Creating radical changes in education … is it more effective to work ‘within the system’ or innovate from ‘the outside’? A dialogue between Max Hope and Sophie Christophy

Max and I wrote another piece together, this time on change making…. (this post was originally posted on Write On Changemakers).

Authors: Max Hope & Sophie Christophy

Max Hope and Sophie Christophy share an aspiration to radically change the education system, but the journeys that brought them together have been completely different. Max started out as a youth worker and spent a decade as a university academic, researcher and lecturer and writer before becoming Director of Rewilding Education and Co-Lead of The Lodge. Sophie is a feminist and children’s rights activist, an unschooling parent and Co-Founder of The Cabin and The Lodge,two self-directed and consent-based settings for home educated children. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they explore whether it is more effective to work within the system or to innovate from the outside and unpick some of the painful decisions that they – and others – must make when deciding where to position themselves and put their energies.

This dialogue follows on from a previous one about Rewilding and Unschooling.

Max: I want to radically transform education. I have spent many years trying to do this. Sophie, you know this, and we share so many of the same values and visions about how we want the world to be. But our histories of how we have done our work are different, and I’d love to dive into some of the debates that we have had about a) what is the most effective way to try and ignite and inspire change; and b) what personal choices we have made – and are still to make – about how we want to use our ‘wild and precious lives’.

My journey started as a youth and community worker for a radical charity that worked with young people who were on the margins of society. That job did not feel like I was ‘in the system’ at all, even though most of the young people I worked with had been involved in (or excluded from) mainstream school. After fifteen years, I left this job and started a PhD. I felt burnt out and exhausted from listening to young people who had been so battered by the education system, and I wanted to get to the root of the problem. What was going wrong with mainstream education? How could it change in ways that would be more inspiring, engaging, and useful for young people? What could be learnt from some of the more radical types of education that were happening in ‘alternative’ settings?

My decade as a university academic felt like I was trying to change the system from within. I spent time in mainstream and alternative schools. I worked with teachers and ex-teachers. I created projects which engaged with students and tried to support them to have increased agency in their schools. And the university itself, like it or not, was a mainstream institution. There were rules and procedures and formal outcomes. I was teaching, researching, and writing within this mainstream system, and trying to push at the boundaries of what I could ‘get away with’ so that I could practice in the way that I wanted. Eventually, I left, and although I miss some of the work that I was able to do, I certainly do not miss the stress and strain of being in that system.

Sophie, we met through Phoenix Education, a charity that has big ambitions about transforming education. At that point, you were home educating your children and had already set up The Cabin. You were firmly rooted outside the system. You were a pioneer. I was still inside the system, working for the university and undertaking research in and with schools. I was excited about all the amazing stuff that was happening outside the system but was still deeply committed to putting my energy into changing the mainstream.

Our lives have both changed. I would love to know where you stand now. What, for you, is the most effective way to operate? Is it as an innovator within the system or as a pioneer outside of mainstream? And what does this mean for you personally right now?

Sophie: For me personally, it is about finding ways to be a change maker that are manageable and sustainable in the context of my own life. Consistent, persistent effort, that can last a lifetime is part of my theory of change, and it influences the work that I do, how I use my time and energy, and how I care for myself along the way. As you said – when we met, it was as I joined the Board of Trustees at Phoenix. I was at the time and still am an unschooling, home educating parent. I’d just co-founded the Cabin the year before and was a few cycles in running the Consent-Based Education courses. I’d spent years before that running community-based projects creating spaces for children’s rights, establishing home ed community in my local area, and prior to that nature based space in the woods for families with young children in London.

I was already writing – a blog, and for the local paper and a local families magazine, about children’s rights in the family and raising awareness of home education as choice. In 2014-15 I had tested out the potential for making change via mainstream politics, by standing as Green Party candidate in the General Election. I had done some speaking and workshops, on change making and the political and personal transition from patriarchy to consent-based culture. I was deep in the experience of motherhood and parenting discourse. In all of this I was also doing my best to love and support my children in staying connected to and in-tune with themselves, to grow in a way that nurtured them and met their needs. That’s no small feat in the dominant culture in which we live. 

I think what I’m trying to say by sharing this is that I was in a period of experimentation, learning, agitation, and high activity. I was desperate at times, and up against deadlines such as the school starting age that put pressure on my activism and work, but I was determined. I always wanted to do right by my own children but not only them. I wanted to do right by all children and for society to change. I wanted social and environmental justice not some time but now, and I was serious. But I was also overextending myself and out of what felt like necessity in a burn out cycle that was not good. 

You asked about whether it’s more effective to innovate from inside or outside the system. I would say it’s most effective to start innovating from the exact place of where you are right now. To first experiment with yourself. To learn and understand as much as you can about your own values, and to try to live them in every small moment, action and thought. To understand your strengths and skills, to understand your gaps for learning and do that learning. And then use those skills, that learning, and yourself, to be impactful in your exact current circumstances. Wherever that is. And test that as far as you can go, until you know it’s time to start trying to do something else. What do you think?

Max: My drive for wanting to transform the education system didn’t come through my own experience of having my own children. I didn’t have to make a personal choice about whether to put my own children into school or to choose which school might be the most suitable option. Would I have been prepared to move house? Would I have home educated? Would I have set up an alternative like The Cabin? It is all hypothetical because my life’s path did not lead me to having to make those choices or to act from that place.

Instead, I encountered dozens and dozens of other people’s children in my role as a youth worker. I learnt so much from them and from my experiences of trying to develop innovative ways of re-engaging them with learning again. We had to create exciting, relevant, and fun activities that did not, under any circumstances, remind people of being ‘at school’. What I learnt, and this felt important, was that it was really not that difficult to find ways of engaging even the most ‘hard-to-reach’ young people if the relationships between us were respectful, genuine and trustworthy. Young people could smell inauthenticity. They knew when they were being conned. And, by contrast, when they were trusted to self-direct their own process and make their own decisions, they rose to the challenge and were eminently capable to doing so.

To me, this was not hard to understand. It was not rocket science.

I continued to be shocked that the mainstream education system continued to get it so wrong. Year after year, young people would tell me the same stories. Young people being bullied for being gay, sometimes by their own teachers. Being disciplined for wearing the wrong shoes. Kicked out for talking back. Forced to do certain subjects because they were not in the right group to choose other options. Made to stay in isolation booths for the whole day. On and on and on.

That was in 2007. That was where I was at in my own life. Tired and frustrated and angry.

It felt like a deeply personal move to leave youth work and head into a university. This was not about my career or professional journey or anything else. This was about wanting to make an impact in the lives of children and young people. I genuinely believed that this was my best chance to do that, and I never lost sight of that aspiration.

Sophie, you say that “it’s most effective to start innovating from the exact place of where you are right now.” I agree – and I don’t. I agree in that we can start from where we are at, whether that be as a parent, a youth worker, a policy maker, a politician. We can all do something from the place we are, and it gives us a sense if agency to know that. We can all do something – and we can often do more than we imagine we can. So yes, I do agree with that.

Where I disagree is that I also think that we can choose to position ourselves in a place where we believe we might have the greatest impact. I can choose to position myself in a university, a school, a policy institute, a picket line, a home education setting. I can be an anonymous blogger, a teacher, a journalist and so on.

We don’t all get to make the same choices.

This isn’t a competition.

But we get to make our own choices from our own unique circumstances.

Right now, I am choosing to co-lead The Lodge with you, the new setting which flows on from The Cabin. This is outside of mainstream and is aimed at home educated young people aged 10-12. This positions me as ‘outside of the system’ and I am finding it energising, refreshing, and healing. I love it. I am still holding an ambition that our practice might, in one way of another, influence mainstream practice but I am no longer fixated on trying to make this happen.

When I look at Two Loops Theory – which you introduced me to whilst we were at Phoenix – I can plot my own journey. As a youth worker, I was in a ‘hospicing’ role in that I was picking up casualties from a broken system and trying to help them get through. At the university, I was trying to innovate within the system itself, whilst also trying to shine a light on the work of pioneers in the hope that it would influence the mainstream. I am now more removed from the mainstream and less preoccupied with it and am instead focussing on pioneering practices which take place in the new paradigm, outside of the system.

I find it more energising and less exhausting to be outside of the system. There is a breeze out here and it feels hopeful and optimistic. We are creating and inhabiting the world that we want to see.

But Sophie, sometimes I also feel guilty.

Most children and young people are within the system. They cannot get out and play with us over here.

If we want to change things for a larger number of young people, don’t we have a responsibility to try and change the mainstream?

Sophie: You feel guilty? Why do you feel guilty? You haven’t done anything wrong or anything to feel guilty for as far as I am aware. I don’t feel guilty. I’m not going to carry the guilt of a system that was never built to respect children. That guilt deserves to sit elsewhere. I don’t feel guilty for making difficult choices at personal cost including extreme experiences of loneliness and isolation at times, in order to do what I thought was right for the health and well being of my children, just because I couldn’t extend that same opportunity to all children. I sure have tried to open as many doors as possible to other folk to make their own choices that included not participating in schooling. To create community other than school, which is one of if not the main draws of school for many people – a sense of belonging and the chance to be around other young people.

The fucked thing about this is the level of denial around the issue itself. It’s hard for people to stare in the face of the coercive and controlling dynamic of traditional schooling, the cruel methods of behaviour management, the marginalising and degrading of young people that don’t ‘fit’ for whatever reason, and let that sink in when they are part of it or dependent on it. Perhaps that comes as a reaction to the scale of the issue and the seemingly insurmountable challenge to create meaningful and lasting change, the sense of powerlessness that is felt. Some of it is because the system as it stands, despite being fundamentally unethical, still meets many needs of the people that are in it, and of parents and young people, that are hard to meet otherwise. The relationship between teachers, families and the education system continues, even into depths of unhealth and dysfunction. Each person propping it up in their own way.

Writing about this has made me feel upset inside. It provokes pain in me which comes out in harsh and confrontational tone. And that is because it is a painful thing, that just keeps ticking on, and on, year after year. You asked if we have a responsibility to try to change the mainstream, and I would say yes, we absolutely do. Not out of guilt, because I believe we are working hard and doing our best and shouldn’t take on guilt for that which is not our doing. But because everything else is peripheral, and what we ultimately want to see is widespread change and transformation, and for that to happen mainstream culture has to be moved. How that happens though is through a radical tapestry, a patchwork, of many, many activated change makers, all throughout the Two Loops Model. So the key is to reflectively position yourself always into the place in that process in which you can have your own maximum effect. And the best way to do that in my opinion, beautifully, is to inhabit consent-based and self-directed principles, in order to navigate to the right spot to be lined up for the unique contribution that you are designed to make.

What do you think the mainstream needs most from those of us innovating and experimenting outside of its limitations?

Max: Phew. I can feel an exhalation and a sigh of relief.

When you say that ‘the guilt deserves to sit elsewhere’, I can totally see that. I did not create the mainstream system and I do not do anything to deliberately reinforce it. To the contrary, I have worked to challenge it and change it, and now I am putting my energy into the creation of innovative new models which are healing and restorative. Isn’t it interesting how my default is to somehow feel responsible for harm and damage which is not mine and which I cannot control? I wonder if that is part of the how the system upholds and replicates itself? How many teachers and other educators are within the mainstream because they feel responsible for trying to make it better, for reducing the harm that such a system inevitably inflicts?

Now I have stepped away from directly trying to change the mainstream, I feel a renewed sense of enthusiasm to exploring the alternatives from the inside-out. Actually, when I say ‘alternative’, it might give the impression of ‘different but equal’. That is not what I mean. It’s not like ‘dairy milk and alternative milk’. Or ‘conventional medicine and alternative medicine’. What we are investing all our time and energy into creating is not simply an alternative. It is a new paradigm. We must find some way of explaining that in a more convincing way. Sometimes, alternative is better, and we need to be bold about that.

What do I think the mainstream needs most from us? First, I think that people in mainstream need to be respected and supported because many of them are genuinely doing their best within a system that works against them and their own values. Next, I think that we need to encourage mainstream folk – especially leaders and policy makers – to radically rethink their educational philosophy and values. What I mean I that it is not enough to simply tinker with the system, to make incremental changes, to go for small improvements. The scale of the change that we need is far bigger than that, and it needs to happen quickly. We need to rethink our whole concept of education and ask some searching questions about: a) what are schools even trying to achieve anyway? b) how can schools be reconstructed so that they are underpinned by a deep respect and trust in children and young people? c) how can teachers and other adults be in honest, authentic, and open relationships with one another and with children and young people?

This is, of course, where the role of schools and learning communities which operate within the ‘new paradigm’ come into play. Mainstream folk will often struggle with answering the questions I have outlined above because they simply cannot imagine how things could be different. In my experience, they tend to say things like, ‘this sounds great, but it would never work in practice’, or ‘it might work for certain kids but not for the ones that I have to teach’. We need to be able to hold up real-life, practical examples as case studies. We need to show them the new paradigm so that they can start to dream differently about their own settings and their own practices.

What would you say to a teacher in a mainstream setting who was choosing to stay there but also wanted to bring in consent-based and self-directed practices? I would love to know whether you think this is even possible, and if so, what your words of advice might be?

Sophie: I would say to them that it’s like beating a drum. But first, there is a need for people to be open to learning. To letting go, opening up, and being willing to learn something new from other folk actually doing this practice. Egos need to go to the side, and they need to be willing to admit what they do and don’t understand, and what they do and don’t need to work on to have integrity and authenticity in this work.

If they are willing to do that, and are committed to change, they can find out what their space of change and opportunity is in their lives and places of work, and then they need to start beating this new practice like a drum. Like a heartbeat. A strong, regular beat, with integrity, with commitment, with consistent repetition. It’s OK if the beat is quiet and light to start off with, but it needs to start. There needs to be a high level of conviction because this practice is standing against the tide of the dominant culture of school. Like trying to keep your footing standing in the middle of a river swollen and rushing with some kind of downpour. So they need to think about what they need and what they can do to protect and withstand that.  

Then you start to beat your drum in a determined space. What I mean by that is you try to create a space that is separate to and different from the rest, whilst still within that place. Call it a club if you want, a society, an extra, or a designated part of your week, but it must be marked as different to the rest, with its own set of ways. This is key to the new culture having a chance of integrity and surviving. Once you get you drum beating and the culture rolling, it is contagious. I have no doubt in that. It’s like you can’t unsee what you have seen – it’s hard to accept coercive control and dominator culture when you can feel and know that something else is possible, that it is a choice and not necessary.

So, the key is to getting it going and digging in. Understand why you are doing it, understand and believe in how important it is. Understand it as an ethical imperative and the right next step. There needs to be pride in this work, pride, and strength. And then you’ve got to keep beating that drum for as long as you can.

And there has to be an acceptance that there will be break down as part of this process. Transitions and change hurts and it requires facing up to things including dark and painful truths. So be ready for difficult and painful situations, within yourself, as a practitioner, and in your situation with others. Have a strategy for how you are going to deal with that, how you will process it so that it doesn’t trash what is happening.  Dominant systems try to protect and maintain themselves, so you need to have the resolve to be ready to deal with that.

I recently got a steel tongue drum. It’s healing. This drum of this practice is healing too.  But healing journeys bring up all kinds of things, including pain and trauma that needs to be processed and released.

What would be your go to first thing when working with someone in the mainstream system? What do you think the first step is in supporting them in this transition?

Max: The first thing?

For me, the burning core is about relationships between teachers and students. Some call it student voice. Others call it agency. It’s all kind of things, all wrapped together.

I would want to invite mainstream teachers into a conversation about the connections they have with students in their classes. We know, for sure, that small things really matter to students. Remember their names. Pronounce their names correctly. Use their preferred pronouns. Look directly at them. Smile at them. Connect with them as human beings, and more than that, as equals. Be interested. Ask them what they think. Listen to them. Care. Pay attention. Do whatever you can to respond to what they tell you. Do not assume that they all think the same thing. Do not assume that they are consenting because they haven’t said otherwise. Think about whether there are ways in which you can develop threads of authentic connection with them whereby they can start to feel seen, known, understood. Trust them wherever and whenever you can.

This may seem small, but this stuff really matters.

In your Consent-Based Education course (CBE course), you talk about Covey’s circle of concern and circle of influence. This makes a lot of sense here. Mainstream teachers have many things that concern them, but they get overwhelmed with the size of the task in radically transforming education. You know this. They get exhausted and they get lost in the problem.

Sometimes they think they have no control and no influence, but this is not true. Even people in the most difficult of circumstances have choices to make.

When people get overwhelmed by all the things in the wider circle of concern, they can feel helpless and hopeless and burnt out. I have been in this place myself and I still work hard to not fall back into it. It is not a healthy place to be, but more than that, it is also not an effective place from which to try and be a radical practitioner. As you said earlier, ‘the key is to reflectively position yourself always into the place in that process in which you can have your own maximum effect.’

For some people, being in the mainstream and working from that space of influence is a deliberate choice, and it can be a powerful place to influence change. I am grateful to all the folk who are choosing to position themselves in schools, in universities, in colleges and in other formal settings. There is no doubt that we need good people – radical people – to choose to be there. These folk are often hidden to the wider world as they are just doing their own things in their own places, frequently hidden from view.

But Sophie, where are you? What are your reflections on the place where you can have maximum effect, and does it help to circle back to Two Loops Theory in exploring this? You introduced me to this theory, and I am really into it right now as I think it is a brilliant frame for exploring these types of questions. Over to you.

Sophie: I think Two Loops theory is great. Not only because it can help people to identify where they sit in the process of change, but also because it clearly shows this process as a paradigm shift, with all that that entails. The old paradigm, and the care that needs to happen there as it descends. The walk out folk – those setting away from the old paradigm to investigate and innovate the new – and the ‘grey zone’ that they inhabit as they unlearn, unfold, deschool, deconstruct, reform, restore, and create the new paradigm. I love how Debbie Frieze talks about what is needed in this process also, around support and connections. Consent-based education is both an alchemy for this change and the change itself.

For me, my main place of residence in the Two Loops Theory is as deep into the new paradigm as possible. Inhabiting it, living it, breathing it, being immersed in it, in the practice, in the life. Making it normal life. This is how the new paradigm comes into being anyway. By being it, it becomes manifest. The more folk that make it to that place, the more along the process things become, the more we move through the diffusion of innovation process. The stronger, more robust and capable of carrying the transition the new paradigm becomes. I’m in deep, with good reason. My heart, and body beats that drum, and it’s what gives me integrity in my work and what helps me be of use to others and to create culture in community. I’m in the core. Your work exploring education through the lens of rewilding, and self-healing through nature based experiences, has inspired and been very permission giving to me to explore and use metaphors and examples from nature to make sense of and explain myself and my work.  I came across the word ‘caldera’ recently, it’s the bowl created after a volcano partially collapses after eruption. That’s where I want to be. I want it to hold me too, so I can rest, and feel held myself.  

From that place I can hold the frame and shape of the new way. It makes me useful to others, including in the mainstream, because such a solid grounding enables folk to trust in what is a precarious process. It’s stable. And that’s what people need when they are stepping through this – some kind of sense of anchoring in an intangible process of power transformation and reconceptualization of so much that is believed to be true. It makes me useful to mainstream leaders and folk, and those building outside. I hope it makes me a touchstone, that can feed oxygen to so much change.

I also know that no one sits in the process alone. The change is ecosystemic, and my ability to have an impact is massively supported and enabled by relationship, collaboration and community with folk inhabiting their own space in the process. I hope I can be a strong heartbeat, alongside other beats and commitments to build the new.

How about you? I love collaborating with you.

Max: I love collaborating with you too.

You are right that achieving the type of change we are striving for needs to be ecosystem. It won’t be achieved through just one person or one group of people. We need to simultaneously put pressure on the dominant system across multiple fronts. This means we need to share our visions and practices, to be willing to collaborate, to build a sense of solidarity and unity, and to keep communicating.

As for me, what will I be doing? Where will I position myself? How will I use my one wild and precious life?

Right now, I am playing with the idea of being a rebel academic alongside being a practitioner and an activist. A prac-ademic. A pr-activist. Playing with the words. Mucking about. I don’t know what words to use really. What I mean is that I want to integrate all that I know and all that I am and bring it all together. I don’t want to save one set of skills for one context and keep them separate from another. I want to feel whole.

My decade as an academic was super useful for what I do now. My time as a youth worker shapes my perspective every day. My experience as part of our home educating family adds such a lot of depth to the things that I already knew and believed, and also challenges me to think and think and think again. Life is rich and learning is lifelong. You know this. Life is about reflecting and changing and pushing and challenging. Always trying. Always fighting.

I don’t know whether I will choose to return to the mainstream. I suspect not. I am not saying that I won’t work with folk in the mainstream, or even that I won’t do shorter-term pieces of work for mainstream institutions. But full-time? I can’t imagine making a decision that would put me back into that energy. I will gladly work alongside folk in the mainstream but I don’t want to be there myself.

The place I stand right now feels good, and healthy, and sustainable. Being freelance, running my own projects, working with people like you, co-leading The Lodge. This is a good life, a wild life, a precious life. I’ll take it.

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