Thursday, 10 April 2014

Creative Learning and Trade School

Activity Details

As part of the "Learning Creative Learning" course that I am currently doing with the MIT Media Lab, I have been asked to write about a visit to a local creative learning space and to discuss how it supports creative learning experiences.

I have decided to take this is a slightly different direction. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the kind of creative learning spaces that the course organisers have in mind ('Maker Spaces', computer clubs etc.) are more common in the United States than on this side of the Atlantic. I am also far more interested in informal adult education and how the idea of creative learning might be applied to post-compulsory education.

For that reason, the local 'creative learning space' that I have chosen is a building in my home town in Norwich. St. Laurence's Church was built between 1460 and 1472. It is one of many redundant medieval churches in Norwich that is in search of a new role.

Exterior of St Laurence's Church, Norwich, Norfolk
St. Laurence's Church, Norwich
An umbrella organisation called the Common Room is now using the church to create a community and learning space. One of the groups that uses this space is Trade School Norwich.

The Trade School idea is a simple one. People offer classes in anything that they have an interest or passion about. Students then sign up for the course in exchange for bartered items that the teacher has specified. Here's a recent example from Trade School Norwich.

The range of classes that have been offered can only be described as very wide. Trade School Norwich has had classes in drumming, knitting and crochet, shorthand, Greek language and herbalism. These are only a small selection of classes that have been run in the past few months. Most of them focus on teaching on fairly narrow and specific skills (try getting more narrow and specific than medieval board games). In the educational field, this kind of learning is known as granular.

The important thing is that whilst the courses are not free, at no point does money ever change hands. This creates a flatter, less hierarchical form of learning and makes the relationship between teacher and learner quite different. 

I also like the fact that many of the Trade School Norwich classes take place inside a greenhouse inside a 15th century church.

Learning knitting and crochet in a greenhouse in a medieval church

There are Trade Schools all over the world, including Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Rotterdam, QuitoGeneva and Paris

Creative Learning and Trade School

At it's heart Creative Learning is a pedagogy that tries to address the issue of learning in a rapidly changing social, technological and economic world (it's not alone in this area - there's also Connected Learning and Rhizomatic Learning). For some reason I'm reminded of a talk I went to at last October's Mozilla Festival in London. The speaker was talking about education and technology and asked "Are we learning as fast as the world is changing?" It was generally agreed afterwards (and not just by the pessimistic Brits) that this was a scary question.

Anyway, in a nutshell, Creative Learning suggests that if we want a flexible basis for learning then we should look to the kindergarten and the way that young children learn and then apply that to the wider educational field - including adult education.

Let's go through the four 'Ps' of Creative Learning (Projects, Passion, Peers and Play) as a way of exploring the theory of Creative Learning and see how it might fit into Trade School (using the example of the medieval board games class as an example).

Project-based learning works on the premise that people can learn through doing something specific, concrete and meaningful and through that discovering something larger and more abstract. This kind of learning fits in very well with the way that Trade School works. It helps that the courses are usually very short from start to finish (about an hour or two) and that the courses on offer tend to encourage project-based learning. So, for instance, with the medieval board game course students learnt about the games simply by playing them and from there creating the layout of the board games to take home with them.

This is about finding ways of tapping into the interests and concerns of students so that wider educational goals can be reached. This does not have to be directly related to the subject that the student is supposed to be learning about. For instance, somebody who is keen on horticulture might use that interest to create an app that would be useful to gardeners. His/her interest led to them finding out about coding in Java in order to create the app. This "passion" can be taken as read within Trade School. One of the most important things to remember about adult education is that it is usually voluntary so the interest is there before the course starts. With the medieval board game course this interest might be come from somebody interested in medieval or social history or even a keen board game player who wanted to try some unfamiliar games.

I am a great advocate for peer-based learning. Much of the learning that I have picked up over the past couple of years (on various MOOCs and other online courses) is from fellow students through Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, Facebook postings and even good old email. I've lost count of the number of times peers have pointed me towards resources I was not aware of or discussed with me essays/digital artefacts that we have created. The teacher now took on a new role. He/she is there to encourage and facilitate this kind of learning and to provide some guidance when needed. 

Peer-based learning is, in my experience, less common within Trade School. Much of this is probably due to the constraints of time. Some teachers may feel that they have a lot of get through in an hour or two. Peer-based learning can be time-consuming and so some teachers might be nervous about giving it a try. Also, given the variety of Trade School courses, some classes will lend themselves better to peer-based learning than others. There will also be some dependence on the prior knowledge and experience of the students. When it came to the medieval board games course there was some peer-to-peer learning as some of the participants had an interest in medieval history and others were keen board game players. As the course progressed they talked and learnt from each other.

This is not a reference to actual playing when learning (although that can happen) but rather an exploration of an attitude of playfulness (or just simple enjoyment) as a part of learning. It goes without saying the people learn better if they are enjoying what they are doing. This idea is gaining traction within education anyway through gamification. Many of the Trade School classes that I have participated in have had built into them a real sense of play. Much of this is due to the barter system creates a less rigid relationship between the teacher and the student and between the students themselves. Trade School also lends itself to a greater informality and sense of playfulness in ways of learning.

Expanding Creative Learning

An important principle of Trade School is that all teachers are not told how to teach their classes. This is from the 'Information  for Teachers' page on the Trade School website:
Your class can be about anything and can be structured in any way you like. Just be sure that you feel comfortable setting the tone and sharing information.
However, it then goes on to say:
We find that students want to get to know each other, so classes work best with break-out groups, work in pairs and lots of student participation. 
It seems to me lots of the ways in which Trade School Norwich (and other Trade Schools) operates fits in nicely with the ideas of Creative Learning. The relationships between teacher and student and between students encourage Creative Learning. The short duration of the courses can also be a positive (as well as a negative) when it comes to promoting Creative Learning.

Creative Learning and Adult Education
As a final word, I have been giving a lot of thought as to how Creative Learning could link in with adult learning theory and this will be the subject of a further blog towards the end of the course. Just to tempt you all, I will be proposing a fifth P!


  1. This is so interesting to read your description of a Trade School in a medieval church, and how the Trade Schools' approach relates to the 4Ps and a Creative Learning approach.The medieval game example and quotes bring it to life. I am intrigued to hear what your fifth P will be...

    1. Is there a Trade School near you? If there is, then maybe you could teach Scratch in a class?

  2. Loved the post. I didn't know about Trade Schools but will be finding out about them now. I would love to attend and contribute in some way to a local trade school in the Peterborough area where I live, or maybe get together with some people to create one.
    I have a theory about the 5th P but will see if I'm right when I read your post!

  3. Malcolm,

    Thanks for your comments. Trade School is a relatively new idea and is still on it's toddler stage. If you want to set up a Peterborough branch then 1) don't do it alone! and 2) go to for more details/background.