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Journey into the past


I keep feeling as though I am going around in circles, but struck me that some of the stuff I am thinking about actually relates to things I have thought about before in other contexts but where I haven’t looked at connections.

Nearly 40 years on, it’s difficult to remember details of my social work training and I can’t claim to remember any of the detail of the various theories we learned except that they were primarily psycho-analytically driven.  There was little about the socio-political systems which led to a whole range of inequalities, but a lot about the personal/psychological growth and behaviour and what led to a healthy individual and what led to dysfunction. If I recall correctly we first of all considered ‘normal’ growth and development, then considered what can go wrong and finally looked specifically at issues around mental health, aging and disability. I remember being deeply dissatisfied with what we were being taught as it seemed to me that this particular form of person centred psychology had little to offer people who were struggling through inadequate housing, insufficient income, poor health, etc, etc.

When I finished my training, I became a community worker.  The philosophy here was different and essentially was that people working together can make a difference to their lives and their environment through collective effort and action.  The reality was that most people were alienated from their environments and rather than seeking to change them, they were looking for opportunities to escape to somewhere better.  There was little sense of ownership of the problems within the community, and little belief that anything could be different. At the same time, I can remember individuals who somehow did find they could do something to change some elements of their situations. Perhaps the person who made the greatest impression on me was a man who was probably 30 something. He had grown up in care and had never been in employment as far as I knew.  He lived with his wife and 2 sons in a 2 bedroom flat on a notorious sink estate in a northern city.  As a result of various community development projects on the estate, he had been persuaded to get involved in producing a community newspaper. The hitch was that he was barely literate.  But the newspaper task somehow provided him with the impetus he needed to learn to read and write and to commit himself to ensuring that somehow his sons would have a better future. What struck me most about him was that he took ownership of his situation and began to do something about it in a situation where most people felt unable to take any action at all.

I didn’t remain a grassroots community worker for long, but took the lessons I had learned into a voluntary organisation support role and later into management roles in both statutory social services and voluntary organisations.  It was a time when voluntary agency culture was moving from doing good to others, a sentiment expressed in more sophisticated language in most charitable deeds of governance, to a time when it was slowly being recognised that people could do a lot for themselves. The 1981 International Year for Disabled People challenged us to rethink the terminology to International Year of People with disabilities.  For all the political correctness that has followed, the emphasis was on seeing people first and foremost as people and then taking note of the problematic almost as an afterthought. My MSc research was concerned with intermediary bodies for disability and the change which was taking place from these being organisations with a membership made up of other organisations to organisations with a membership of people with disabilities.  Instead of able-bodied people being the experts in matters of disability, there was a change of ownership and people with disabilities were expressing loudly and clearly their expertise and their right to have a say in what they needed by way of housing, employment and care provision. In the 21st century most provision for people with disabilities is made through direct payments and the client of yesterday is the customer of today choosing how to spend the money to meet their needs.

I could go on tracking this strand through my other work and personal experiences, but that would get boring! Suffice it to say that I have a deep seated belief that people should be in control of their own destinies – and this includes making resources available when necessary to enable that personal ownership and control.

So where does that fit into education and virtual worlds?

The first link is with constructivism, that educational theory which suggests (if I’ve understood it correctly) that knowledge isn’t something which is learned or transferred from teacher to learner, but rather that each individual is responsible for their own learning and constructs their knowledge framework by incorporating new information and ideas into their existing knowledge structure.  This process sometimes involves dismantling parts of that structure as new knowledge leads to re-evaluation of former knowledge.  Underlying this thinking is the idea of a learner owning their own learning. The nature of a virtual world which encourages and enables exploration and experimentation offers opportunities for creating and building knowledge frameworks.

The second link is possibly around ownership and autonomy, one of the facets of self-determination theory, and what motivates learning.  From what little I’ve read about this theory so far, it seems that it focuses on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and seems to say that extrinsic motivation decreases the intrinsic motivation which is a basic human quality.  From my early work experiences, change happened through intrinsic motivation and believe in self rather than extrinsic motivators, whether carrots or sticks. In a virtual world there are few experts as everybody is on a learning curve.  This changes the relationship between teacher and taught and leads to greater fluidity, flexibility and experimentation. Is it possible that virtual worlds enable ownership of learning and contribute to a positive feedback loop which enables further experimentation, exploration and learning?

Guess that will do for the moment!


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