterative’ - in order to evaluate precisely what kinds of claims are being made and to what extent they are warranted or exaggerated.
Privileged, yet covert: alternative spaces of education in China
Menusha De Silva (Singapore Management University, Singapore)
Orlando Woods (Singapore Management University, Singapore)
Lily Kong (Singapore Management University, Singapore)
The existing literature on alternative spaces of education focuses on how alternative schools, predominantly in the UK, address the needs of socially marginalised or excluded groups, and/or seek to resist neoliberal restructuring of education. This article introduces a contrasting type of alternative space for education in the vastly different context of China. Through close ethnographic focus on an underground Christian international school in one of southern China’s prosperous cities, we examine an alternative educational space which caters to the high-income local Chinese as well as foreign residents. Founded on the triple beliefs of global citizenry, Christianity and Confucianism, the paper examines how such alternative spaces of education respond to the aspirations of parents for their children, to grow up simultaneously with roots in traditional Confucian ideals and firm belief in Christianity, while preparing them to be “global-ready”. These aspirations are not readily fulfilled in the regular state schools nor in the growing number of international schools in China, but appear to be in demand among a particular set of parents – generally, a privileged minority of Chinese society, looking for a “superior” set of skills for their children to navigate the increasingly globalised and neoliberal higher education and employment landscape. Yet, the school of necessity remains underground because of the Christian focus, and this underground nature results in connections and disconnections with the local community. The analysis reveals how the particular spatialities of the school foster a sense of belonging to a global Christian community, and a desire to migrate or have access to internationalised higher education and work opportunities within China.
Spatial Orientation as Skill: Insights from Internationally Mobile Highly Skilled Workers
Gunjan Sondhi (The Open University, UK)
Parvati Raghuram (The Open University, UK)
Clem Herman (The Open University, UK)
This paper, using the concept of skills, explores the question: what are the spatialities that emerge from contestations of global and localised understandings of learning? Skills and their spatialities have been important in debates across several subdisciplines of geography – economic, urban and migration, to name a few. This paper contributes to these debates by highlighting spatial orientation as itself a skill. It suggests that globalised sectors such as Information Technology require spatial orientation alongside technical skills, but how it is developed and combined with other skills is differently developed across the world. It draws on a multi-sited comparative study of the IT sector in India and the UK, and its knowledge workers. Using phenomenological approaches to orientation (Ahmed, 2006) the paper argues that skills have spatial characteristics that both situate the skill but also involve extending and reaching out to enhance the skill, which requires mobility. Migrants encounter objects located at their bodily horizon, disrupting familiar frames and causing disorientation. But these moments of disorientation can also lead to (re)orientation by extending the reach of the body, making the strange familiar, or the distant proximate. However, disorientation and reorientation vary based on how skills are defined, fostered and valued. Conceptualising skills as a process rather than as categories, reveals variations in definitions of skills, how it articulates with different types of knowledge, the role of spatial orientation in these articulations and the implications of these articulations for how the global is anticipated and experienced. It points to how spatial skills are differentially acquired in situ but also differently fostered through mobility. In using the example of the IT sector, the paper focuses on one of the industries which is seen to epitomise globalisation and where mobility, space and place are drawn out in distinctive ways
Affective Cosmopolitanisms in Singapore: Dancehall and the Decolonisation of the Self
Orlando Woods (Singapore Management University, Singapore)
This paper advances a new understanding of cosmopolitanism; an understanding that is rooted in the affective potential of the body. It argues that whilst the self is often projected onto the body, so too can the body play an important role in (re)imagining the self. In this sense, the body can become an alternative space of learning; a space through which individuals can learn to realise a new, more cosmopolitan, understanding of the self. Through this understanding, the body can be seen to decolonise the self from the mind, from the expectations of society and culture, and from the normative epistemological underpinnings of academic knowledge production. I validate these theoretical arguments through an empirical focus on the practice of dancehall in Singapore. Dancehall is an emancipatory cultural movement that emerged in Jamaica in the 1980s (and has since gained popularity worldwide), and, amongst other things, has become known for its sexually provocative characterisation of the human body. Singapore, on the other hand, represents a conservative Asian society in which cosmopolitan self-fashioning has become an elitist, top-down process imparted by the government and education system. By reconciling dancehall culture in/and the Singapore context, I demonstrate the ways in which “non-elite” Singaporean youths forge new, more affective, forms of cosmopolitan self-realisation. Through dancehall, they learn how to engage with the self on their own terms, and to forge new ways of being in the world.