Is Alternative Education The Route To Utopia? Alex Dunedin Responds to Hina Suleman’s Questions

This is a piece of writing where Alex Dunedin responds to Hina Suleman’s questions about whether alternative education is the route to Utopia. One of the joys of having been involved in doing Ragged University is getting to meet so many people who love learning and who are invested in analysing the differing aspects of doing education in various ways.  I had the pleasure of meeting the inspirational Hina Suleman at Liverpool John Moore’s University where she was involved in doing a session with students exploring ways of approaching teaching and learning.

For me the relationships which extend between each other determine nearly all the interactions which can come out of any given situation.  Education, learning and teaching are woven in textile manner combining various threads to ultimately form a fabric – something solid and patterned which is not just functional but through the structuring of that function is beautiful.  That aesthetic excites people and motivates them to do all sorts of activities spun around knowledge building.


On meeting Hina it was obvious to me that a warmth emanated from her personality which I think is indispensable to creating a rapport amongst the people who are going to be teaching/learning together.  Without it knowledge, learning and sharing can be inhospitable and unwelcoming.  Hina made everyone welcome and in this architecture can be found what impresses me about the world of knowledge – that everyone is a part of it and that it belongs to everyone.


There is, of course, a lot more to teaching in structured ways and much of this only becomes realised through the doing – through the being involved in a shared activity which is in some way a sense making exercise of the universe we are living in.  It is the drive, instinct and pleasure that individuals take in what they are doing which then animates it for others to join in and take part.  Like many living processes it is more like a dance than a machine or a disembodied process which can be pressed into flow charts and manuals.


When Hina got in touch to ask if I would share my thoughts on some aspects of education for the work she is doing I was very pleased to offer what I could.  I asked her if she would mind me sharing them with the wider community and she said yes, so what follows are the questions which she asked and how I have chosen to answer them.  How would you respond to them ??


What is the study about?

Topic: Is alternative education the route to utopia? (A collective case study based on investigation of staff experience with the potential of progressive pedagogical strategies that promote alternative approaches to reframe contemporary education offering new pedagogical possibilities in higher education)


I am a master’s student at Liverpool Hope University, I am interested in looking at the evolution of pedagogies in education and how that has changed the nature of learning. I would like to invite you to take part in a research study about education practice, new pedagogies and curriculum design. Please take time to read the following information carefully before you decide whether you wish to take part.


This research project is looking at progressive pedagogical strategies to encourage new ways of thinking by making the process of knowledge acquisition fascinating and genuine through creative engagement, collaboration and liberation.


What I am interested in finding out:

  1. What is alternative education?
  2. What are the benefits and limitations for teachers, that have applied progressive pedagogical concepts in their day-to-day teaching and learning?
  3. How can educators incorporate utopian thinking into curriculum to enrich the learning experience and empower learners?

Semi-structured interview questions for the lecturers…


1. Discuss your educational background (Tell me about yourself)

My educational background is one which lacks formality but in the typical tense in which the question is asked I will respond with my thoughts on my experience of the formal educational system through which people navigate. I have no formal educational qualifications and had negative experiences in primary, secondary and tertiary education.


I went to faith schools whilst not being a part of the cultural community of the faith schools which I attended and found that being a cultural outsider was met with various theological tensions which were seized upon by social groups which formed. I found that the means by which education was organised often suited the organisation rather than serving principles of learning and nurture.


My perspective is one which draws on thinkers like Philip Zimbardo in discussions of “situational forces” and when asked as an adult whether I feel I had been failed, I responded “The teachers did not fail me but the system did”. The mixture of circumstances which intersected in my life resulted in escalating issues which the formal educational system served to compound.


YouTube player


Whilst being able to demonstrate ability and understanding in diverse ways, often these were not valued in the pressurised administrative systems which governed the teaching relationships. Along with this I came to understand the disproportionate power relations in the formal space where adult and child were bound in a master-servant relationship.


Some adults behaved in ways which were assertions of power in attempts to get me to do what they felt they needed to happen; behaviours included pressure, bullying, humiliation, ostracism, and deceit. Adults doing pressurized jobs sometimes do not like being questioned, sometimes don’t have the time allocated to answer questions, and sometimes plainly dislike the children who are put in their charge.


Some adults felt that authoritarian approaches were appropriate means by which a child were to be shaped; other adults felt these approaches were inappropriate and championed my emerging capabilities – this resulted in further tensions. The politics of the staff were playing out in the populations of the student cohorts, and the politics of adults beyond the formal educational space shaped the relationships which happened within.


Being identified as dyslexic provided further division between ingroups and outgroups; some people used this label to further impose their views on my experience. For example, some children, teachers and adults labelled me as stupid, lazy and/or arrogant articulating that dyslexia is a scam. I lacked support both inside and outside of the educational system, and as time went on the administrative system pressurized the achievement of outcomes for children, teachers and institution; this had extended effects reflected in the community in which I lived.


Exams were touted as a means of a future simultaneously embodying the sense that it separated people who are capable from the incapable. What I learned was not reflected in the outcomes. My secondary education school wanted me to leave the cohort prior to exams and by this time had represented a painful institutional obligation which seemed have the effect of pitting pupil against pupil, teacher against education and adult against adult.


By the time I left for tertiary education my intellectual-emotional milieu was grossly conflicted and confounded with the paperworks which I did not understand or have the support to negotiate. As time went on the formal educational system seemed to reflect and represent me decreasingly. Feeling profoundly depressed by the inability to ‘catch up’ or see a possible future in-and-through the structure of formal education my resistance to giving up on it failed.


Through an amalgamation of a series of diachronic problems (issues which developed and evolved through time) I faced, I left formal education feeling that it had no interest in me or what I am capable of. I left moving into precarious, low paid, agency jobs after becoming lost in a system of paperwork and finance which was opaque to me.


Whilst all this is true, there were various individuals acting in teaching roles who opened the knowledge of subject areas to me through inspiration which fostered independent exploration; whilst this offered me existential development, it did not speak to the curriculum or circumstances.


As Emile Durkheim stated “A class is a miniature society and not merely an agglomeration of individuals which are independent of each other”, this is what I found, and along with all the outwardly positive, aspirational and generative qualities we find associated with formal education I also witnessed all the negative, sociopathic and degenerative qualities we find in the mix of society which culturally we find hard to discuss and analyse.


2. How would you describe what alternative education is?

I will start by looking at the basic meaning of the words. Firstly alternative refers to ‘available as another possibility or choice’. The key term which is the pivot is ‘education’. I have spent the last ten years analysing and articulating what I have since understood what I feel education refers to.


I view education as synonymous with human development, and by taking this view we can analyse this premise by what promotes or damages that development. The thesis ‘Education as Human Development’ ( documents the conceptualising of education in a sense of nurture which we associate with parenting.


Using the framework in legislation of institutions as corporate parents it contrasts ‘education as a business’ with an institution which provides the means of developing an individual and valuing the capabilities which individuals have so that they may live meaningful lives within a human ecology. Alternative education, for me, refers to means of accessing educational activities and practices which the primary formal educational-industrial complex does not.


Alternative education is not in conflict with formal education; formal and informal processes are complimentary. Education transcends the groupings which people are set into and is manifest of learning in-and-of the universe in which we find ourselves. The functions of recognition of knowledge and capabilities which are administrative conventions which represent the primary and dominant culture oriented around the prevailing values codified into the given culture.


If for one person the formal education system has not worked in positive ways, in informal ways they are set in provisioning their own human development without the same resources and support. In this context the intrinsic value of learning and doing might provide essential aspects of a sociological environment essential for human beings to flourish or subsist.


Also in this context of the informal the extrinsic value of validation lacks any formal recognition of value within the formal system of education. In this view, education can be understood as associated with an array of social behaviours connected with meaningful activities which bring about learning. The dynamics of group behaviour which we find crystallized in formal institutions are similarly found in grassroots communities of practice.


Alternative denotes choice, and the choices which people make are linked to both what is viable practically for the individual to be in association with and whether the group dynamic identifies the individual. I feel that key problems which human beings are facing are intimately bound up in group dynamics, identity and how groups of people coordinate with each other.


As such, the same ingroup-outgroup behaviours we see in all primate species, and subject to the same situational forces which determine who gets to participate and who gets their input/association valued. The film ‘The Life of Brian’ illustrates the kind of ingroup-outgroup behaviours very well.


YouTube player


Thus in my search for education, as doing the Ragged University project has been about my finding the means to learn and develop, my views have moved beyond the creation of an organisation or curation of community activities to documenting a ‘practical philosophy of education’ which any individual can manifest whatever their circumstances.


For these purposes, a form of alternative education must be able to exist beyond the enclosures of finance primarily but also those of valuation by a predominant culture. What means of learning are available to every individual not represented by finance or formal culture ? I associate the notion of ‘alternative education’ as necessarily related to what means are left to an individual and argue that engaging with those means is the most secure to provide meaningful learning arcs which factor into aspects of development and wellbeing.


This is a working thesis which has emerged from my own search for development through social and creative acts associated with learning, and that the critical parts of any educational practice is decided upon how socially inclusive or exclusive it is.


Much I believe can be learned from the failures and situated understandings found in the field of International Development, and a citizenry activity of understanding macrostructures which shape their lives.


For me learning and education is associated with the ‘pre-political’ realm and the development of Ragged University as a practical philosophy of education rooted in social behaviour is an attempt to avoid the inexorable effects of formalizing processes (bureaucracy, legal organisation, funding, etc) to reorganise and recreate education in the image of formal education as we have it.


3. What is your perception about alternative education as a modern approach of teaching and learning?

My perception of ‘alternative education’ as a modern approach requires a little interpreting on my behalf. Inflected in the question is the notion of what I have come to know as ‘progressive values’ in educational theory becoming more acknowledged as power means to development.


I see that whilst newer and evolved educational and humanities perspectives have remained a part of the vitality of the formal education system, the circumstances which allow the ‘progressive values’ are predominantly overlaid with the values of managerialism shaped by finance.


My view of the institution is that it is being reframed from being a public good to one of being a private good (this goes for medicine, law, policing, as well not just education). Institutions – and all those who exist in and under them – are prone to the problems of scale organisation and the forces brought to bear in managerial mindsets.


The act of organising educational institutions into ranking competitors on league tables has the effect of negating many of the progressions in understanding which academia and education has developed.


The use of short term contracts (, impressing the task of bringing money into the school on educators, pressures to teach to the curriculum, use of gagging orders (; on teaching staff, increasing use of metrics/outcomes/measures, the disproportionate influence of commercial companies, the privileging of publication and predatory publication practices all contribute to situational forces which create an environment counter to progressive values.


Individuals in the role of teaching are finding it harder and harder to be educators without having to resort to being ‘creative’, as they say euphemistically. The profit motive introduced into charitable organisations (which universities are in UK law), has caused a series of double binds for educators that is best understood in terms of an industrial-educational complex.


The overwhelming impulse of educators is to teach people to be good thinkers, however when the work which is tasked to them (i.e. fundraising, administrations, health and safety, ethics committees, online and overseas teaching, publishing, re-applying for their own jobs, reference letters, student satisfaction schemes, the learning of new proprietary but glitchy technologies) creates oppressive imperative circumstances then the capacity to teach to the values they have is grossly diminished.


As a result there are wide gulfs between the aspirational policies and the real practice. Policies such as Widening Participation are undermined by the incompatibility with policies and practices of the Department of Work and Pensions which undermines access to part time study. Recognition of Prior learning policies and PhD by Publication policies are theoretical and piecemeal in that they do not match curriculum bound rubrics (which often do not map onto real life practice).


Inclusion and mental health policies are often token at best, discriminatory in practice at worst. Community engagement is often superficial and one way deliveries of what the administrated institution wants to see as outcomes for public display. Volunteering schemes are often instrumental and damaging because they are used to fill curriculum vitaes in preparation for work by students.


All of these logistical concerns and value tensions are held within our current Higher Education system with a disproportionate amount of resources and emphasis being placed on universities and as a result Further Education and Adult Education have been severely damaged and arguably neutered from their authentic possibilities as a part of a diverse educational landscape.


My perception about ‘what alternative education as a modern approach of teaching and learning?’ might mean backs onto all the considerations I have mentioned. For whom is the formal education system working ? By answering that you will find to whom the methodologies and administrations have served.


I argue that the intellectual and practical traditions which we see most obviated inside the formal educational institutions all have their roots in the day to day world around us. Every devoted educator I have spoken to recognises their subject in the living environment as they are in part energised by the intriguing realities they have poured over.


What happens in formal education in various extents – is that educationalists teach despite the circumstances they are placed into and that educational process is a part of their lives as human beings (with all that brings). The situational forces which Philip Zimbardo talks about majorly determine whether the progressive methodologies often associated with alternative education can operate in a given context.


The more managerialistic and vertical the corporate structure, the more people have conditional agency. As Iris Marion Young puts it ‘Each has a measure of control over others, but not their own actions’…(Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, ISBN: 9780691152622, Pages 41 – 76).


The systems theorist W. E. Demming offers us a way of understanding the relationship of the environment to the actor within that environment (the system and the individual). Cutting a lawn may seem a simple task but it is made different and more encumbering if we are given a pair of scissors to do it with.


YouTube player

YouTube player


To answer a categorical question about modern teaching requires analysing a given context. With this in mind, and looking at the macro level economic changes of shifting a mixed market economy society like the UK to one which is converting its public goods (education, healthcare, prisons, water etc) to private profit making enterprises, then I offer this response caveated by what I have already written:


‘Whilst the methodologies, techniques and knowledge of progressive educational stances is often brought from the informal context into the academic setting, they go to serving those whom the system is recognising and serving. In terms of human development the formal education sector in the UK has played a significant capitulating role in perpetuating and configuring a society as it is now – regarded by the United Nations as grossly unequal’


4. What are the benefits of alternative approaches to education?

Thinking about the language here, alternative education is associated with the choices of education available to people – be they working within a constricted system which is not serving their professional needs or be they individuals who are constructing their own human development processes with what means they have.


Alternative approaches often have the advantages that they utilise available means more centrally recognising knowledge and learning as diffused throughout our world. By using such approaches of available means it removes administrative and political (meaning corporately impressed) barriers to doing simple things.


Take for example a walk in the wilds versus a walk through a private estate; all the abundance of nature is available in the wilds without the coordinating of permissions and rights with an assumed authority. This avoids deadweight costs (when the cost of organising something exceeds the value it offers) and reduces sunk costs (in an activity the cost which has been incurred and cannot be recovered).


Alternative approaches often come from contexts where people had nothing to lose so are comfortable with being critical as they are not captured by the comfort of not being critical. As new ideas and ways of doing progresses, the contemporary will often provide a tension with the conservatory as the novel presents itself as doing something different for a reason which was not attended to by the conservatory approaches.


Famously Heliocentrism was once dissident knowledge for it had an alternative perspective to understanding the universe. So I would argue that many developments of educational learning and advances of understanding have come from vital populations which were not represented by the dominant culture; for example women, people of colour, the financially impoverished, those dealing with disability and disadvantage, etc.


From these sense making processes carried out by populations who live at disadvantages in comparison with others, important innovations have come about. In Critical Race Theory we find contemplated ideas like ‘interest convergence’ and from the field of Feminism we find concepts such as ‘intersectionality’ which extend our lexicon for critically analysing the world.




YouTube player

YouTube player


Alternative approaches have the benefit for less ritual hierarchy to have been set up around the provenance and practices which is conducive to inclusion of participation and less rigid constraints. In educational terms these areas often embody a greater affordance for experimentalism, exploration, and play to discover emerging epiphenomena.


5. What are the limitations of using new pedagogical concepts?

Apart from the limit to all singular concepts and models inherited by their qualities, the limitations of new pedagogical concepts are the permissions it/they have to obtain and ownership in relation with the activities. For example, Participatory Action Research (PAR) is often spoken about in formal educational settings. Of course, each project will fall into a spectrum of how participatory it is and how much change (the Action bit) it is geared to try to bring about.


In the of the highly systematised and administrated academia, a host of issues are realised. The contemporary university is operating under intellectual property frameworks which are highly possessive and are naturalised to internalising assets and means for financial management – this orients money as the predominant means of determining viability and where anything which is not represented by this means of valuation at a disadvantage.


If it does not add to the coffers, it is cut or not given the opportunity to be enacted because people who make the calls in the universities are disembodied from the necessities of teaching practice creating a disjunct between the values of academia (as dictated by the necessary imperatives for teaching/learning) and by the distance of the decisions which financial management practices dictate. Working across boundaries and recognising independent value are significant limitations to new pedagogical concepts.


This is all imagined in the gravity of formalised education. What comes out of an activity is dictated by how that activity is orchestrated amongst the collected players. It is the values and their consequences played out by the actors involved in a collected organisation which dictate how a given community of practice behaves to achieve collected goals. The strengths and weaknesses of all means of organising are inherent to its actual form. Each has its own qualities which afford doing something useful for different contexts and individuals.


The limitations of using new concepts involve the limit of their usefulness in achieving the aims of human development. Also, and equally, the configuration of relationships around shared values patterns what can be socially realised. It is chiefly among the sociology of the configuration of relationships that we may explore the behavioural assertions which form large and small cultures. The sociology of knowledge is a critical factor in the world we find ourselves operating in.


In a narrow sense what is not found recognised inside the universities is by-and-large not there. Those people who are not given official status in higher education institutions (teacher, staff, student) are excluded by not being there and as a consequence not being recognized for their capabilities and work within it. For some people who are not in formal education, those practices which make those who are successful in that domain are obstructions to realising the purposes of education within it.


However for those who are involved in an informal process of education, corporate identities are diminished as they have less representation than the individual in said context. The advantages of being small and independent include that administrations do not impede or interfere with courses of study; the disadvantages include not being resourced or recognised in formal systems of valuation (and tacitly understood as valueless as a consequence). As well as this being outside of extended communities of peers can be a limitation.


There does not seem to be a one size fits all way to respond to the needs of education and only in a diversified landscape does there seem to be hope to reach towards polyvalent goals rather than instrumental and divisive ones. The greatest advantages might only be realizable through plurality and sharing of resources rather than competitive means which tends to bring about situations of artificial scarcity – some intended where someone might prevent something from happening to gain competitive advantage; some unintended where competing for resources results in greater collective costs than compared the allocated resources (sunk costs).


YouTube player


6. Do you think culture shapes your view of education?

There are many different ways of reading the word culture. On all levels I would say yes, they necessarily must be. As I go along I learn more about what is possible from where I am in surrounding culture.


7. Do you think applying new concepts and pedagogical possibilities can to an extent empower students and raise aspirations?

Absolutely. Any form of education and thinking is essential to the wellbeing of individuals. I argue that learning/teaching is an essential part of our sociological habitat without which we are harmed.


I would argue that pedagogical ideas, methods and relationships have been a primary means for development, empowerment and aspiration for tens of thousands of years. The behaviours we find coded in our institutions have origins in the social millieu.


I feel that the distortionary effects of building empowerment on foundations of finance may ultimately damage aspirations for many who do not have the money or agency to pay-to-play in education. The goal in education to cultivate individual and independent thinking in and of itself will make any individual flower. What people learn shapes their futures.


The roles of culture and opportunity are both significant factors for aspiration. Knowing that an economy is broken is different from understanding why an economy is broken but understanding the realities of what is happening in the world around may provide wealth where there was none before.

Utopia literally translates to “no place” and I think that maybe what was meant when writing it, that Thomas Moore was not writing about a physical place with physical resources but people and relationships.  Utopia is not to be found in a place but in people and those who see equity amongst people.


Is ‘alternative education’ a panacea ?  Well it depends on what definitions people bring to it.  If you come to see ‘alternative education’ as referring to processes of human development which are intimately woven throughout the life of human beings as social mammals, then it follows from this that institutionalised learning flows from this universal foundation and not the other way around.  This begs the question at any given instance in an institution – ‘is this serving human development ?’ and ‘whose human development is it serving ?’.


Alternative education must always be available as choice, diversity and contrast are imperative for cultural and anthropological evolution.  There can never be all needs served by a single response and so educational realities must be diverse; people must always have options and choices, opportunities and freedoms in order to develop fully as an intelligent and healthy being.