02 Jan 2024

Imagining the Future of Education: How We Can Revolutionise Education Through Power Sharing

Interview with jae spencer-keyse

Photo provided by jae spencer-keyse.

jae spencer-keyse is a facilitator, community builder, learning designer, and mentor. Jae’s radically reimagines the system through learning design, facilitation, research, innovation mapping, and consulting, drawing upon creative, learner-centred, anti-oppressive, embodied, indigenous practices. For the last 13 years, jae worked in multiple roles across education and systems change.

This interview between jae spencer-keyse and Eva Keiffenheim is part of the New Education Story series and brings the drivers of education transformation alive in different contexts.

What’s your story jae? What brought you into education?

My initial interest in education goes all the way back to when I was 15. I had a scholarship and was training to be a ballet dancer, training for five hours every day. In that world, dance was the most important thing to me. However, I chose to leave for many different reasons, and then I suddenly found myself in a state school in Derby, UK, where science was the most important thing. It was a totally different environment – no one dances, no one moves. And I was wondering who gets to decide what is going on. I felt dissatisfied and couldn’t understand what we were learning, why we were learning and what education was, so it became an obsession for me.

I didn’t want to be a teacher because of the current status quo. I started by supporting special needs kids and being a cover supervisor in schools, as well as volunteering in programs like Right to Read for primary school children. When I got accepted into the TeachFirst program, I turned it down to do my Master’s Degree in psychology and neuroscience because I wanted to understand how people think and learn. After that, I moved to London, looking for a job. When I got interviewed by Kate Robinson, Ken Robinson’s daughter, I realised changing education is what I want to do. I wanted to support system change and see how it works in a well-funded environment. This sparked my path and I became obsessed with exploring different education innovations around the world and creating different research on it from different perspectives. It also helped me realise what I didn’t like about it, and then go down a path of researching learning ecosystems, cofounding YouthxYouth or hosting a big education conversation for Big Change

And what do you do now to change education so that all children can thrive?

I felt tired of doing things globally and on a screen, and I felt disconnected from people and what learning and education truly are, so now I work part-time as a facilitator. I’m excited about exploring changing the culture of a democratic school: moving from being subject-based to including inquiry-based models, cocreating with kids, self-directed and peer-to-peer learning, and looking at a person more holistically. I like being in an environment where young people are truly co-creating the day and the school at all levels, for example, the policy and legal, and then putting it into practice through different experiences and alternative learning in education.

You mentioned your role as a facilitator and co-creating at different levels at the democratic school. Sharing power is one of the three drivers for changing education systems that we identified in A New Education Story, and we put it into practice in our guide for intergenerational convening.

Could you provide us with examples of how power-sharing works at the school level?

This year with my 13-14-year-old students (Y3 or equivalent to year nine), we’re co-creating their humanities curriculum. We started by understanding what humanities encompass, including psychology, sociology, and gender studies. The students then proposed questions reflecting their interests and challenges, ranging from real-world problems to specific subjects.

In each class, students write down questions, which are then drawn from a bowl. The selected question guides the next lesson. For example, one question was, “What would a world without leaders look like?” The student who selects the question researches it and leads the next class discussion. I prepare follow-up activities based on their findings. If a topic resonates, we continue exploring it; if not, we choose a new question.

We focus on student agency in learning, allowing them to veto topics that don’t engage them. For instance, a question about Eurocentric history led to a dedicated lesson. This approach tailors learning to their interests and contexts.

I also incorporate ChatGPT in lesson planning, using it to suggest 60-minute activities tailored to my students’ needs. Activities range from visualisation exercises and debates to research projects. Student feedback at the end of each lesson helps me adjust and maintain an ongoing dialogue with them.

From your knowledge of psychology and neuroscience, what are the best practices more learners should benefit from?

If the norm is subject-based, predominantly teacher-led, and includes a lot of reading and writing, all these things are valid at a certain moment. But how do we expand it out? There is no “one way” that everyone learns best. I’m interested in exploring how people process and relate to information differently, what’s their flavour of neurodiversity, what supports them to become a lifelong learner in a way that works for them.

For example, last week, we had a call with a school in India. Many of the kids in our school are neurodiverse, so it’s helpful to connect with other schools because it makes things feel real. It’s good for opening up different practices in the classroom – some people like to move; others want to get on with things. And I think offering different ways to access the same information is great. Another thing I do now with younger groups who are doing humanities through self-directed learning projects is upskilling them to pursue what they are passionate about and helping them fail fast. I check in and coach them because it’s more effective than telling them things most of them aren’t interested in.

There are so many practices around the world that are transformative in different situations. One of my favourite innovations and relationships I built at HundrED was called “Trix and Trax.” I like the work they’re doing in Venezuela: integrating the normalisation of skateboarding and other things teenagers love, teaching them how to support one another and then putting on a showcase at the end in the community. 

Something I’ve been using in the classroom recently is the global ONENESS project, which offers great documentaries on indigenous language revitalization for teens. Finally, one of the most important things as a teacher is to work on yourself. Many struggle to adapt to a co-creative environment, especially with forthright teenagers. Self-improvement and therapy are crucial to handle student feedback without being defensive. It’s empowering to acknowledge and address responses stemming from personal trauma.

Given what you’ve seen in both the global and local ecosystems, what are the biggest blockers of transformation?

In my public-facing role, I observed that funding and resource acquisition is a major challenge for innovators effecting change on the ground. A significant issue is the disconnection between various groups, such as teachers from young people, and policymakers from investors. This disconnect creates silos in thinking and working cultures, hindering understanding and collaboration.

At HundrED, while mapping innovations, I realised that showcasing individual stories, though valuable, might not address the root of societal disconnect. The prevalent narrative of separation and capitalism obscures other perspectives, like indigenous knowledge and intuition, which are crucial for holistic understanding and transformation.

The existing disconnection and lack of holistic approaches prevent effective change in learning and education. Reintegrating education with personal and community alignment is my goal, yet the current hyper-capitalist system and emphasis on standardised education make this difficult. The pandemic, however, highlighted alternative learning methods and sparked a dialogue on changing the educational landscape.

Given your journey and experience, how can we overcome these challenges of feeling disembodied and disconnected?

One of the things that I was trying to do at HundrED and YouthxYouth is to listen to people, especially young people, to understand what is happening. This is also why I’m working with Big Change to make space to bring different stakeholders together and have a conversation. There are many different ways to make change. I’m in the process of doing these experiments, and I’m seeing the fruits of this labour. I love working with the energy of change. I am fascinated by it. So I’m trying to stay in the dance of life and put myself in a way of understanding change and how we support ourselves to adapt in this complex world. And this is my role in the ecosystem.

But when it comes to an everyday teacher’s capacity, what could they do? It’s not about “shoulds” anymore. If we live in a world of “shoulds,” we’re perpetuating the problem. We need to ask ourselves – what do we really want to do? I’d love to help people get clear on what they dream of for themselves and their community, their own personal contribution and how they can show up authentically and make it real.If we talk about schools, what I noticed even in the democratic school, is that it’s hard for teachers to be in a deep relationship with one another in the way that we are with students. We don’t have much time for it. But I believe in the “go slow to go fast” principle. We must take more time off to slow down and build those relationships to move fast. We should create more spaces to co-create and co-design and explore what they’re inspired by. For example, if a maths teacher is really a subject expert and is genuinely into maths, then we should give them space and time to explore that further and then bring it back into the classroom.

You’ve hosted a Big Education Conversation and talked to young people, teachers, policymakers, and funders about what they think the purpose of education can be. Is there something that surprised you?

Similar desires are observed in different contexts. Recurring themes around lifelong learning pathways, holistic learning, space for more movement and being outside, following people’s passions, working in the community, and things that are related to real-world issues come up over and over again. It’s nice and validating to read it in a report to know what is possible, but it’s not important. What is really crucial is the relational connection. It is learning how to be together that people don’t know how to do.

For example, in a Big Education Conversation or Reimagining Learning workshop, it’s not the content that’s important, it’s the session design and the way that it’s done. It’s fun, useful, playful and about getting to know each other. And this is what YouthxYouth is doing – including people from different countries around the world and people who don’t usually get to be included in the same conversation.

In the process of the Big Education Conversation, what exactly is different about the context?

It centres joy, play, imagination and relationship building over organising efficiency, data, and other easy-to-understand outcomes. Teachers at school might wonder how they are going to know that it’s working. That’s why we have to support people to trust the process, believe in it, and explore different ways of being that are good for ourselves and the earth.

Who or what inspires you?

Lots of things! Adrienne Maree Brown and all of her work. I’ve read her book “Emergent Strategy” multiple times, and it helped me step into facilitation and emergence. I feel very inspired by Sharon Blackie, who wrote “If Women Rose Rooted” and “The Enchanted Life”, which speak to how we reenchant ourselves in the role of the imagination.

I also love the “The Emerald Podcast” with Joshua Schrei, which I think is the most incredible podcast in the world. It’s going into today’s issues through the lens of imagination and mythos and the poetics of it. It’s beautiful, and well-made, with music and stories, and it feels like going on a journey – I always come out the otherside of every episode transformed.

Also, friends in my community are incredibly inspiring. In Devon, we have four or five shared houses, and there’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas and being. There is something special about leaning into a community and playing together, partying together, showing up through the hard processes and leaning into conflict resolution when we need to. It’s supercharging to have these amazing friendships in my life, and that’s one of my deepest sources of inspiration on a daily basis. I feel very grateful for that.

When I was a teenager, Ken Robinson was my biggest inspiration. It was amazing that he was supporting HundrED, and I got to meet him and work with there. I watched his talk on creativity in schools a lot, and it really spoke to the core of things that were bothering me a lot at the time.

But I’m truly such a neurodiverse person and am inspired by many different threads, not just educational change makers. I’ve been deeply influenced by things like “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker, Starhawk’s “Dreaming the Dark”  and “The Empowerment Manual”by Starhawk and reading about trauma from different perspectives and its role in society today such as Gabor Maté and other books on complex PTSD and how many people are struggling with this today. 

“The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron has been a massive influence in my life. I’m really inspired by lots of alternative learning, different ways of knowing and people who create things differently.

Most recently, I joined the Ecoversity’s international gathering in South Africa to be with people from predominantly across the African continent, but also from India, Brazil, and Mexico who are in different ways of knowing and being. Not having a plan for a whole week and just being together reimagining learning and education was deeply inspiring. The whole way that the ecoversity verse gathers around the questions we are talking about in a truly diverse way is just phenomenal.

What is your dream for the future of education?

For me in the Future I’d love to see: Learning integrated into the community. There would be just as much recognition of the role of play, rest, love, joy in learning. We would also support one another intergenerationally – with elders and a web of people who can hold each other in a way that makes sense and heals the wounds. We do things for the love of it and we know how to co-create together what we need.

Children would be working with adults too in an integrated way on projects they are interested in, for example, cooking, making things together, building, writing, or researching. Their voice is valued. There are also lots of ways to play, and so many stories that are told, and we would prioritise learning how to connect. I envision a community life where children can contribute, learning and becoming who they are whilst being supported to grow and be in their authentic selves. This journey would then go on to last a lifetime.

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