Forthcoming publication – a work-in-progress research note in the Journal of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning

We are delighted to announce the publication of a research note in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, published by the Open University.

The research note draws on our ongoing study in Bristol involving multi-sited ethnography, including participant observation, interviews and ethnographic encounters. We argue that that using anthropological methods affords valuable insights into the relatively neglected aspects of urban learning within the international discourse surrounding learning cities. It can help to reveal the everyday practices through which the city affords learning and to explore how learners improvise and navigate the city.

From January, the journal article can be accessed here:

Eastville Park learning to cycle_preview


Capturing past and present learning

In July, as part of our Unlocking Creative Learning Cities funding, awarded by the Brigstow Institute, we organised a story-telling workshop with a group of senior citizens from Dhek Bhal.

The session focused on eliciting stories of past and present learning, and how those link to wider context of life history and sense of place. The discussion was very illuminating, and the group shared a range of inspiring and touching memories. As part of our creative collaboration with Tom Stubbs (film-maker, Biggerhouse Film) and Joff Winterhart (illustrator), the participants’ narratives were captured through film and drawings. We hope to show this fascinating material to a wider public during the August exhibition.

2 pounds and a houseIMG_1847IMG_1887

Paper accepted

We are pleased to announce that our research note, Exploring Lifelong Learning in the Everyday City, was accepted by the Journal of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. The journal is based on the belief that there are neglected links between research and theory, and policy and practice in the promotion of widening participation in post-compulsory education and lifelong learning. It aims to provide a forum for the development of theory, the addressing of policy questions and the dissemination of innovative practice in the field of widening participation and lifelong learning.

The article by Buchczyk and Facer draws on an ongoing study in Bristol involving multi sited ethnography including participant observation, interviews and ethnographic encounters. In this research note, we argue that that using anthropological methods affords valuable insights into the relatively neglected aspects of urban learning within the international discourse surrounding Learning Cities. It can help to reveal the everyday practices through which the city affords learning and to explore how learners improvise and navigate the city.

Key words everyday; learning city; ethnography; improvisation

Learning encounters with a toddler

‘Bristol is the first city in England to become part of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities’

‘A Learning City is defined as a place which uses its resources to promote inclusive, lifelong learning in education, families, communities and the workplace’

As a young family raising a toddler in this culturally opulent city, this accolade prompted a desire to discover and document the myriad of learning opportunities that Bristol boasts as a recognised UNESCO ‘Learning City’.

Over a period of three months, we have used photography to ethnographically document our family learning encounters as a research resource for the ‘Reinventing Learning Cities’ project.

As we embarked upon this exciting project as a family, we had resplendent plans to further connect with the city in which we live; a chance to explore learning opportunities in areas of the city less well known to us, to engage with the plethora of cultural projects, opportunities and visual stimuli that Bristol extends. As parents, we are desperate to capitalise on this tender age and developmental stage of our toddler, his unreserved enthusiasm for learning and his capacity to absorb and engage with information in such a starry – eyed and impartial way.

As we have progressed through our research journey, it has become overwhelmingly clear to us however that we have been enamoured and enraptured by the wealth of learning opportunities on our doorstep and in surrounding communities.


Our research and ethnographic documentation from a toddler’s learning perspective, parallel our initial aim to connect and discover new areas and opportunities across the city and instead proffer a love affair with our local and surrounding communities as an area to live and learn in as a young family.  Whilst this brings about some feelings of failure on our part to meet the research brief that we prescribed for ourselves, as we strive to be globally and culturally attuned parents, I can’t help but refer back to the UNESCO definition of a Learning City – ‘a place which uses its resources to promote inclusive, lifelong learning in education, families and communities’. I feel that that our research findings unreservedly champion the idea of community learning and celebrate the local opportunities accessible to us.

Rather than showcasing a cross – cutting breadth of learning encounters across the ‘Learning City’ of Bristol, our photographs instead capture the subject of community love and living in Bristol from our toddler’s perspective and illustrate learning outcomes from our everyday mundane activities, connecting with people and places in our local community and trips and visits all within walking distance from our family home. Furthermore, it was important to us that we only documented learning encounters that were free or that were part of general living costs such as food shopping for example, to ensure that what we recorded would be accessible for everyone.

It is our aspiration that this research project serves as only the foundation and mere beginning of our family learning journey in this vibrant Learning City. If I refer to the quote by Mother Theresa ‘Love Begins at Home’, in the context of our ambition for our son to have a lifelong love for learning, I certainly do hope that our infant learning narrative is testament to that.

Jessica Tomico – Community Researcher

Looking at life through a learning lens

The first thing we were asked to do when recruited as volunteer community researchers was to complete a learning timeline. If you don’t know what that is, it looked like this:


At first, I thought this would be easy and wouldn’t take too long. Then I got started. I pored over the timeline for some time – much longer, I’m sure, than was intended!

I found myself thinking back over my life in an entirely new way – as a life of learning. Taking the broad definition of learning suggested by the note at the top of the timeline, I got lost in thought about the volume of learning, both formal and informal, that takes place over the course of an average life.

The timeline also made me wonder about the learning experiences that were most important to me. Sometimes I had experiences that were sad or painful from which I learned deep and enduring life lessons.  At other times, I pursued learning deliberately and determinedly to improve myself or move my life along.

A couple of hours later, I sat with a heavily annotated page in front of me. I had resorted to grouping my learning into lists and columns that looked in danger of falling off the page. I suppose I had failed in the task of brevity. But I am not sorry. For the first time, I had viewed my life through a learning lens, and it was far richer than I had expected.

It is surprising that this simple exercise could reveal so much or be so uplifting. It awakened in me a sense of myself as a dynamic, growth-oriented creature, constantly learning, daily acquiring new knowledge and skills. Much learning, it seems, happens simply as a consequence of being alive; it feels like an inextricable part of being, a sort of life-force – one that we all share and can tap into.

I am looking forward to conducting the research I have planned as part of this project and I hope that I can share this sense of wonder at our universal ability to learn with others.

Helen Bolton, Community Researcher

Visionary learning cities and their discontents

In 2017, Bristol was awarded the UNESCO Learning City title. Within this initiative, Bristol has set up key challenge groups focused on learning for and in work, learning in education and learning for everyone, concerned with lifelong and community-based learning, as well as tackling marginalization and social isolation. The partnerships comprise educational leaders, cultural activists, businesses and representatives of local authorities, cultural organizations and social work. The idea of Bristol Learning City is to utilize these partnerships to promote and create learning opportunities for everyone across life and in the whole city. The Bristol Learning City campaign tagline is Love Learning and the program is currently promoted in educational events around the city and online.

In order to understand the current ideas of the learning city dominant in municipal initiatives as well as in much of the educational literature, we need to revisit the pedagogical tradition developed in the 1970s. One of the key proponents of the critical pedagogy of the time, Paolo Freire (1970) argued for the development of problem-posing education. In this perspective, learning involves an active relationship with the environment and the development of capacities for action. In 1971, Illich presented a vision for a deschooled society where the physical environment, objects, spaces, such as cities, could be made accessible for self-directed learning. For Illich, education needed to be reconnected with the resources available in other parts of life such as objects and spaces in the city. In 1973, Shaw discussed a need for new connections between learning and living. Shaw saw education as dismissive of what was happening in favor for preparing for something that was going to happen (Shaw 1973: 517).  In the context of the emerging ecological and social challenges, he argued, we needed to rethink education to find new ways of adapting to change. Therefore, all institutions using information, also ones that make up our cities, needed to develop capacities to learn.

The above ideas have resonated widely in international thinking about learning in the city. They inspired the influential UNESCO’s Faure Report of 1972. The report embraced the spirit and the cosmopolitan vision of the early 1970s, connecting the educational endeavor to other areas of social development (Elfert 2015). The subsequent Delors report (1996) presented a vision of a learning society (itself a translation of the ‘cité éducative’ concept used in the Faure report) that promoted learning throughout life. In a similar spirit to Shaw (1973), the Delors report saw education and learning as ways to address contemporary challenges through learning to know; learning to do; learning to live together; and learning to be. It redefined the role of education in the new millennium, driven by a Faure-like vision for a society ‘guided by the Utopian aim of steering the world towards greater sense of responsibility and greater solidarity’ (1996: 51).

In the 1990s, the groundwork of the two reports led to the development of the learning city idea that has gained prominence in the field of lifelong learning and international policy discourses (Elfert 2015, Hamilton and Jordan 2011, Han and Makino 2013, Kearns 2012, Longworth 1999, 2006, Osbourne 2013, 2014a, 2014b, Scott 2015, Watson and Wu 2015). The key concepts around the learning city, developed in the 1990s, focused on the ways in which cities  mobilize resources “to develop and enrich all its human potential for the fostering of personal growth, the maintenance of social cohesion, and the creation of prosperity” (Longworth 1999: 109). According to the official UNESCO definition,

Learning City is a city which effectively mobilizes its resources in every sector to promote inclusive learning from basic to higher education; revitalize learning in families and communities; facilitate learning for and in the workplace; extend the use of modern learning technologies; enhance quality and excellence in learning; and foster a culture of learning throughout life. In so doing it will create and reinforce individual empowerment and social cohesion, economic and cultural prosperity, and sustainable development.

The learning city discourse developed through educational and international development scholarship as well as grey literature (produced by policy makers and international organizations such as UNESCO, EU and OECD), emphasizes investment in lifelong learning, inclusive education across all levels, creating effective environments for individual, organizational, community-based and administrative learning as well as innovation (Juceviciene 2010: 69).

The notion of lifelong learning, upon which the learning city is built, has recently been problematized in terms of their connections to economistic paradigms and the underlining relations with power and knowledge (Fejes and Nicoll 2008). Biesta (2013) argued that the rise of lifelong learning obscures other domains of learning, such as socialization and subjectification. It is a “language which exerts a powerful influence on what we can be and how we can be – one that tends to domesticate rather than to emancipate” (Biesta 2013b: 9). Lifelong learning needs to be probed critically as a non-neutral field and mode of educational practice as it is increasingly naturalized, obliterating its own governmentality.

Critics of the learning city pointed out that the rhetoric of its vision is an uncritical rendering of the ideological froth (Harvey, 2003) of neoliberal transformations of the knowledge economy (Plumb et al 2007). In addition, if we use the analytical lens provided by the literature on lifelong learning to understand the relationship between learning and the urban, what we only see is an official learning city, one that has been set up as an intentional intervention into the urban fabric. It does not provide us an insight into how are these resources patterned, materialized, brought together, channeled and embedded in the life of the city. Scott (2015) argued that the focus on lifelong learning has blurred the lines between education and learning and has overlooked “the practical aspects that relate to everyday practices and actions that people have done in alignment” (2015: 89) with the learning city. In their evocative essay, Carr and Lynch (1968) demonstrated that learning is instrumental to the entirety of urban life – it happens in everyday context, throughout our lives, at different points of our daily activities in the city, often when we are hanging around or have nothing to do. It is a by-product of living and experiencing the city and a key part of human development. Similarly, Ward conceptualized the city

in itself an environmental education, and can be used to provide one, whether we are thinking of learning through the city, learning about the city, learning to use the city, to control the city or to change the city (Colin Ward 1990:152).

Ward’s perspective offers us a notion of a learning ecosystem, dynamic, living organism in motion with people immersed in a range of experiences. It allows us to pay attention to places and things that sit beyond the intentionally designed learning city.

The discussion below will offer some of the possible directions through which the actually existing learning city could be investigated. Plumb et al 2007 argued that in order

 to advance our understanding of the learning city we must abandon individualistic, essentialized, and typologized notions of adult learning that lie at the crux of the learning city’s most common formulations. A more contextual, dynamic, and social view of adult learning puts us in a position to draw upon a vast wealth of rapidly developing theory in geography, sociology, and anthropology to formulate a far more critically attuned notion of the learning city (2007: 37).

Following Plumb’s et al. call, how do we overcome the limitation of the accounts on the learning city presented by the lifelong learning literature? How do we broaden the frame in the light of the current scholarship in social sciences? This ongoing project attempts to take up Plumb’s et al. challenge through in-depth ethnography and the possible epistemological avenues afforded by this approach.

Notes from the Community Researcher workshop

On 9th November 2016 Reinventing Learning Cities held a community researcher workshop. The session, set up as a “research masterclass”, was held at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol.

The workshop was a chance for participants to introduce themselves to Keri and Magda, to describe their interest in the Reinventing Learning Cities project and capture their research ideas. In the first part of the session, Magda did a presentation on the importance of considering different types of data and research methods when developing an individual project, thinking about the project in terms of broader ideas of learning encompassing experiences, behaviour, spaces and material cultures. Drawing on her extensive work on learning and social futures, Keri introduced the project as part of the AHRC Connected Communities programme and discussed with the group ideas of the city as an environment that mediates learning through encounters, injunctions and invitations. The last part of the afternoon was devoted to developing research projects and to report back to the rest of the group towards the end of the day. At the end of a very intense session, the participants’ ideas for their engagement had begun to take real shape.

The co-researchers’ team comprises of around 15 people, from a range of backgrounds including journalism, engineering, education, charity work and the public sector. In the next months, all researchers will design and undertake their individual projects to explore the different aspects of the learning city. They will collect stories, objects and images across Bristol, working with a range of residents, newcomers and people visiting the city. The proposed projects will encompass a wide range of ideas including investigations of family learning, explorations of skills acquisition, urban learning inequalities, learning and heritage, to self-reflection on own learning processes and learning geographies.


The project will provide an exciting opportunity for the community researchers to develop their research skills and ‘translate’ their research into a collaborative exhibition that seeks to engage scholarly and community research with a wider and more diverse audience. Following the research phase, community researchers and the project team will think creatively about how to communicate their research to non-specialised audiences in the form of a public exhibition held in Bristol. We anticipate that the exhibition will take place in August 2017, on display in a community space (TBC)

The exhibition and the overall project are led and curated by Prof Keri Facer, University of Bristol (, and Dr Magda Buchczyk (

Volunteer Learning Researcher opportunity

This autumn, our team initiated a programme for Bristol-based volunteer researchers in partnership with Bristol Learning City.  The aim of this project is to understand citizen experiences of learning in the city. It will help us gain understanding of different perspectives on the residents’ learning, their skills and progression. This volunteer role is an excellent opportunity to delve in the world of research.

The programme is for everyone who:

  • Wants to learn new skills, meet interesting people and go on an adventure
  • Wants to learn about a range of research methods and data collection techniques
  • Wants to push him/herself outside of the comfort zone
  • Wants to get to know the community from a different perspective
  • Wants to work with professional researchers in understanding the experiences of people who live in the city
  • Wants to receive a University of Bristol certificate at the end of the programme

What we need from the researchers

Anyone can become a community researcher and this scheme does not require any previous experience. Learning Researchers will receive training that will teach them everything they need to know. They just need to be enthusiastic, want to learn and to enjoy talking to people.

They will dedicate between two to five hours for the project per week and take part in two workshops at the University of Bristol. They will need to complete the key tasks on time and participate in training, field research and an analysis session. Their work will be dependent on your skills and could involve interviewing, note taking, photography, mapping and drawing.

Join us

  • You are over 18 years old
  • You have interest in research
  • You are curious, diligent and sociable
  • You have good analytical and note-taking skills
  • You have a Smartphone to share your fieldwork materials with the research team

To join the team email Magda:

In your application, please tell us a bit about yourself and: Why are you interested in taking part? What skills can you bring? What are your recent learning experiences?

Deadline for applications: 30 September 2016