Learning Together: Productive Disruption of Ego, Expertise and Ethics

by Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow

2 Aug 2017

In our competitive world, driven by individualised and quick return measures of success, what happens when we take seriously educationalist Paolo Freire’s call to work collaboratively to make education the engine of social change?

Four years ago, with the support of the University of Cambridge Teaching and Learning Innovations fund and a British Academy post-doctoral fellowship, we started Learning Together – an initiative that brings people in higher education and criminal justice institutions together to study degree level material and build inclusive communities of learning. Our work began with a criminology course and a partnership with HMP Grendon, but has since grown at the University of Cambridge to include HMP Whitemoor and literary criticism and philosophy courses, and beyond Cambridge to over 20 other prisons and universities. As a Network, we have adopted a values led approach to collaboration - guided by research evidence, a commitment to ongoing evaluation, and a vision of education as the practice of freedom.

At its best this work is energising and life-giving. But we think its energy and life come partly from the discomforts and disruptions that for us are inherently generated by meaningful collaboration in this field. In this piece we draw on our experiences over the last four years and reflect on three themes of ego, expertise and ethics to explore how partnership working can productively disrupt institutional priorities, preoccupations and practices.

Ego and we-ness

Our first discomfort and disruption is about ego.

We have argued elsewhere that higher education and criminal justice institutions have somewhat common missions to be individually transformative for broader social good. There are also, we think, some similarities in the cultural frameworks of higher education and criminal justice institutions. These frameworks encourage the individualisation of expertise and its repositioning as a competitive advantage to be claimed in target driven measures of performance success. Concrete expressions of this in universities, include the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks, and the marketization of criminal justice, including the (now collapsing?) ‘reform prison’ and governor empowerment agendas.

Our view is that these contexts tend to disable, rather than enable, ‘we-ness’ – a collaborative, collectivising orientation that we see as vital to building transformative learning communities. Within our university, working collaboratively across established departmental and interdepartmental lines has led to demands that we pledge our allegiance to one camp or another, and establish hierarchically which bit of Learning Together was developed (and therefore ‘owned’) by one or other of us. Discomfort with we-ness has also extended beyond Cambridge. Many of our colleagues have just ‘got it’, taking forward the mantle of collaboration by openly sharing resources and supporting each other. But others have been surprised, and a few confused, or hostile – anxious and suspicious of our motivations and intentions.

In some prisons too, we have found that it can be all too easy to emphasise difference in ways that shut down rather than open up possibilities - pedalling an institutional narrative that the context of a particular establishment is so very different to another. We have heard so many times that something might be possible in the therapeutic context of HMP Grendon but won’t be possible anywhere else. And then it happens when the right people come together with a common determination to open and collaborative working. It is this ‘we-ness’that gives this work life and unleashes its transformative potential. Unless we confront and challenge divisive, individualistic and competitive attitudes, structures and practices, our work in this field and the learning that flows from it, are likely to be diminished.


Our second discomfort and disruption is about expertise – who has it, and how we harness it collaboratively for good. Learning Together is teaching us the value of standing by our own expertise in ways that might unsettle others, but also the value of making space for the expertise of others, and listening in ways that allow us to be unsettled. Through this, we hope that something emerges that is more than the sum of its parts – something that positively transforms existing power structures rather than merely flattering or reproducing them.

We can think of many examples where pooling expertise has got us further. Combining expertise on the educational and sociological power of inclusivity, and how to create safety by managing rather than avoiding risk, has enabled Learning Together to be a community that is open to everyone, irrespective of the offences for which learners have been convicted. It has enabled the co-creation of a security policy and introductory boundaries session that is delivered and applies equally to all students, wherever they currently reside. Together, we have been able to push at the edges of prison throughcare practices, enabling safe and transparent continued contact between all of our students, building communities of learning, with opportunities for progression including into the community post-release rather than merely delivering courses. Listening and responding to the expertise of our students has fundamentally reshaped our methodological approaches to evaluation. It has altered some of our teaching practices, and sharpened the ethical urgency of developing other practices, particularly progression opportunities, through mentoring and access to university in the community.

But we haven’t always found it easy to fulfil these ambitions for unsettling and sharing expertise. It takes courage to be honest about what we don’t know as much as what we know.; it can feel uncomfortable at first to respond to a student’s question by saying ‘I don’t know – do you have any ideas?’ It’s not easy to stand by your expertise in the face of two powerful institutions that sometimes seem to focus on risk management for exclusion rather than inclusion. We have sometimes needed to push back to push forward, returning to theory and values to articulate personal and professional ‘red lines’ – policies, practices and circumstances in which we cannot do this work well and so will not do it at all. Our criminal justice colleagues have also sometimes pushed back against us, standing on their own expertise of navigating complex operational environments. In this push-pull struggle we’ve found it essential to build relationships with criminal justice professionals, as colleagues, by getting alongside them: participating in full staff briefings, senior management meetings, staff recognition events and training courses, and standing shoulder to shoulder with them in tough moments. From this, a mutual understanding and common language have grown – a platform for honest dialogue, including about the discomforts and disruptions of partnership working. Transformative learning communities cannot flourish without being open to, and embedded within, broader structures and communities of support, but building and sustaining these structures and relationships requires courage, intellectual and emotional energy, and a significant investment of time.


Our final discomfort and disruption is ethical.

This work is ethically complex. It can do good, but it also generates pains and has potential to cause harm. It is painful to be transported intellectually and emotionally to a place full of hope, aspiration and non-competitive, non-criminogenic ‘normality’ but return ‘home’ to somewhere that feels the antithesis of where you’ve been. Learning experiences can trigger feelings of disappointment or shame about missed or wasted potential and opportunities, and negative emotions, even trauma, about previous or other current educational experiences. It can be difficult to anticipate, and sometimes even difficult to see at all, sources of potential pain and harm.

Within universities, ethics is not always an area that invites honesty. Just as with risk management in criminal justice, university ethics reviews can be more about risk avoidance and institutional safeguarding than providing the kinds of relational and structural support that enable honest reflection about challenging work in complex arenas. But honest reflection seems to be absolutely essential for us all to develop the kinds of ethical sensibility required to do this work well.

The stakes are high. We need, for example, to take account of the fact that in giving our students access to new forms of learning and new intellectual friendships, we may sometimes inadvertently place them in difficult spaces within their home institutional environment and within their own emotional realities. Emotional peaks also have emotional troughs. Empowerment through learning can make a life of limited choices feel especially futile and frustrating. Cultivating and living out an ethical sensibility in this field can lead us to ask uncomfortable and disrupting questions of our own institutions. It feels unethical to us, for example, to raise people’s aspirations and hopes, but then fail to provide opportunities for continued contact and progression. Fragile hopes need to be nurtured in tangible ways that make them more than pipe dreams. And so we feel unable to stay silent in the face of admission policies that prevent universities from welcoming talent wherever it’s found, and we feel propelled to ask why some of the more creative teaching practices, which bring learning to life in prison, aren’t happening more routinely within some of our university classrooms. There seems little to be gained from broadening university access if our teaching methods remain inaccessible and the learning environments they produce feel unsupportive to people from non-traditional educational backgrounds. Confronting these, and other, challenges is becoming all the more important as some of our prison based students join our universities post-release. Once again, we think that we can go further if we go together.

Paolo Freire believed that transformational learning happens through collaborative, co-produced, inclusive learning communities where knowledge is shaped by the many, not owned by the few. But Freire also acknowledged that collaboration and co-production involve conflict – the kinds of conflict that are, he said ‘the midwives of consciousness’. We think this work is necessarily uncomfortable, for us as academics, for all of our students and for the institutions involved. But it is by leaning into these discomforts, by being willing to be both disruptive and disrupted, that we can be transformed and transformative in ways that are life-giving for us all.

Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow are academics at the University of Cambridge, they are also a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award holder respectively. They are co-founders and directors of Learning Together. 

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the British Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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