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Paying Attention to Joyful Practice - Dr Lou Mycroft

19th August 2022

What is joyful practice and why do we need to be paying more attention to how we make it happen? It’s a consternation to me that my boundaried and disciplined work around joy is sometimes dismissed as “fluffy” (only by people who have not experienced my incisive questioning and radical candour, I might add).

I’ve been getting really interested in levers for systems (and, consequently, culture) change in FE. Properly harnessed, practitioner research can be one, which is why I’m a huge supporter of Research Further. The Thinking Environment - my practice of nearly three decades - is another (You can take a look at a brilliant case study of Thinking Environment culture change at Kirklees College here). Community is a third; it operates best pan-organisationally, keeping colleges refreshed with ideas. And joy is the fourth.

I’m not going all-out Marie Kondo, though I wouldn’t disagree that there’s joy in having clear and curated spaces to work in (as a side note, this is also super helpful for those wired in ADHD patterns like me). I’ve been working with joyful practices for several years now and the roots of my thinking are perhaps surprisingly to be found in 17th century Netherlands and the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

For Spinoza, joy was everything. It was about the connection between humans, and between humans, non-humans and the earth, a sort of shared energy or immanence: literally for Spinoza it was God. As you might imagine, this got him in all sorts of bother with the authorities of the time. When lockdown started and community was everything (remember?) the joy that had been vaguely floating around my work became an intentional practice as I and others in FE came together to form the collective JoyFE💛 (that emoji matters). A collective with no bank account, sponsorship or organising core, JoyFE💛 has been lifting the spirits of FE educators ever since by creating spaces where people can come together across all contexts, sectors and hierarchies of FE to share energy, ideas and belief. We have learned a great deal about joyful practice.

Firstly, it’s intentional. A deliberate turn to the affirmative, which is not at all the current trend for toxic positivity (I’m indebted to Susan David’s work here). Everything is not awesome in FE land, and while I love a meme as much as the next person, good intentions do not bring about actionable change without collective momentum. All the research coming out of big business schools is recognising the need for universal culture change and the limitations of leading from the top. Staff need to belong, rather than simply fit in. Megan Reitz and John Higgins’ work around employee activism also points this way. Spinoza-influenced joyful practice acknowledges the pain, fear and sorrow of the world around us, and channels it into an affirmative ethics of action.

Secondly, joyful practice is tiny - a million acts of persistent microjoy building into culture change; a smile here, a generous assumption there. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me they would have left FE now, were it not for the pan-organisational community JoyFE💛 This is not Pollyanna’s Glad Game, we are joyfully critical, without dwelling in the hopelessness of cynicism. After all, we wouldn’t still be in FE if we didn’t believe in it, would we?

At the heart of joyful practice is alignment to a personal ethics, rather than mindless compliance. I call this “discipline” and it’s sadly lacking in many of our meetings and paper systems, which create noise rather than efficiency. We’re back to Spinoza again here. If there’s no time to think, there’s no time to say, “Hold on a minute…!” (which is where the lever of a Thinking Environment comes in, to create those efficient thinking spaces). Impossible to design sustainable systems, if there’s no time to find a fresh perspective, and impossible to step away from moribund cultures without a deliberate and collective approach to affirmative, joyful values - lived, not laminated. How do you put care to work? How do you do equality as an actual, living thing?.

Complex systems require more than one lever for change. Joyful practice and community work beautifully together and it’s time to recognise that if we work only within our own teams, it will be difficult to stretch to something new. Over the last few years, FE has seen a rise in community-led “constellations of practice” - not the old, equally fixed, practice groups and action learning sets but new ways of engaging with others across the sector. The Amplify FE project is a good place to find what’s out there.

So if joyful practice is to change systems, it needs to be collective, but you still need to do the work on yourself. Many of those tiny, trust-building acts of joy (which might be as simple as asking, “How are you?” then listening to the answer) require internal self-discipline: choosing to work anti-competitively with colleagues, making generous assumptions about people you may not warm to, seeking out perspectives of difference from beyond the sector’s walls (I recommend Shawn A Ginwright’s ‘Four Pivots’ if you need convincing of this). Doing the work on yourself to do the work - what you’re actually doing is building trust and a sound platform from which to work collectively. And that’s our joyful responsibility at every level of the organisation.

Joyful practice is trust building. FE trust researcher Christina Donovan presents a model of trust which begins with transformation - literally, introducing a new lever for change - then growing a critical mass of unity around it. This allows people to thrive, persist, forego quietly quitting and find a refreshed hope in their work. That’s the challenge of joyful practice, of research and of leadership in these challenging times.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.