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Praxis, according to Paulo Freire’s definition, is described as “reflection and action
directed at the structures to be transformed”1. This paper seeks to delineate, narrate,
and otherwise ‘bring alive’ to the reader, the reflection and action within the
transformation and development of Branch Out Forestry (BOF). By that I mean it should
draw your attention to past and present activity which - for me – is creating an
interrelated matrix of being, knowing and doing, whist simultaneously adding new
layers to the gradual realisation of Branch Out Forestry as an enterprise.
This paper however cannot be an account of this activity, as that would require it to be
positioned as separate and dislocated; a tale of expired moments in time. Instead,
whilst I actually type these words to the page, my knowledge, experience and
understanding continue to unfold. As I write, then read, and re-read, then edit, I am in
constant dialogue with my own comprehension. While the words here are my own, I
am also constantly relating to others, which also shapes my understanding of this
process. I, the writer, become the reader, only to switch roles once more and become
the listener and the speaker; all of this is informing what you read. The process and
content are not separate, but both one and the same.
Much like I cannot separate myself from the process of this writing, I’m also unable to
separate myself from the process of developing Branch Out Forestry. Through my
experience I have shaped the enterprise, my thinking and practice have simultaneously
evolved, each mutually affecting the other. My knowledge of this process is created
through communicative acts with both others and myself; reflections on these
engagements are therefore an essential component of relating this process to you
here. Drawing from Stacey and Griffin (2005) and their approach to accounting for
human interaction termed as ‘complex responsive processes of relating’ my
methodology embraces the heuristic quality of communicative experience.
Contrary to conventional academic writing then, these words are not written solely to
demonstrate my ability to explain, critique, theorise and justify. Neither are they
presented here as the ‘contents’ of a static ‘artefact’, produced for future reference,
nor a sort of educational ‘outcome’ constructed from a synthesis and analysis of other
academic text. In examining this convention of academic assessment, it becomes
Freire, P. (1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academy, p. 126
evident how divorced we can become from the very essence of the activity that
comprises our world.
Abram2 reminds us how a sensuous, embodied style of consciousness found in oral
cultures has been replaced by more abstract and detached modes of thinking as a
result of prioritising reading and writing. Tim Ingold too questions the overemphasis of
textual sources at the expense of the ever-changing processes, materials and
interactions that make up our world3. He posits that the aim should be to use text to
enrich our ability to read the world and be more responsive to it. However this
‘responsiveness’ – i.e. interaction with things and people in order to create happenings,
doings and being - is not usually so easily recorded or referenced. The nature of such
activity is fleeting, it lives only in the deed itself, often only leaving artifacts in the form
of accounts we give and stories we tell.
The intention of this paper is to represent the activity that is Branch Out Forestry, as it
is this activity which constitutes the organisation, not the ‘products’ of it. During the
development of Branch Out, many of my essential activities and events were by nature
fleeting and difficult to encode semantically, yet these are the very instances I seek to
draw attention to. The question is then: how do I deal with the ephemeral nature of the
action I focus on? How do I get closer to a more performative form of the work, so that
I may begin to catch the ‘doing’ in the act?
Over the last two decades educative systems have progressed towards formative,
process-oriented assessment, shifting away from summative, product-oriented
methods. Between the many methods that have been developed within this
paradigmatic turn, the portfolio has proven to be a useful vehicle used to re-describe
activity and learning that has taken place4. Its proponents list the key benefits of this
educational technology to include its ability to multiply the complexity in the assessors’
observation of learning, and increase potential for learner reflection and reflexivity5.
Yet, there is still a duality within the common utilisation of this technology. Portfolios
usually collate a number of visual artifacts, combined with written accounts to
demonstrate a learner’s progression toward a predetermined goal, displaying their
leaps forward or backward in their understanding of it. The assessor may then decide
Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous, New York: Vintage Books
Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. London:
4 Qvortrup, A. and Bering Keiding , T. (2015) Portfolio Assessment: Production and Reduction of
Complexity Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 2015 Vol. 40, No. 3, 407–419
5 Ibid.
whether the overall understanding and output is adequate for the subject matter and
the criteria they ‘ought’ to fulfill; the assumption being that one form of knowledge of
this subject is better or worse than another.
For me, and for the purpose of this writing, this technology used in this way cannot
capture what I am seeking to show has happened and is happening. There are no
concrete predetermined goals in my process, but rather emergent intentions that are
responsive to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of circumstances they are exposed to.
Any artifacts developed along the way that may be referenced or assessed cannot be
understood as ‘finished’, nor make any sense divorced from the context of their
creation. Each one enabled a new chapter of activity to which it is inherently
connected, and therefore they cannot be separated. Bortoft (paradoxically) reaffirms
this notion6:
“What is said does not encapsulate its own meaning, as if it could be fully
understood independently of the context within which it is said – where
‘context’ refers to everything that is meant ‘with’ the text (con-text) but
which remains unspoken, What is said ‘carries with it the unsaid’, i.e., what
is not said but is intended along with what is said”.
Instead, what I am attempting is to capture the saying, during the act. My response
then to this predicament, is to create a kind of ‘living’ portfolio. To craft a narrative
from pertinent interrelated micro-experiences, aided by visual and reflective references
which signpost the activity I have been doing to get ‘here’. The narrative itself is one of
many contexts of my learning, and within the narration I shall embed meta-reflections,
actions, recordings and visuals that bring us (you and I) closer to other contexts and the
learnings within them. The intention is to put into the spotlight not only the moments
that have come to shape my doing, being and knowing within the development of this
enterprise, but also their causes and the relationships between those moments.
Ultimately my intent here is to move beyond the limitations of conventional
assessment methods; into a realm where as a student I am empowered to deal not
with my way of believing about the world, but with my condition of being in it7. In an
era characterised by ecological crises, deficit, debt and inequality, it is my belief that a
wider employment of assessment with this intention could not come too soon.
Bortoft, H. (2012) Taking Appearances Seriously: the Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and
European Thought. Edinburgh: Floris Books p.167
Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge.
Changing Culture Through Education
One of the pervading questions throughout the development of BOF has been how
shall we embed the type of co-creative education I described above within the
organisation? And how will doing this make a change in the culture we want to see?
Often third-sector organisations will publicise statements such as ‘Education is at the
heart of everything we do’ 8. But what kind of education? What and who is it for? And
why are you doing it? Many social enterprises start up to perform a function in society
that is being overlooked either by the state or private sectors. The purposes of
woodland-based education can vary, anything from ‘skilling-up’ a certain demographic
to combat some sort of social/ecological/commercial deficit; or in the case of Forest
Schools for example, an attempt to balance a pervasive indoor, reductive and didactic
pedagogy. The most common form of Forestry education is found in the formal
education sector, and is therefore under more centralised control than the diverse
range of small organisations operating with different values.
During the late 1980’s the British government introduced market principles to formal
education and strengthened central authority9. In 1985 the Conservative ‘Better
Schools’ white paper10 aimed to remind schools that “preparation for working life is one
of their principal functions” and that “industry and commerce are among the school’s
main customers”. Decades later, the neoliberal market ideology is pervasive
throughout the education sector and beyond, causing a huge impact on people’s
perception of the world. Cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert observes that:
“Competitive individualism has emerged across a vast range of sites as the
hegemonic ideology of contemporary neo-liberalism, working against any notion of
collectivity, of public good, of shared experience -- from the education system to
the cultures of popular music.” 11
Coed Cymru (2011) Education and Training [Online] Available from:
http://www.coedcymru.org.uk/index.html {Accessed 26.8.15}
9 Jones K (2003) Education in Britain: 1944 to the present Cambridge: Polity Press
10 Department of Education and Science (1985) Better Schools: A Summary [Online] Available
From: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/des/betterschools.html {Accessed
11 Gilbert, J. (2004) Signifying Nothing: 'Culture,' 'Discourse' and the Sociality of Affect’ [Online]
Available from: http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/8/7 {Accessed 26.8.15}
Within my interactions with colleagues and others, I have found this pattern of neoliberal hegemony to also dominate formal education in Forestry.
My first encounter with national forestry education began at a ‘building with timber’
conference. I had caught wind of a national apprenticeship programme that was being
developed by the Forestry Commission; I asked around at the conference and
eventually found the relevant individual heading up the work. I told him about the
educational work I was developing at Branch Out and how I was interested to get a feel
for the national educational landscape in forestry, to see where I fit in. He said he’d be
happy to put me on the national Forestry Learning and Development Group mailing list,
and that I should come along to the next meeting. A matter of weeks later, I travelled
to Birmingham to attend the meeting. In the room were representatives from some of
the country’s largest woodland stakeholder organisations, bridging everything from
large estates to government agencies and third sector educational organisations.
Whilst researching forestry education months before, I had come across a document
titled ‘Forestry Skills Action Plan’ which detailed the current state of skills in the forestry
sector. I wasn’t there long before I realised I was now amongst the group that had
produced the document. I remembered the ‘Action Plan’ clearly. Essentially it was
produced to highlight the significant lack of new entrants into the forestry sector, and
collectively devise a response from the group’s members. The underpinning purpose
was to ensure that more forests and woodlands would be brought under management,
the assumption being that managed woods will increase productivity and biodiversity.
Their response to this situation was to increase the availability of information about
forestry education to prospective students, and to develop a new forestry
apprenticeship scheme using funding from a government scheme called ‘trailblazer’.
The group had spent many months consulting with industry employers in orders to find
out exactly what skills and knowledge they wanted from young graduates and students,
this method primarily decided what the educational content of the apprenticeship
should be.
The meeting had an air of frenzy about it. It was clear that there was far too much on
the agenda to be squeezed in to the time allotted, people were desperate to reach
outcomes and action points. There was barely a second between one person finishing a
sentence until the next person spoke. I had made a note to myself that I should bring
my full attention to listening to what people were saying. The apprenticeship
development was clearly nearing completion and everybody seemed to have played a
part in its development. My intuition was telling me that any intervention for
clarification or any form of questioning at this stage would not be well received. The
more I listened however the more uncomfortable I became about the approach that
was being taken, and about being part of the group that was taking it.
My discomfort stemmed from the fact that the group seemed to be generating
‘solutions’ that were misaligned with the ‘problem’ they were trying to ‘solve’12. The
assumption was that if they made a new apprenticeship then they would get new
apprentices that would then work for businesses, more woods would be managed and
the ecology would benefit as a consequence. Yet this didn’t even begin to consider the
complexity of the issue. For example most English woodlands are not at a viable
industrial scale to compete with cheaper imports from the global market. If the
apprenticeship curriculum were comprised solely from the skills the existing ailing
English forestry industry was demanding, then it would only yield the same results. It
offered no transformative potential and the prospective students no agency to
transform the industry they were entering. The type of education they were developing
would not and could not get them out of the situation they were responding to, and
the assumptions that they were making seemed flawed.
Eventually I found an opening to speak. I drew the group’s attention to the fact that we
were having a very ‘supply-led’ conversation, and making a lot of assumptions about
the effect this apprenticeship would have. I also attempted to (jovially) highlight that I
was 33 and clearly the youngest person in the room, yet we were making decisions that
would likely concern 18-25 year olds with zero input from them. The points were met
with many nods from those in the room; there was a kind of acknowledgement that
this made sense, yet simultaneously a sense of momentum to the current trajectory
that could not be slowed. The conversation continued with little deviation from the
Reflections on this Experience
The basis of what the forestry apprenticeship was trying to achieve was to transmit
understanding about forests for the purposes of economic growth, under the
assumption that economic growth ensures the wellbeing of individuals and collectively,
society. The attitude towards young people underpinning the apprenticeship is that
they are passive objects of externalised economic forces with little or no agency.
Neoliberal education combines education and economics in this way through the selfreinforcing and habitual patterns of interaction it both creates and operates within - in
this particular case, by devising a curriculum which limits the educational discourse
I elaborate more on this in the section titled ‘Reflections Upon My View’ and, ‘The Woodland
Design Challenge’.
‘downstream’, within parameters of commercial forestry culture, whilst ‘shutting out’
many other aspects within the relationships between people and trees.
The transformative education I intend BOF to provide demands that I wonder: what
type of education would change this dominant neoliberal-influenced culture? My
current position is this: given the dialogic nature of the realities which we create for
ourselves and others, neo-liberal education is fundamentally changeable through our
attitudes and the way in which we relate with one another and ourselves. A shift
demands that we knowingly position our interactions ‘upstream’ at a point where
transformation is achievable, and recognise that ‘education’ is not the deliberate
transmission of values, or explanation of information, but rather that it is inseparable
from the everyday process of mutual, unpredictable and active co-creation of our
One example of how this is commonly misconstrued is where we tend to imagine
education happening. Commonly, one might think of a smaller group of people, in a
classroom, lecture theatre or other specific place, one or more of which has been given
the role to convene, teach or facilitate the group. Within this situation, one might
assume, through a combination of pedagogy and sensory experience, ‘learning
happens’. Outside of this scenario learning still happens, but not in the same
purposeful, focused and efficient manner of the constructed educational environment.
However, within the classroom or learning environment the nature of any interactive
communication that is happening is essentially little different from the way in which we
mutually construct our experience in the world. If anything, the attempts to construct a
specific learning program, environment or ‘journey’ which we perceive as separate to
that of our everyday cognition, abstracts away from the agency in which we are able to
learn in practice.
This is not to say that in a form of education with more transformative potential we
wouldn’t end up convening together in rooms, or constructing for ourselves
educational activity, or utilising data, facts or hard skills - the difference is that we
embed reflection upon the way it is happening into the education. From this situation,
education becomes an experiential process, without the assumption that there are
abstracted models or underlying systems that can predict, control or explain events.
Alternatively, as Sklair13 describes (drawing from Arendt14):
Sklair, A. (2014) The Patterning of Experience An Exploration of Thinking and Acting in the world
of Philanthropy. An unpublished MA dissertation submission.
14 Arendt, H. (1971) ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’, Social Research, 38(3), 417-446
“Understanding, thoughtfulness and judgment can instead be cultivated in
narrating, reflecting on and making sense of important, often difficult and
uncomfortable experiences and events, which thus become reference points,
revealing examples to guide present action, without congealing into possibly
misleading precedents.”
The purpose here is to increase the potential for praxis and transformative potency of
the educational activity. Furthermore, In order to be effective, I believe such
‘educational’ activity requires housing within ‘organisations’ that are not intent on the
pursuit of wealth, profit or economic growth, but rather those concerned with purpose,
independence, creativity and integrity. The character of this housing then creates a
sound pattern of activity to resonate into the culture both within and outside of it. This
‘housing’ could be comprised of criteria such as the ownership structure, voting rights,
waste management, inclusion, procurement approach etc.
What I am writing here is the culmination of a number of experiences that have led me
to my current state of understanding about education and culture. Whilst what I’m
writing may seem fairly ordinary on this paper in text, the experiences I had to get here
were deeply testing and difficult at times, requiring much devotion of time, energy,
attention and care. They are in this sense a fractal of the ‘educational’ activity I am
advocating here. I shall continue now by describing one example.
Conclusion Excerpt…
What’s more, I am now curious whether attempting to create formative enablingconstraints for one’s activity, limits that activity within a certain paradigm. For example,
by adopting a precursory, goal orientated, outcome focused attitude towards
‘production’ upheld by the dominant neoliberal ideology in order to ‘get things done’,
do we not only limit our transformative potential of that system but actually become
active agents of its existence? That is not to say that acting in an emergent way
inherently transforms the structures of neo-liberal hegemony, but asking whether the
attitudes towards the world which are embedded in the patterns of activity, are
sustained by doing so.
If this is the case, then BOF as an educational enterprise has a choice whether to
continue this communicative pattern or transform it. Education within the neoliberal
paradigm for example judges educational success by the degree to which students can
produce ‘work’ according to preordained curriculum and assessment plans. The artefact
produced by the means of assessment comes to represent the quality and nature of
the person’s learning - which is actually comprised of dynamic communicative activity.
Assessment-results then get disseminated to inform other individuals’ choice in
educational markets, and employers’ in the labour market. Through the conventional
production of educational artefacts or objects, we play a key role in the neoliberal
market mechanism and uphold the value of individualism. Neoliberal education strictly
limits the spectrum of acceptable educational activity, but allows lively debate within
that spectrum creating a sense of transformative potential without actually enabling it.
By communicating within the parameters of this spectrum, I continue its existence.
If this is the case, then by adopting a form of communicative process that embraces
shared experience, collectivity and co-creative meaning making, we can begin to
transcend this paradigm, as it cultivates inherently different values and increases
transformative potential. Assuming it is, then, as Shaw15 states, it should necessitate:
“that we must pay proper attention to this process of prospective sense
making rather than only attempting to piece together a picture of our
situation that we may seek to change.”
In terms of how this attention may relate to that of non-human systems such as the
forest ecology, we must cease to think of the forest as bounded within the area which
contains trees, and that a tree itself is contained within its physical edges. The dynamic
processes within and outside of the tree meet at its edges where there is a continual
interchange between the tree and ‘the environment’. For example sunlight
photosynthesises through the leaves, gases move in and out of the tree’s cellular
structure, water permeates the edges of the roots. The activity happening at these
edges physically changes the state of the whole. Exchanges continually take place
making it surpass our perception of its physical standing as a ‘thing’ called a ‘tree’.
The task of the forester, then, is to follow these processes and exchanges, and join the
processes happening in their own existence along with them, adding to the exchanges and
processes that are currently happening. The job of the forester is to join his or her own life,
to those of the trees they are working with. The objective is not to impose his or her will on
to the forest, but to enter into the alchemy happening within it, and shape what is
happening both in the forest and within herself. By devising ways to ‘resolve’ the ‘problem’
Shaw, P. (2002) Changing Conversations in organizations: a complexity approach to change.
London, Routledge.
of the health of British woodlands drawing purely from texts and discourse, my conception
of what would help or be the right thing to do stemmed from knowledge systems that
positioned themselves outside of the environment I sought to change. Put another way,
forestry through thinking, is different from being in forestry.
How this relates to BOF in practice, is that it is vital our trainees live in the woods for the
duration of their study; that they inhabit the forest, and let the forest inhabit them. When
developing their own enterprises, they must draw upon the non-human activity that is
already happening in the woods, before they introduce new activity, in order for it to be
appropriate. The way this activity might be introduced should be responsive to the dynamic
patterns of the human and non-human world, conscious that it exists through one-and-all’s
experience, which simultaneously guides and unfolds into an unknown future.
Habitually, I am searching now to somehow bring closure or conclusion to this document, as
if I can make it complete in some way, although doing so contradicts the points I have been
trying to make throughout this writing. In fact this document cannot be complete, and is
not a ‘thing’ of itself, but is a living process which began long ago and will continue into the
future. This narrative, is drawn from my experience which lives on in the others I created it
with, informing change internally and externally to their immediate reality. You, the reader,
are now included in this process.